“Forgive” Is the Wrong Word


Throughout the latter half of the 20th century we observed the outcome where former colonial action by European nations had established a government that clashed with the original owners of the land. Algeria solved the problem in a short, violent revolution and disappeared from world news. Northern Ireland finally tired of the meaningless violence. It took a few hundred years, but the Irish finally realized that a band of criminals was manipulating the enmity caused by historical wrongs in order to finance their criminal lifestyles. As soon as they decided to stop focusing on past misdeeds, the violence disappeared. They took the approach of forgetting the past and looking to the future.

And, of course, Europeans tried to assuage their guilt over their treatment of the Jews by gifting the Holy Land to them, conveniently forgetting the Palestinians who lived there already, setting off half a century of trouble. As far as I can see, nothing has changed in the ensuing 20 years of this century. It makes one wonder who profits from the continuation of this conflict.

And the lesson that should have arisen from this but has to be relearned over and over is that the ability to forgive and forget past atrocities comes very hard to the human psyche. Once that goal has been achieved, progress is much faster and peace is possible. It’s getting to that point that is so difficult. We need an intermediate step, one that says, “Where are we now, and where do we go from here?”

Stages of Recovery

Once the actual abuse has stopped, the main problem to deal with is guilt. One of the most evil acts of the perpetrator is not the abuse itself, but the placing of blame on the victim. After all, once the abuse stops the pain recedes in the hazing of memory over time. But the guilt is renewed in full force every time the topic is brought up.

So the first step in healing is reassurance from respected sources of a lack of guilt on the part of the victim, combined with a recognition of the real responsibility of the perpetrators. This is even more powerful if the perpetrators accept the responsibility themselves.

But That’s It.

Once responsibility has been assigned and guilt has been removed, that step has been passed, and any further discussion of the abuse does nothing to help the situation. In fact, it probably only serves to keep people’s minds firmly in the past, denying them the possibility to move on. And at the worst, as happened in Northern Ireland, it can be used by those who derive power from other people’s anger to use it for their own devices. Dare we suggest our neighbour to the south as well? How about the worst problem for our First Nations?

The Residential Schools are Not the Problem.

The Residential Schools themselves are gone. Only their effects linger. The only positive reason for discussing the Residential Schools is to reinforce the responsibility for the abuse on the white people of Canada and remove any stigma of guilt that might have been wrongfully transferred to the Native Indian victims. For society at large, that step has been passed. I realize that individuals reach this stage at different times, but in general, discussion of the actual wrongs will no longer be helpful, might be damaging, and could possibly be used by the manipulative for their own purposes.

“Forgive” Is the Wrong Word

But once we reach this stage, what’s next? Well, the most common advice is that the victim has to “forgive” the perpetrator. That’s a tall order. Yes, it would be very good for the First Nations to forgive white society for the Residential Schools, but I’d bet that most people are a long way from reaching that goal, and I’m not sure that they should try to reach it.

I think the proble here is that forgiving someone sends a message that an aggrieved person finds hard to receive. Forgiving sounds too much like making the people who committed the crime feel better about themselves. Look at the synonyms: pardon, excuse, exonerate, absolve. It’s all about the perpetrator, not the victim. In most cases, that seems too much to ask. The object of the exercise is to take actions that make the victim feel better, not the perpetrator.

This is a great, gaping hole in the ethos of Western Christian values. Forgiveness is not an action you achieve by trying. Forgiveness is a state you reach once you have regained your own confidence and independence. As such, constant discussion of the original abuse is definitely backward looking, counterproductive, and open to manipulation.

I cannot say that I have forgiven the bullies who made my life miserable at school. They were asshxxxs then, and I doubt they have improved much. I used to amuse myself while practising punches in karate class by imagining my main tormentor’s face in front of every blow. However, as time went on and my skill and confidence increased, I stopped doing that. I didn’t need it anymore. Violence no longer frightened me.

As a high school teacher, I had no problem wading into a mob of a hundred screaming teenagers, tapping two combatants on their shoulders and saying, “Okay, boys, the fight’s over. Let’s go to the office.” In most cases, they came along. I was able to return to the situation that once damaged me as a new person of my own definition, completely in charge of my own emotions, and thus in command of the situation. I was able to put my abusers behind me. The effects of my childhood abuse will never leave me completely, but for the most part, I spend my days without a thought of the injuries, and I certainly never waste time thinking about the perpetrators.

And that’s my point. Curing the effects of abuse means healing the confidence of the victim. Dwelling on the cruelty is rarely a positive.

So when we are dealing with historical wrongs, whether societal or personal, asking the victim to forgive the abuser is asking for a huge leap. Asking the victim to forget about the abuse is useless, and especially in societies, might be a path to the return of the abuse. Perhaps the best thing victims can do is forget the abuser. Put that face out of your mind and focus on your own progress.

The way forward is to turn our backs on the past and firmly face the future. “Where are we now, and where do we go from here?” Nobody deserves forgiveness for the abuses of the Residential Schools. But the victims need to be allowed to step away from them, so they can get to a state that they can focus on their future, not their past.


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