Forgiveness is a gift. Sometimes you give that gift to yourself, and sometimes you give it to someone else. In my life, whenever my forgiveness has been for someone else it feels like I'm grounding their trauma. A human hands some of their trauma to me (accidentally or on purpose) through some hurtful act or speech. Forgiving that harm is basically assuming the role of conduit, receiving the electrified expression of their trauma and allowing it to flow through me into the ground (hopefully without leaving too many scorch marks).
I was not so skilled or lucky during my first marriage, I left pretty scorched. The dynamic my spouse and I established included my receiving a high volume of his trauma through our interactions. Some I excused and let go of in the moment. Most I just held for him because he didn't have the skills to manage and process his own emotional experience and I thought it was my responsibility to pick up that slack.
Without anywhere else to go, it sometimes came spilling back out of me in unexpected ways or at undesirable moments. Sometimes directed at my spouse, sometimes directed at myself. After the divorce, I invested significant time, energy, and effort to work through what was mine and cast off what wasn't. None of that work felt like forgiving my former spouse for the mean things he did and said to me. And forgiving him doesn't actually feel necessary because I put down most of what he handed me.
I have spent time in a similar conduit role during much of my early martial arts training. Frequently my training partner handed me something extra in class along with their part of whatever drill we were assigned. The first time I realized what was happening still shines clearly in my memory. The instruction was to feed a straight punch or a push down my centerline so I could practice meeting it with my body, grounding, and rotating to slip the strike.
My partner pushed and punched and I focused intently on the forward, drop, and rotate I was supposed to be accomplishing. It was challenging. My partner hit me just a little too hard or too fast or just enough off-center that many times I almost got it... but not quite. I dismissed these irritating inconsistencies as part of the learning process. After a few rounds, I finally succeed with that partner and felt the embodied understanding of what we were learning.
When we switched roles, the punches and pushes I fed my partner were consistent and he got the idea after a handful of tries. Once he got the basic move, I could then dial-up the challenge - so he could learn more. He seemed to skip that first step in what he provided me, not allowing me the space to establish a baseline before attempting to thwart my efforts, despite my repeated requests for greater consistency until I got the basics of the thing.
I thought I was just better at being a partner for that drill. Then we switched partners and I saw him work with someone else. Suddenly he was right on target with all his movements. Every one of his pushes and punches at a consistent speed, angle, and strength. The difference was: his new partner was someone he respected. Someone who out-ranked him. Someone who could (and eventually did) call him on his bullshit.
It turns out I was a better partner, but not for the reason I initially assumed. I was not simply a more consistent practice buddy; I was making a cleaner offering. There was no extra emotional baggage dangling from my punching and pushing arms. I did not need to prove to my partner that I was better than them at this drill in order to affirm my own value or expertise. I only wanted to facilitate my partner learning what we were being taught.
On that day, my first partner could not reciprocate a supportive learning opportunity for me. I had to receive both the punch or push as well as his need to win. Then I had to drop the emotional piece on the floor and execute the technique to deal with the simulated attack. Since our teacher only gave us direction to deal with the physical portion, it was up to me to double my effort and work it out.
Recently I stopped enjoying an interpersonal dynamic between me and a long-time friend for similar reasons. During Covid our relationship took a different form, and the curves and edges of that shape formed in an uncomfortable way for me that felt like I was continuously putting in double-effort so as to not absorb the extra handed my way from my friend. I didn’t bring it up because once I realized what was happening, our relationship was imminently scheduled to go back to the way it was before lockdown.
It didn’t seem worth the effort and potential conflict to raise the issue so close to a forced readjustment of how we relate. I have now learned it is always worth bringing up the thing. The opportunity for that particular unsavory dynamic is gone now, but I still have to process through my discontent so my resentment doesn’t bubble up into our newly-revised relationship. Which seems more like forgiving someone else for me rather than forgiving them for their sake.
Truthfully, forgiving someone else for me doesn't feel precisely like forgiveness. It feels like a completely different phenomenon, with a different mechanism than other flavors of forgiveness. I want to call it something else because it's more like letting go of an attachment. It’s more like forgiving myself than forgiving another person. I may need to forgive my friend for their part in fostering an unhealthy layer in our relationship. But I will definitely need to forgive myself for not being a better advocate for the kind of relating I would like to do and the kind of friendspace I would like to cultivate.
Sometimes forgiving someone else is actually forgiving myself.
And sometimes forgiveness is premature. For instance, when I have experienced significant or prolonged hurt there is a period of time after it's over when I feel like I must hold on to it. In those instances, it feels important to build some kind of monument to that hurt. Otherwise the gravity of my traumatic experience may be diminished. Or some portion of my suffering may go unnoticed and I will remain unseen. Or the causer of harm will somehow get away with it and I will have suffered in vein.
That seems applicable in the wake of societal atrocities or when public figures cause mass harm. As citizens, we don't need to offer forgiveness to dictators or politicians or business moguls who hurt people or deprive them of liberty or opportunity. Even if that forgiveness is not for the benefit of the perpetrators. Instead, we need to make sure the truth is widely available and circulate it publicly. We need to ensure Justice is served and those harmed have space and support to heal. In these cases, forgiveness can wait.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.