I was brought up in an Anglican family in Johannesburg and attended a church school where we were taught to forgive, to turn the other cheek. I married an American soon after I left boarding school who was almost as young as I was. Ten years later, having drunk an entire bottle of Vodka, reverting to his Russian origins, he informed me in the conjugal bed, that he had fallen in love with someone else. He felt terribly guilty, was most distressed, and told me he loved me, too. What was he to do, he asked me pulling on his thinning locks in the dimming light of the room.

I consoled him, forgave him, and said I could probably have done the same thing. Then I watched him come and go for ten years, until he told me he had fallen in love with yet another woman this time, which was when I finally left.

How much of this behavior was helpful to my young husband, to myself, or even to my three young children whom I believed I was protecting by lying to them, I ask myself years later.

Indeed, does forgiving someone actually help him to change his behavior, to move on, to learn? Was this not simply on my part a childlike belief in my own omnipotence? If I were good enough, patient enough, he would eventually come home. Yet, we cannot so easily control the world around us.  

It may feel good for a moment. I felt I was the superior one, the one who was behaving as I should. I was not going to stoop to his level, the level of the one who was misbehaving. Or so I believed.

Unfortunately life does not usually work like this. People will rarely confront their actions until faced by some sort of sanction or consequence. We have to make it quite clear, surely, that certain actions are not permitted. We may forgive, or even understand, but we cannot condone. Evil or foolish actions must surely have consequences. The child must be taught not to put his hand in the fire and perhaps he will not learn not to, until he burns himself.

Had I, perhaps, told my errant husband to leave, changed the locks on the door, in other words thrown him out, or even broken a plate over his head, he might then have come home for good, or not. I was finally not responsible for his actions. In the end, I was probably as much at fault, as he was, in my belief that I was acting righteously, following the Christian rule, forgiving. 

Human nature being what it is, we are often obliged to show a friend or lover what the results of his actions are before he/she will face up to the consequences. Again and again I have forgiven friends for letting me down. Yet this too is not particularly helpful to them or to us.

Perhaps what we have to learn is to forgive in our hearts, for obviously we can all make mistakes, but to show with words and actions that we cannot condone behavior which hurts us and others irremediably. 

Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.

You are reading

Dreaming for Freud

What Makes People Resort to Physical Violence?

Why is there so much aggression in the air?

Why do women feel ashamed after sexual assault?

What makes a woman hide a case of sexual assault.