Ask Dr. Forgiveness

My mother abandoned me when I was little. I was raised by my grandparents. Now that my mother is old she needs care and money and she is asking me for help. I am still disappointed and confused because of her abandonment of me. I feel that I cold lose my very self by taking care of her now. Do I have an obligation to forgive her because she is my mother and is vulnerable now?

Let us first make a distinction between forgiving and caring for your mother. When you forgive, you do so as an act of mercy from your heart. You can forgive your mother for her abandonment whether or not you take care of her. Regarding the sense of obligation, if you hold to certain religious beliefs, you will see an obligation to forgive her. If you do not hold to certain religious beliefs, you may not see such an obligation.

Are you ready to try to forgive, setting aside the issue of caring for your mother for now? I ask for this reason: Sometimes when we forgive, even when we do not want to care for someone’s physical needs, the desire to help changes once we complete the process of forgiveness. I suggest that you first try to forgive your mother, if you choose to do so, and then see how you feel about caring for her once the forgiveness is accomplished.

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I am in a relationship with a man who is verbally abusive to me. No matter how hard I try and no matter how much I ask, he keeps it up. His own father was gruff and so he kind of inherited this. I am at my breaking point with him. What do I do?

First, you have to protect yourself. From your question, we cannot determine the depth of the verbal abuse. Please assess this first. Regarding his behavior toward you, it looks like he has unhealthy anger toward his father. We suggest that you bring up this issue to your partner.  You might even want to show him this post. If he can work on forgiving his father, he is less likely to displace that anger onto you. As he learns to forgive, he will learn more respect and love, which we hope he gives not only to his father but also to you.

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Isn’t self forgiveness just a trick we play on ourselves to reduce guilt so we can keep doing silly things? Forgiveness is for others, isn’t it?

As there is false forgiveness when we are forgiving other people, there is false forgiveness when we forgive the self. False forgiveness toward others is insincere and meant to manipulate rather than to uplift in goodness. For example, a false form of forgiveness might be to continually remind someone that he or she has been forgiven as a way to dominate. False self-forgiveness also is a form of manipulation in which we let ourselves off the hook so that we can continue with the unfair behavior.

Genuine self-forgiveness is the expression of the moral virtue of mercy toward the self. We express moral virtues all the time toward the self: we are fair to ourselves (justice), we care for our physical needs (love), and we sometimes have to wait under certain circumstances (patience).

We have to be careful when we self-forgive also to bring justice into the situation. If we have mercy on ourselves because of an injustice that we ourselves created, then we must correct the injustice. This might include going to others and apologizing and making the situation right.

Based on the above analysis, genuine self-forgiveness is hard and sincere work, not a trick we play on ourselves.

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Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. Only the brave will be able to forgive. Then, how about seeking forgiveness? When do you seek forgiveness? Is seeking forgiveness a good way to attempt reconciliation? Is it appropriate to seek forgiveness, even when you’re not sure what you did wrong, so that reconciliation might become possible between the two?

Seeking forgiveness and forgiving are both part of the pathway to reconciliation. You ask an intriguing question: What if the other is offended by me and I truly think I have done nothing wrong? We recommend saying something like this: “I am sorry that I hurt you when I did X. Would you please consider forgiving me for this?” As you can see, you are not admitting guilt, but instead you are expressing a truth that you feel badly that he or she was hurt by your actions. This may start the process of reconciliation.

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