I have been thinking a bit about forgiveness recently. It has been a recurring theme in therapy over the past few months, which is hardly surprising when you think of some of the things that have happened to my patients. It’s something that seems to come up more when I do family therapy, which perhaps makes sense – there will be times when the tormentor, or the one who failed to protect, will be there in the therapy along with the tormented and unprotected. In individual work the tormentor is always there, of course, but only in a metaphysical sense; tainting everything but with no potential for real resolution.
In addition, today The Guyliner, whose writing I think is tremendous – by turns arch and acerbic; painful and true – posted a link to a blog on the school bullies who try to apologise twenty years later. You really ought to read it but the long and the short of it is that frankly, you’re not compelled to show any kindness to someone who made your life hell when you weren’t able to defend yourself. His timeline today is hard to read – the kids who picked on the one who was different; the teachers who did stuff like this:
I wasn’t bullied at school and I am eternally grateful for that. I never had to dread going to school in the way so many people do, but even aged ten I didn’t believe your school-days were the best of your life. School – even my school, which was ‘good’ and which churned out droves of Russell Group-types – was tough for many and I suspect lots of people hated it and were simply trying to survive; waiting desperately for the day they could leave and acquire some kind of freedom. I feel guilty writing that, because when you go to a ‘good’ school and you come out with decent results and you swan off to a fancy university and get a good job and achieve some kind of success it can seem disloyal. But that’s part of the problem – bullying is always so insidious; so hidden; and loyalty to an institution is I think, often faintly suspect. And of course most of the ways in which we hurt others are insidious and hidden; usually with the person being hurt left wracked with shame and fear and self-loathing and, if they don’t find a way out, quite possibly a lifetime of mental health and substance problems and relationship difficulties and heaven knows what else.
Anyway. The fact is that I now spend my working life with lots of people who have been bullied and terrorised and persecuted to an almost unholy degree. If I have learned one thing working in mental health for the past ten years it is this: life can be almost unbearably cruel and it is almost always other people who enact that cruelty. Rarely is it pure bad luck which breaks people; far more often it is people who break other people.
I never quite know what to do with all the after-effects of such experiences. Lots of people talk of forgiveness, often from a religious perspective, and there’s a raft of literature out there on the healing, restorative power of forgiving those who have hurt you. It all sounds lovely – they say sorry; you forgive them; everything is solved. Third parties – well-meaning third parties, in general – often advocate forgiveness; occasionally telling you should not only forgive but also forget, as though we’re living in Hollywood.
Sometimes – and please indulge me here, dear reader – I wonder if it isn’t all nonsense.
Don’t get me wrong – it takes a big person to forgive someone who has intentionally caused you harm; it shows a remarkable humanity and a strength that not everyone possesses. But that doesn’t mean that to be unable or unwilling to forgive makes you inhumane or weak. Tell me, how can I possibly ask my patients to forgive the parents who beat them or neglected them; the people who abused their power and molested them; the systems which took their children or incarcerated them? What right do I have to placate them with talk of ‘healing’ when they are angry; when they are emotionally and physically shattered; when they want revenge; when they want to be believed, vindicated, listened to?
So many of the people I see only talk about these terrible abuses late in life, for the simple reason that there was no one to listen at the time. They carry these scars for decades and they have an absolute right to be angry and hurt and want some justice. And that’s one of the problems, I think – when someone well-intentioned talks of forgiveness it’s often without a visceral understanding of the anger and the pain and the betrayal that the one being asked to forgive is battling. I often think that in circumstances such as these it’s the person who committed the crime who gets off easier, because it can be so very easy to say ‘sorry’, and once you’ve done that you have the moral high ground because the person you’re apologising to is expected to be gracious and accept it and if they don’t they become the bad guy; the one so caught up in resentment and themselves that they can see no further. Saying sorry is not necessarily indicative of taking responsibility for your actions; it’s frequently a get out of jail free card. Saying sorry means nothing; not if there’s no attempt at reparation. And of course making attempts at reparation is great, but that doesn’t mean your offer has to be accepted. You don’t have the right to terrorise and victimise people weaker than you; you certainly don’t have the right to tell them how they should react when you want to assuage your own guilt years later. And I know that many of the people who are cruel to others were damaged long before, but, when it comes to my patients, I have to work with the damage I see in front of me. I know that damage perpetuates damage but it’s not my job to defend the person who hurt my patient; it’s my job to protect my patient because other people haven’t, and sometimes that means loyalty to my patient regardless of other aspects of the story. It’s not always that simple, of course; I also have a responsibility to stop my patients perpetuating that damage in any way I can, but I think that still counts as doing your best by the people you see therapeutically. I am categorically not there to side with the aggressor, the abuser or the tyrant.
I’m not sure what some of my colleagues would say about this. I suspect some would be more circumspect, but I’m afraid I can’t be – or at least I can, academically; I can think about the physiological impact of long-term anger and the effect of stress and resentment on well-being; but I can’t, not in my guts, which is where the stories I hear hit me. The things I read and see and hear don’t have an academic impact on me; they have a human impact on me, as they do on every clinician who cares about their patients and their stories.
Perhaps with time I will have more or a philosophical approach to forgiveness, but for the moment I think any attempt on my part to encourage it in people who are not that interested in doing so would be patronising and would diminish them and their stories of survival. Because most of the people I see have survived and often only through grit and a refusal to drown in the mire.
And so, when I see someone who has survived, against all the odds, and who has retained courage and strength and humanity and who is actively trying to change their life through therapy, how can I possibly tell them that forgiveness is key? Because the truth is, dear reader, when I hear stories like that I’m never sure if I would be able to forgive. But then I look at some of the people who manage it and I am awed. And when I realise that I remember what I have always known: that our patients are often bigger and better people than any of us who have the temerity to think they need our help.