a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

forgiveness narrative expectations can hurt victims

We think of penance and forgiveness as two components of a reconciliation, and they certainly can be; but treating them as intrinsically linked does nothing but take pressure off people perpetrating harm and re-victimize their targets. Penance and forgiveness are processes by which we try to understand guilt and trauma on a personal level, and what one person needs to grow and become whole again may not be the same as what you or I would need.

If you hurt someone and you want to repent: you need to accept the fact that the person you hurt may never forgive you. That's out of your control. You can't force someone to forgive you, no matter how much contrition you show, no matter how much you try to make things right. Making your repentance contingent on the person you hurt isn't fair to either of you. You need to allow your victim to have the agency you denied them when you caused them harm, and you need to learn to forgive yourself regardless. Of course, if you have the resources to offer restorative justice, you should make a good-faith attempt to compensate the person as much as possible for the harm you caused, but if you can't, no performance of remorse or self-flagellation is a substitute for material restoration. You need to own your mistake. You need to make a conscious effort to be better. You need to understand that your mistake doesn't define you, and you need to try to be a better person in the future. If you can't help your victim, you can at least try to be good to others. If you truly understand the harm you caused, and you truly want to be a better person, it's okay to forgive yourself; it's more than okay, it's necessary to becoming a conscious and loving person. If you spend your life chasing after a reconciliation that may never come, if you wait for some extrinsic acknowledgement that you've paid your debt, you will never be made whole. That has to come from inside you.

If you've been hurt, you're allowed to live your life in whatever way is necessary to be okay again. If that means removing the person from your life entirely, that's okay. If it means trying to reconcile, that's okay too. You can get help and look to your friends for support, but no one can decide what you need but you. If your friends can't help, therapy and counseling can.

If you know someone who's been hurt, don't pressure them to "make peace" or "get closure" just because you think that's what's best for them, or because you think it's what you would want in that situation. You don't know what's best for them. We like seeing reconciliation because it's a good story.1 It feels good to see a transgressor and their victim move past their differences, reconcile, and help each other grow. But being a good story doesn't mean it's good for everyone. And when you pressure a victim to play out the narrative you want to see, you're depriving them of the agency they need to heal. It's a kind of revictimization.

I forgave my dad before he died. I never told him this; in the time after cutting contact, he continued to stalk and harass me online for years. He constantly tried to guilt-trip me into reconciliation, and when he finally gave up, I had no reason to believe it was because he had actually changed. I figure he just got bored. None of the messages he sent resembled a real apology. He never acknowledged the harm he did. I knew that if I told him I forgave him, no matter how much I stressed that I didn't want a relationship after that, he'd see it as his opportunity to continue trying to weasel his way back into my life.

I forgave him for me. I forgave him because I knew I couldn't grow as a person if I didn't get him out of my head. That the longer I held onto my resentment, the longer it would take for me to find myself, the harder it would be to become the person I want to be. Like many survivors of childhood trauma, I've mirrored a lot of the hurt that was done to me onto others. Not on the same scale, but I'm deeply ashamed of the hurtful things I did and said in my teens and early 20s, and I can't undo any of that hurt, but thanks to therapy and introspection and the people who've shown me love, I've learned that I don't have to let those things define me. I had to learn to forgive my dad and let go of the past before I could forgive myself and live in the present. This doesn't look anything like the warm smiles, loving embrace, swelling orchestra and shared profundity we expect at the end of a story about forgiveness.

Because it wasn't the end of a story; for me, it was the beginning 🦝


  1. tangentially, do you know what else makes a fun story but never actually helps anyone in real life? Revenge↩

#essay #personal