A ViewPoint by Marg Herder
Recently, some friends and I have been talking about forgiveness. How does forgiveness tie in with the development of good, sturdy boundaries? Won’t people just walk all over us and keep taking advantage of us if we keep forgiving them?
I’ve found that most people aren’t taught much about forgiveness. And while some people seem to establish boundaries with ease, most women especially are terrible at setting and enforcing them.
Popular culture constantly shows and tells us what happens when human beings get angry and hurt other people (cop shows, hospital shows, talk shows— the list goes on and on). The media have come to realize we are fascinated with this stuff, and we consume it like candy.
But you have to look much harder to find stories of forgiveness. The person who is getting put to death for a crime will be front page news. The story of how the murder victim’s loved one has forgiven that person will be somewhere much less visible, if that story is told at all.
So it’s no wonder that we struggle with the concept. In my dream for the world, children would be taught about forgiveness in school, starting in kindergarten. They would spend as much time on forgiveness as math and reading. Because just as academic studies prepare a child for a life in which they can be financially self-sustaining, a good solid understanding of forgiveness prepares a child for a life of being emotionally functional, a loving, compassionate human being.
But since that’s not how it is, and we hardly ever even talk about forgiveness, most of us are left wondering what it means and how it works. We need to think about it, talk about it, look at how it plays out in our lives.
How do compassion and forgiveness work?
The First Example
I’m walking barefoot in my yard, not really paying attention, and I step on a bee and get stung. At first I’m freaked out, and then I feel pissed off at the bee, “Freakin’ stupid bee stung me, man!”
But after the initial rush of the emotion-producing-chemical drains out of me, I come to understand that the bee can’t be blamed. It was just going about its business, doing what bees do, when suddenly this giant thing (my bare foot) came down and scared it into attacking!
I don’t stay ticked off at the bee, and I even feel compassion because the act of stinging me killed it. So in effect, by moving from being ticked off, to feeling compassionate, I have moved into the place where forgiveness hangs out, waiting for me to embrace it.
Now, after getting stung I’m much more careful about paying attention when I walk barefoot in the yard, and my caution is a boundary that I establish, one that is brought on by awareness. I didn’t hold on to the anger or the injury, I let it go (forgiveness). And then, understanding how the whole thing came about, I put a certain restriction in place to make it less likely to happen again (boundaries).
The Second Example
I once had an alcoholic partner who was abusive when she got drunk, and I stayed with her too long because I thought I could help her. When I was finally able to leave, to break out of a very dysfunctional pattern of existence, it was because I got angry enough about everything to be able to walk away. I was angry at her for putting me through so much, and especially for hurting me. I also realized I was pretty darn angry with myself for being so naive as to think I could possibly “fix” anyone else.
But eventually the anger wore down, and I was able to find a little clarity about what had just transpired in my life. I realized she was doing, like most people, the best she could. It was of no more use to be angry at an alcoholic for doing what alcoholics do than it made sense to be angry at the bee for doing what bees do. I was able to stop feeling that I was stupid for staying as long as I did, for being so naive, and even for partnering with her in the first place. I stopped being angry with myself because I started to understand that this experience had taught me why people end up in situations that are bad for them, and why it’s so hard for people to break away.
So instead of being stuck in anger, at her and at myself, I was able to move to a place of compassion. And that’s where I found forgiveness hanging around, waiting to welcome me.
I also understood that I was, and most likely always will be, vulnerable to people and situations that I think I can “fix.” I needed to make some rules for myself to follow, so that, with any luck,I wouldn’t end up having to learn the same painful lesson all over again. I set some boundaries, namely, that I would not be with her again and put myself in the position of being treated as I had been treated, nor would I allow myself much sustained interaction with alcoholic people in general.
So maybe these two examples help illustrate that forgiveness and boundaries are two different concepts, related only by the fact that they can both emerge from the same initial experience of suffering.
Common Misconceptions About Forgiveness
A lot of people have wrong ideas about forgiveness, though, and we need to be aware of them—ideas like these:
1. It’s best to “Forgive and forget.” Heck no! Forgive period. If you forgive and forget, you have just missed the whole point of the suffering. The learning.
