Friday, January 11, 2013

To Forgive Without an Apology?

[Content note: the cited article and conversations contain sometimes detailed descriptions of violence, murder, and abuse]

Over at Family Scholars Blog*, we've been discussing the general theme of forgiveness, in the context of a New York Times article about a couple who forgave their daughter's murderer and in the context of commenters' personal experiences.

The NYT article, as I stated in comments, was very difficult for me to read.

It described what appeared to be an abusive relationship that culminated in a man, named Conor, killing his girlfriend. The abusive nature of that relationship leading up to his killing wasn't detailed, but rather, the act of the parents forgiving their daughter's killer was the main highlight of the story.

The article recounts:

"Kate[, the deceased woman's mother,] took the seat opposite Conor, and he immediately told her how sorry he was."
The parents forgave Conor for killing their daughter, and it seemed to be part of their healing process. In a follow-up post to the ensuing conversation, Amy Ziettlow noted:
"For further discussion I have often pondered the work of Dr. Ira Byrock who wrote The Four Things That Matter Most a book that inspired many hospices, included the one where I served, in a core care planning tasks of helping individuals express four (and we expanded it to five) key things a person can express before death, often called “end of life closure:” 
1) Please forgive me. 
2) I forgive you. 
3) Thank you 
4) I love you. 
5) Goodbye."
While many commenters seemed to be in agreement with the notion of forgiveness being a universal good, today I want to consider how forgiveness becomes complicated when no apology or request for forgiveness is rendered by the person who has done harm.

In Conor's case, he said he was sorry relatively quickly. But, not all murderers apologize. Not all batterers say they are sorry. Not all abusers even recognize that they engage in abuse. And, to paraphrase CS Lewis, of all oppressors it is those who oppress us with the approval of their own consciences, without remorse, who are perhaps the most oppressive of all.

In my experience, a sincere apology or a request for forgiveness has often facilitated my willingness to forgive others. I also know that when I have made mistakes and apologized, people have seemed more willing to forgive me. Yet, I'm not entirely sure what it means to forgive those who harm unapologetically. To illustrate, I'll use an example from my life.

About a year ago, my partner and I invited a close family member of mine to stay with us for a few days while she was traveling to the city in which we live. One evening, my partner and I were sitting on the couch, and in order to make more room for my relative so we could all sit and watch a movie, I put my feet on a pillow on my partner's lap. Almost immediately, my family member took on a cold demeanor and went to her bedroom. That was the only instance I remember of making physical contact with my partner in this relative's presence.

The next day, my relative had packed up her suitcase and said she was going to stay somewhere else. I was perplexed and asked her if something was bothering her, and she insisted that she was fine. A few weeks later, though, I found out from other relatives that she was telling people that she thought my partner and I were rude by showing affection for each other in front of her and that she felt "really uncomfortable" around us.

This experience was hurtful to my partner and I not only because my relative's statements to my family members made us feel as though she saw as disgusting perverts, but also because my relative seemed to have this passive and entitled insistence that two lesbians coddle her homophobia in our own home. I sent her a direct email letting her know that I found her behavior hurtful, and I didn't receive a response.

Many times, we don't get those closure-facilitating utterances, "I'm sorry" or "please forgive me."

Instead, we often get those unsatisfying non-apology apologies, "I'm sorry you feel that way," "Sorry you're so angry," or those excuses that ignore people's pain, "I didn't mean to hurt you!" Sometimes, we just get silence.

I'm aware of the noble religious, spiritual, and philosophical platitudes about forgiveness. I think they are easy to utter on a blog and difficult to apply in real life situations.

And, in cases like these, when people know that they have hurt other people, even if unintentionally, and refuse to acknowledge that, I'm not sure what forgiveness means.

I wish my relative well, but I also know that it's hurtful to be around her, and so I keep my distance from her. I set boundaries, because from my past experiences with her I know that if I don't, she will continue to be hurtful.  I think that if I were to tell her, "I forgive you," she might be insulted because she doesn't think she did anything wrong. 

And, as I agree that forgiveness can be a healthy part of some people's healing process, I am also cognizant of the reality that forgiveness can also embolden people to not change their hurtful behavior, because they don't have to do anything to "earn" forgiveness. By the grace of others, they are just simply, forgiven, and I question whether that stops the cycle of violence and aggression.

[*Cross-posted at Family Scholars Blog, which has implemented a new civility policy.]

No comments: