What About the People We Don’t Forgive?

About a year and a half ago, I wrote this blog, about the feeling of being forgiven, the reassurance of knowing you can be redeemed, and in describing that feeling implied (rightly) how important it is to also forgive. It was one of the most commented on things I’ve ever written; not in the way of blog comments, but in the way of people I know remarking on it in person. It’s one of the posts that I think back on and feel happy with what I said and how it was said. But there’s another side of that coin that I realized shortly after that post that I had left unaddressed. I am a person who can leave things in my life; I struggle to understand why people who have moved on to new relationships need to see their exes. I don’t have many friends, and even fewer “old friends”. So what about the people I don’t forgive?

Detail of a painting by J. Schaefer
Detail of a painting by J. Schaefer

My mom was religious in the gentle way – she still is really. That is to say, there was no fire and brimstone with her, no fear of hell as a driving force. She held up kindness, and forgiveness, turning the other cheek. I had a “friend” when I was a kid who in hindsight was probably a large part of the reason why I didn’t have many other friends. Our interactions were alternately great fun, or her belittling me rigorously, and isolating me from other people. At one point she wrote me letters that were so hostile that my mom saved them as evidence in case she ever attempted to physically harm me. Every so often, usually in the midst of a phase of this actually feeling like a friendship, she would suddenly turn on me. Sometimes she’d tell me that she wasn’t allowed to hang out with me anymore, because “her mom said” that if she was friends with me, no one else would ever be friends with her. Sometimes it was some slight I’d committed. Sometimes it was that she just didn’t like anything about me.

I would usually respond by trying to remove myself from participation in the “rift”. I would just simply sit and do something by myself, even if she was there all the while, leaning over me, insulting me. In my own head I would initially think “this is probably for the best”. And then, as time went by, that initial willingness to be rid of her friendship would be replaced by a wracking feeling of guilt, a feeling like the rift was still there because I had not been willing to forgive. Even in the midst of this guilt, I would know that truly I thought she was terribly cruel, but I still thought that I had a moral duty to forgive, and if I couldn’t do that, I was deficient. This could persist across even months of not seeing her; months that were in honesty better than months that included her. I would dream about seeing her, of telling her I wasn’t mad anymore. In the dreams I would feel such a sense of relief. I would wake up feeling an absolute clarity, that I absolutely had to reach out to her.

And when I saw her again, I would reach out to her, I would tell her I wasn’t mad. I never asked her to apologize; she never did. I would just be willing to ignore everything that had happened and she would pretend that it hadn’t.. until the next time she decided I needed ostracized. Sometimes a longer phase than normal went by; sometimes I could even make the argument to myself that she had outgrown her cruelty before it would resume again. And always, I would feel like I needed to forgive her, needed to be friends with her again in order to be sure within myself that I really had forgiven her. I thought that was what my mom was trying to teach me to do. In actuality, had I just been forbidden to associate with her, or moved far enough away that I couldn’t see her anymore, I probably would have found my life remarkably less painful, and my social tendencies now might be totally different.

What actually happened was that as we got older, I got a little more assertive, and she got a little more subtle. She was wildly fun more regularly, and overtly turning hostile to me was replaced by occasionally unexpectedly siding with someone else against me in some kid conflict. I finally, much older than I like to admit, had the epiphany that she wasn’t going to prioritize kindness or even a friend’s interests above painting a certain picture of herself to elevate herself in her own mind. There was no fanfare. I never told her anything had changed; I wasn’t even mad. One day we had a conversation like we would have any other day, and then the next I just didn’t seek out her company. I’m not sure I ever spoke to her again. I just stopped. I found the absence of her comfortable. I didn’t look back; I didn’t feel any guilt this time.

The Mother Teresa of my life.
The Mother Teresa of my life.

When I was around sixteen or seventeen, I came home one night, late-ish as usual, and wound up sitting on the “back porch” talking to my mom instead of going to bed. It was a small tacked on room at the back of the house with a horribly slanted floor. I sat on the washer, with my back leaning into the books on the shelf above it. The room was green. I was agonizing over trying to be friendly to Thom’s ex-girlfriend, who was trying to be decidedly not friendly to me, but whom Thom wanted me to be friendly to, for reasons not entirely clear to me.
“Why are you trying not to say you don’t like her?” my mom asked.