Do the hard thing, forgive and remember. You’ve got to really look at what happened, and to try to understand what gifts the situation has laid on your threshold (and what boundaries need to be established to prevent future occurrences). That doesn’t happen when you say, “It’s okay, I forgive you,” simply uttering the words as though you were saying some automatic mantra. A lot of people do this because they think that’s what it takes to appear kind, compassionate, and enlightened.
To stand there and forgive someone who hurt you, while at the same time being fully present and fully aware of their pain and your own pain, is really hard. But living into peace and compassion calls you to do the hard stuff, to make the emotional effort necessary to understand the pain and fear that drove the people involved to behave in ways that were injurious. Living into a more enlightened existence calls you to recognize your own path to that particular situation.
2. Forgiving someone is like saying, “What you did is okay.” This second misconception is a huge sticking point for many people. The fact that you are having to worry about forgiveness in the first place means the situation obviously was NOT okay, and it’s sitting around in your gut, coated in hurt, anger, and disappointment.
Forgiving someone doesn’t have anything to do with the other person. Forgiving is only about you. Forgiving is necessitated by the hurtful situation you shared, but it has nothing to say about the situation itself or the other person (or people) involved. It’s internal. Forgiving is all about deciding to move forward, holding the lesson learned in your hand, instead of standing there with the suffering clutched tightly to your breast. Forgiving is about releasing your own pain, instead of cherishing your injury and letting it define you.
Carrie Newcomer sings the following in “Breathe In, Breathe Out” from her album, Everything is Everywhere (it’s from a Buddhist saying):
I held anger like a coal,
Burning hot but did not let go,
With the thought that I could throw it at someone.
Such a hard lesson to learn,
My own hand was what got burned.
Forgiveness is an action undertaken to stop an injurious process. Forgiveness has nothing to do with who was right and who was wrong. It has everything to do with how you choose to move through the rest of your life.
Common Misconceptions About Boundaries
Just as there are misconceptions about forgiveness, there are misconceptions about boundaries. Here are two of them:
1. Boundary setting is an act of punishment and retaliation. I’ve found that some people protest loudly when I set effective and appropriate boundaries. These people clearly view my actions as punitive, not protective, selfish, not self-supportive. They claim that the act of setting boundaries, of refusing to put yourself in a situation which might cause you physical or emotional harm, is not compassionate.
The people who say this are always people who have very poor boundaries. They are often so enmeshed in the lives of others that they have no sense of where their lives stop and the lives of other people begin. Or they inhabit the other extreme, they are so self-involved that they are incapable of understanding that other people have any objective reality besides that called for in service to them. These are simply not the people you should listen to when you are trying to figure out how to safely and compassionately move through your life.
2. Boundary setting is unspiritual. There are “religious” people who will tell you boundary setting is not a good spiritual practice. After all, didn’t Jesus teach us that we should just keep on forgiving over and over again—forgive seventy times seven and even let ourselves be killed if it will help other people? If you ask me, this statement illustrates one of the huge problems in Common Christian thinking. (For my definition of “Common Christians,” see my review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins on this website.) Many Common Christians misunderstand the Passion in such a way that it leads them to practically worship martyrdom and extreme self-sacrifice. Is giving your life really the most spiritual action a human being can take? Wouldn’t living your life peacefully, lovingly, and compassionately better serve All That Is?
This ill-conceived worship of martyrdom and self-sacrifice is probably more than a little responsible for where we as women still find ourselves cast in this society. I feel Jesus and other enlightened servants of the Divine and humankind were attempting to guide us to a way of existing in which loving kindness and compassion are more likely to flow freely. It was certainly not their intention to lead us to seek more suffering and pain, even in our attempts to serve others.
If I can learn to forgive— if I can learn to say, “I will no longer clutch this suffering to my breast. Today I will set it down”— I will then free myself from anger and pain and make the space to move into understanding and compassion. Likewise, when I make and enforce effective and appropriate boundaries, I am making it more likely that peace and love will flow freely in and through my life, and thus out into the world.
© 2012 by Marg Herder and Christian Feminism Today