If you had asked me ten years ago what it meant to forgive someone, my answer would have been very different than it is today. Maybe I’m just late to the party. Maybe my personality predisposes me to extremes. I don’t know why, exactly, but forgiving meant letting the other person off the hook and never mentioning the incident again, ever. Slate wiped clean, forgiven meant forgotten and moved past—water under the bridge and all that.
All that is well and good until someone does something “unforgivable.” My children who were adopted are victims of abuse and neglect. To say I had unkind feelings toward their biological parents would be a huge understatement. Except, we were foster parents at the time and we still needed to interact with the parents on a regular basis.
As you might guess, it is difficult to have any kind of relationship with unforgiving feelings. Which, you know, was part and parcel of the whole experience for me. I didn’t want them to “work their plan,” I wanted them to go away. The feelings I had for the people that abused and neglected the children in my care were strong and unyielding.
Well, after a few months of simmering rage, I finally talked to my counselor about it. I am a passive person by nature, so it wasn’t something I would ever feel comfortable confronting the biological parents on. My counselor asked me if I could forgive them, for my and the kids’ sake. It isn’t healthy to feel so negatively toward a person or people. It infects every interaction and implies nuance that isn’t there. I was devoting much more of my time with these people living in my mind rent-free than I was to doing anything productive.
The idea of forgiving these people was unthinkable. They didn’t deserve my forgiveness. They had hurt innocent children who would grow up with physical and mental scars because of them. My counselor was patient with me. “What do your feelings toward them do to benefit you and your family?” Well. poop. When she put it like that, I didn’t have any great reasons to not forgive them and move on with life.
Eventually, I was able to actually see past the things my children’s biological parents had done and tried to evaluate, for my own peace of mind if nothing else, why they had done it. The truth of the matter is, typically people don’t abuse unless they themselves have been victims of abuse. As frustrating and painful as it is, the people who hurt my children were once children who needed love and compassion. Unfortunately, for all parties involved, they never, for whatever reason, received that love and compassion. Their idea of love and family was skewed towards the perverse and damaged.
I have forgiven them their parts in our children’s stories. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have forgotten, or will at any point stop being vigilant in helping my kids break the cycle of abuse. The thing about forgiveness is if the other person isn’t seeking it, they don’t need to know that you’ve offered it. It isn’t for them. It’s for you. It would make no sense to confront them and tell them I forgive the damage they caused. They don’t recognize they did anything wrong to start with. Or, if they do, that’s not a thing they will willingly admit to me anyway.
That whole theory was put to the test in my home a few years down the line. We had adopted the kids and hadn’t talked to the biological parents since. We found out that my oldest had been hurting my youngest three. He had to be moved to residential treatment because he was a danger to himself and others.
Once again, it was my job to forgive without ever expecting an apology. But, this was even harder, because he is a person I love deeply–a person his siblings, despite his abuse, love deeply. So it was paradoxically more important for me to forgive and more impossible for me to forgive. Adoption, I’m finding, is full of situations like that.
Once again, I found myself weeping to my counselor. Once again. she asked if it was doing anything to him at all by my refusing to forgive him. Of course it wasn’t, not really. He already felt so badly about himself there was no amount of guilt I could lay at his feet that he wasn’t already bearing. Further, I was hurting my other kids with my scathing remarks and inability to move past the situation. They needed me to be present with them in their grief and trauma, and my holding onto rage and hatred wasn’t going to help them.
It hasn’t been easy, not by a long shot. But forgiving him hasn’t meant forgetting what he did. It doesn’t mean I need to wait for him to apologize. It simply means I don’t carry the burden of unforgiveness around with me like so much leaden luggage.
I have also learned that forgiveness is something I have to work at every day. Like an addict drawn to drink, I find myself drawn back and back and back to the righteous rage and fierce fury that could consume and devour me. I need to remind myself that forgiveness isn’t for them. It’s for me to not have to carry the pain of their damage along with me.
I’ve learned to accept unsolvable problems. Some problems simply don’t have a solution that will benefit everyone. In fact, most don’t. I can get tied up in knots about the fact I love all of my kids but had to decide to protect the defenseless ones over the abusive one. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish he hadn’t made the choices he made so he could still be home with us. But he made his choices, and the ability for me to allow him to live in our home was taken from me. This is probably for the better because I couldn’t imagine how we’d keep everyone safe without spy cameras and bodyguards at that point.
Fetal alcohol syndrome, permanent brain damage, traumatic memories. Those are all things that I can’t solve or fix. I can do things to help the child in question. I can offer support and therapy and a thousand more things to try and “make it better” and to make the problem go away. At the end of the day, I am one person and their problems are multifaceted. And I have needed to get, if not comfortable, at least accepting of that fact. Tearing myself to pieces isn’t going to help anyone. So, I’ve needed to learn to do the hardest thing: I’ve needed to forgive myself.