"In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die."
Brené Brown was sitting in church when she heard her pastor utter those words. He had been speaking about counselling a couple on the brink of divorce after discovering her husband's affair. Brown had been wrestling with the idea of forgiveness for her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, and had ultimately taken the chapter about forgiveness out because she just couldn't get clear on it.
Those words were like an awakening. Because she realized this:
Embedded deeply in forgiveness is grief.
Think about that.
I always thought of forgiveness as something that people who weren't burdened with resentment and anger offered freely, then moved blithely into the rest of their lives. I would watch television shows (which is where so many of us children of dysfunctional families think we're finding reality) in which a sibling would wrong another sibling, but it would always end with an apology and the response: "I forgive you." And then all would be forgotten.
It took me years to realize that forgiveness doesn't really work like that, especially when the transgression is deep and painful.
I would wonder what was wrong with me that, even with my husband apologizing around the clock for his betrayal of me, I felt incapable of forgiveness. Surely those people were more spiritually evolved than I. They were simply better people. There were times in those early days that I didn't hate him. Brief moments when I could imagine not leaving. But mostly, I cried and simmered in resentment. I wasn't ready to leave but I hated staying. Forgiveness? Didn't that mean I was putting all this behind us? Didn't that mean I was okay with what he did? Didn't that mean I could never bring it up again?
I still wonder if I've "forgiven" my husband. I confess I'm not entirely sure what that means. I'm with him and happy to be. I trust him as much as I trust anyone who has revealed themselves capable of deception, which is the same as saying, I trust him as much as I trust anyone. His cheating is part of our story but only part. We rarely speak about it. I no longer use it like a sword, a way to cut him when I'm hurting.
I've certainly grieved, which, as Brown says, is a key part of forgiveness. Something definitely died. A lot of somethings. My sense of safety. My idea of who he was. My idea of what my marriage was. My dream of doing marriage "right" (which says a whole lot about me, which I've had to wrestle with). My "perfect" family. A veritable graveyard of dreams.
And I had to grieve it all. Year by year. Tear by tear.
So maybe I have landed in this place of forgiveness. I've accepted that my husband is more than the worst thing he ever did. I admire and respect how hard he's worked to become a better person, how painful it was for him to face down his own demons. Plenty died for him too. His fantasy of his perfect childhood. His mythological martyr of a father. He had his own grieving to do.
I'm with Brené Brown on this one. Forgiveness is impossible without working through grief.
It never surprises me when one of our secret sisters washes up on these shores and begins her comment with, "I've forgiven him but I feel stuck."
Forgiveness looms large for so many of us – like this holy grail we feel we need to grasp.
But maybe we're looking at it wrong. Maybe forgiveness isn't something we bestow but rather something that is bestowed on us when we've worked through our grief. Maybe it's not something we feel but rather a place we arrive.
I had always thought forgiveness came easily to those more emotionally generous and loving than I. So did Brené Brown. It was only when she viewed forgiveness through the lens of death and grief that it clicked for her. There is nothing, she says, more generous than working through grief to get to forgiveness.