  “Its not that I don’t like her..”
  “No, you don’t like her. I can tell that you don’t. You seem like you hate her. You don’t have to like her, its ok,” said my mom, the Mother Teresa of my life.
  The person who inspired my moral need to forgive was giving me a pass. I didn’t have to find something to like in people who sat in opposition to me. I didn’t have to forgive everyone. Not in the way that requires you to continue to invite people into your sphere.
  I know that it can be argued that maybe I did actually forgive my childhood friend, as I ended the relationship without anger, and it can be argued that one can forgive from a distance. I suppose I’m just not that interested in searching my soul for a definitive answer to the question of whether I forgave or not. Letting go of the need to keep feeding something that wasn’t positive was a learning moment, and something I’ve used again more than once. Being forgiving of people you love is what makes carrying on together possible. Thinking the best of people you encounter when you could easily think the worst is something I really believe in and try to live.
 But I know I am a person who can contribute well to only a limited number of relationships, so sometimes I’ve got to be mercenary in my triage of which friendships to feed and let go, and even to let in in the first place. I cannot pursue someone who is uninterested, or unwilling to take the risk of seeming interested, even after I’ve taken the risk. I can’t have people around who delight in seeing me (or others) stumble. I can’t have the female friend who is fine until I have another female friend. I can’t have a male friend who attempts to cross friendship boundaries. I can’t have friends who want to create distance between me and Thom. I can’t have people around who make me feel worse, even if I can’t put my finger on why. I can’t have people who can’t ever choose anything else over feeding their personal void, not ever, even rarely. I can’t have friends who can’t choose to climb out of a spiral, not after a point. I can’t have people around who cause harm to the handful of things that I’ve drawn a line in the sand around (my marriage, my dogs, my livelihood, for the most part). I can’t have friends whose character I don’t respect. I can’t live with continually suspect motives, or energy gluttons, or drama fuelers. I can’t have anyone who makes me constantly work for forgiveness. I’ve tried to keep friends who dislike dogs, but its hard. Really hard. If I can let go quietly, I do.
Phot by T. Stead
Phot by T. Stead
  Sometimes taking away the sustenance of a tree that doesn’t bear fruit is necessary to make room for things that add value to your life. Hippies make it sound pure and good in new age blog posts about protecting your energy; an Old Testament god made it sound vengeful; some people say it makes me cold. I know people can change, and grow. But sometimes they’ve got to do it somewhere else, where I don’t have to know about it, because I am done.
  With all of that said, the permutations of the things I can forgive, and the things I can accept from friends stretch on for miles. The people who have a unique value that makes me say “I must keep that one” are varied. I just believe that forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that makes you reach for a person despite the terrible things we’ve all done to each other, is reserved for the strongest connections and the company that adds value to your life that you can’t easily replace. This isn’t an indictment of the things I let go; its a love letter to the company I keep.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. flockigbier says:

    I spent a long time doing what you did with your friend when you were a child. Its just recently I had your epiphany and I feel like a load has been taken off my shoulders. It wrecked me for so long, severe depression and severe anxiety disorders, that I’m still fighting the urge not to go back to before. Especially because this involves family. I want to spend time with them and see them but I will no longer put up with their spouses hateful nature towards me. It makes me sad because I know they will put their spouse above his own son. But then I remind myself all the great family members that I have around me and love me. Then it just makes me disappointed that they will miss out on what the others aren’t….. Me. I love the person I am, who I’ve grown to be, etc. There are still things I would like to change about myself but we all have those. In the end its about the need for me to surround myself with people that will make my life better, not worse.

    1. rika9 says:

      Its hard when its family, or someone that you can’t just “drift away” from. Sometimes you can limit emotional access without totally ceasing contact. Or tell yourself a million times that they will never be how you want them to be before then deciding if its still worth continuing with your expectations changed. I think there’s not a single right answer or a perfect right answer, but if you come to a place that is more positive than negative to you, then you’ve probably done the right thing. Its not an enviable situation to be in, hope you can find a peaceful level of dealing with it. Glad to hear that you have some good family connections too though.

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