Ask Dr. Forgiveness
I am a survivor of sexual assault and incest. My father was my abuser. The abuse went on for years and didn’t stop until I left home at the age of 19. Now I am 53. I have chosen not to have a relationship with my father and have a limited relationship with my mother, who knew for some time, but chose to look the other way. I think about forgiveness often. I try and see my father as an innocent. I think that this can help to forgive a person. My problem is this…..I have dealt with my abuse (though not intirely, and probably will always be until the day I die) I have confronted my parents and since then, they have acted as though I am making too much of a big deal about it. They openly speak to my siblings about how I am hurting them by not staying in touch and treating my father as though he doesn’t exisit. My father has said that yes, there was some abuse, but nothing as bad as I have said. It is THIS behavior that is making it so hard to even begin to forgive. They have told lies about when I have confonted them, for instance, saying that I had my 22 yr old son in the room at the time, when he was outside jogging. How is it possible to get past what is happening now, when the scars are so old and the new wounds are so deep? I facilitate a support group for survivors and we talk often about forgiveness.
First of all, thank you for your courage. You have endured a great deal and you continue to do so. I have five ideas for you to consider.
First, you say that you try to see you father as “an innocent” and that this helps in the forgiving. I would gently urge you to begin shifting your thinking so that you do not see your father as innocent because he is not. He made a tragic choice which was not in your best interest and his knowing that does not make him innocent.
Second, forgiveness occurs in the context of people who are not innocent. When we forgive, we offer a cessation of resentment and a gift of goodness in spite of the other’s culpability. This is what makes forgiveness so heroic, to begin to see the other as a person even though he or she acted badly.
Third, I would urge you to visit the Forums section of this website (the Adult Forum in particular) and read the exchange about Personhood begun by Amber, which will give you some insights on forgiving in this way (seeing the personhood in the other).
As a fourth point, as you forgive your father in this way, by beginning to forgive him for the incest, I encourage you to forgive your mother in a similar way for not protecting you when you were younger.
As a fifth point, your current forgiveness issue is a large one because of the denial of the abuse by both your father and mother. This is a separate and legitimate issue worthy of your time. Here you should consider forgiving your father and mother for their unwillingness to see the grave injustice which you suffered. This one will be a challenge because it is in a context of ongoing injustice as they deny the seriousness of the wrongdoing. Again, one of the Forum subjects could prove helpful to you here. It is again in the Adult Forum and is entitled, “Forgiving the same person over & over?” It might provide support for you as you forgive because you will see that others have a similar issue of continued forgiveness in the face of continued injustice.
It takes perseverance and courage to forgive. I admire your determination.
My brother owes me some money. Recently, he came to me asking if I would forgive him, with the understanding that he no longer would owe me the money. Something does not seem right about this. Am I supposed to cancel the debt when I forgive?
Your brother is confusing forgiveness with legal pardon. To pardon is to cancel a debt that is rightly owed. To forgive, in contrast, is to try as best you can to offer goodness toward your brother. Both are merciful, but they are not the same. You can forgive and not offer legal pardon (cancel the debt). You can forgive (offer goodness) and at the same time present him with the I.O.U. And if you forgive him first, you are likely to present that slip to him with graciousness and gentleness rather than with anger.
I will be getting married soon. My husband-to-be has had a rocky relationship with his father and there is anger there. Should I ask my fiancé to forgive his father before we are married or am I better off staying out of this?
You ask if you should “stay out of this,” but the reality is that you are in this. Both you and your husband-to-be bring certain patterns to your marriage, some of which will be gifts and others of which will be challenges for each of you. Your fiancé’s anger with his father could be one of those challenges, if the anger is intense and consistent. We all get angry and so my point is to discern if his pattern is something in need of change. If so, his forgiving his father would actually help his and your relationship.
I recommend that you do some pre-marriage work in which each of you explores some of the unhealthy patterns which you have learned when growing up. Each of you should forgive and help the other in the forgiving. In this way, you are not singling out your fiancé as having some kind of unique problem. Your working on this together could strengthen your bond.
The issues of marital partners forgiving people from their family-of-origin are discussed in the book, The Forgiving Life.
I sometimes just don’t feel like forgiving. What do you suggest when I feel so “blah” about forgiving?
Forgiveness includes our feelings, but it includes so much more than that. As a moral virtue, it includes all that the other moral virtues, such as justice and patience and kindness, include: one’s will to engage in the virtue, one’s thoughts, and how one behaves.
When your feelings are “blah,” please focus on your will to forgive. Your will usually is stronger than your feelings. Also, try to focus on your thoughts (“I forgive Person A for…..”). Try to cultivate thoughts of the inherent worth of the other person, seeing him or her as worthwhile, not because of what was done to you, but in spite of this. Finally, try to behave in a forgiving way even if you do not feel like it. A smile or a kind word to the person is a step in the forgiving direction.
My mother seems to suffer from excessive guilt. Now that I am adult, she keeps asking me to forgive her for how she parented me when I was a child. I actually see no big deal here. So, do I tell her that I forgive her, even though I don’t think she did anything wrong?
Your mother seems to need your reassurance that you love her and that she is a good person. Her standards for herself are higher than yours in judging her parenting skills. If it were me, I would say something like this: “When people forgive others, they see the others as worthwhile and of great value. Mom, you are of great worth and of infinite value to me. When people forgive others, they love them. Mom, I love you without condition. Now that I have shown the attributes of forgiveness to you, may I make a suggestion? I think that you should forgive yourself for anything you think you might have done that is still causing you guilt. I want you to have peace regarding how you raised me. I think you did a wonderful job of that.”