hen one kid hurts or bullies another, I often hear parents scolding the aggressor (“Now say you’re sorry.”) Sometimes, the harassed kid is expected to want to go on playing with the bully (“Well, he said he was sorry!”)
It’s an extorted apology followed by extorted forgiveness. Countless articles and anecdotes emphasize the importance of forgiveness as part of the healing process. But can everything be forgiven? Should everything be forgiven?
The literature on trauma contains many references to victims of torture. Should a torture victim forgive the torturer? And in families where horrendous abuse occurs, does the healing process require the victim to forgive the abuser?
My own sense, at least in ideal terms, puts understanding ahead of forgiveness. Victims should always try to understand why someone behaved terribly toward them, no matter how painful it it is.
But the ideal is just that. It fails to cover the messy reality of the relationship between victim and torturer.
This is where the distinction between forgiveness and understanding becomes fundamental. Forgiving the torturer — why should we? — is one thing. Trying to understand the torturer — how and why does a person become one? — is quite another. It’s the same with abuse. Forgiving the abuser isn’t the same as trying to fathom how or why the abuser became what he is. I’ve heard stories of atrocious acts and had patients who themselves experienced horrendous abuse. Listening, I’ve often been enraged to the core. At the same time, I know from deep within that perpetrators of unspeakable acts very likely experienced worse than what they’re inflicting.
It’s even more terrible when the torturer is a family member, someone the victim wanted to see as a loving figure, and tried to love. The torture in turn sought to stamp out the very possibility of loving and being loved.
Working with traumatized people involves not only comprehending what happened to them, but also establishing its context.
Most victims of family abuse are convinced they’re somehow to blame for what was inflicted on them. They often live in shame and isolation based on an inner sureness that they’re fundamentally defective. They see themselves as exiles that don’t deserve to be among other human beings. That view closes a vicious circle, since most perpetrators are convinced the fault lies with their victims. They shift responsibility by telling the abused that they were “bad” and got what was coming to them.
In such a context, how is suggesting forgiveness even possible?
But understanding an abusive parent or perpetrator of violence is another story. Understanding doesn’t let the abuser off the hook or forgive him. But establishing motives can help. It can help a child to know why a parent behaved so viciously to one of his own. It allows the child to understand that what he endured wasn’t about his being defective or bad. Such awareness can help things fall into place. Working through trauma begins with expressing empathy toward yourself. You need first and foremost to understand your feelings and their origins. This self-understanding ultimately extends outward and can help explain why parents surrendered to forces beyond their control, even in a family setting.
To my mind, the process is more useful and more feasible than forgiveness. My goal is to help victims realize this. The aim isn’t to forgive transgressors but to help those who’ve been hurt come to realize what happened wasn’t their fault. By being sensitive to their own feelings and the origins of those feelings, they can begin to comprehend the actions of those who hurt them.
Empathy toward self is essential to establish perspective toward others. Again, perspective is not forgiveness. It’s a tool to assist those who’ve been hurt. (“So I wasn’t a bad child.”).
Insisting that victims forgive their tormentors can be an act of violence by itself, inducing guilt and making victims think they should be able to rise above their feelings (which often means denying them). This may be not only beyond the victim’s ability, but also close to impossible.
When abused patients tell me they’ve decided they need to forgive their abusers and “move on,” I hold back shudders. I try to suggest how they might forgive themselves instead. The forgiving they have in mind, I tell them, may not be forgiveness at all but an attempt at understanding, a necessary act to try to make sense of it all.