Talk about parent/child relationships is always a bit fraught. This is in part because we know what we are supposed to be doing in them: loving one another, and how constantly, chronically and even spectacularly we fail. And then there are the abusive families. The ones where physical, emotional, and spiritual lives of the smaller and weaker are subverted, dominated, and ultimately destroyed by people whose calling is to to cherish and encourage them.
One of the answers to this devastation is mercy and I tend to use the term fairly freely but using a term with internal meaning without explaining that meaning is unhelpful. Thus, this posting.
Forgiveness is a fairly basic component of Christianity. An unfortunate assumption about forgiveness is that it somehow exonerates the guilty or declares that what they did is OK. This is bogus. Abusing a child is never OK. Murder is not a cause for celebration. No he didn’t “need killin’.” Rape is never right. Period. Paragraph.
And yet we still talk about forgiveness as an important part of our life of faith. So what gives?
The Greek word for forgiveness includes the sense of “to let go of, drop.” We do not drop the hurt, the violation, or the truth of injustice. What we are dropping is the expectation that the person who violated us is going to fix that violation.
For some things there simply is no apology profound enough to fix the break. Some people are too broken to ever admit that they were wrong. Some people are genuinely convinced that what they did was right and “you deserved it.” (They are wrong by the way, you DID NOT “deserve” any of it).
In the 12 step programs, people “make amends” in the best way they can but even amends to not change what happened. They may be a concrete attempt to put down a marker to say “I was wrong, I’m sorry” but amends do not “fix it” either. So what do we do with this forgiveness stuff?
We drop the (quite understandable and justified) demand that the other person “make this not have happened” (because they can’t do that anyway) and turn our healing over to someone who actually can guide us out of the darkness.
My childhood was violent, but my dad can never make me “unbeaten” again. For one thing, he’s coming up on a decade dead, for another, he denied all memory of the beatings. If I wait for him to get his heart in a position where he could even admit that he DID this stuff, I’m rather screwed (I did mention that he’s dead, right?)
Forgiveness then, is dropping the claim that he has to fix what he did. It’s dropping the expectation that a two year old kid had the internal fortitude to stand up to his dad and make the big man stop this bad thing. It’s dropping the expectation that a frightened and confused mother should have intervened and protected her child. These are legitimate violations of life. They are wrongs that should not have been but hating myself for not stopping my dad is pointless. Carrying a claim against my mom for failing her calling is just as pointless. Demanding that my dead father somehow stop a beating that happened 45 years ago is just as pointless.
Ultimately, justice is not in my hands. There is no punishment I or anyone could mete out that can change that history. There’s no way to “make this not have happened.” The works of life that have been written in my being have already gone down on the page and no eraser will make them go away. The choice for my future (and for yours, dear reader) is the shape our future story will take. We can choose the form of our healing.
To demand that someone else fix us puts our healing in the hands of someone outside ourselves and leaves us, as Epictetus pointed out, at the mercy of external actors. It leaves our healing to the dubious mercy of a (most likely) untrained and (possibly) clueless person. Since that describes us already, why add ANOTHER clueless and inept person to the equation when our own cluelessness and ineptitude should be enough?
We did not receive mercy in our past, we do not however, need to continue that mercilessness into our future. Mercy then is letting go of the demand that someone else “owes us” or is “going to fix us” and turning our kindness upon ourselves. Mercy is choosing where we’re going to go from here.
What happened was wrong. Period. Paragraph. We are not God to make the past go away. We cannot command another to make perfect amends. If we remain holding this event, these events, like some sort of claim ticket against the universe, we are going to end up wandering the halls of bureaucratic frustration because there is no one who will pay our claim. The answer is mercy.
Instead of demanding that our claim be paid, we drop it. Instead of insisting that They must Fix This, we let go so we can fill our hand with a future in healing. In a sense, the longer we hold onto that ticket, the longer some part of us will remain trapped in the moment that ticket represents, endlessly and fruitlessly seeking some way to escape.
This is not the perfect and best answer, that would be for it never to have happened or for the one who did the horror to magically be able to fix what they broke (but as Plumb reminds us “you can’t take back what you’ve taken away“).
Given that the perfect and best answers cannot be had however, we can have mercy. We can let go of the claim check and, in the weakness and power of our own cluelessness, seek the work of becoming whole after horror.
In case the title still doesn’t make sense, try this quote from Shakespeare.