Can Compassion Transcend Forgiveness?
Is compassion, finally, more crucial than forgiveness?
Posted August 27, 2009
I've never been entirely comfortable with the concept of forgiveness. Sure, if you're truly to get over being wronged or abused, you'll need to forgive the person responsible for hurting you. Yet to me there can be something uncomfortably condescending about forgiving another.
It's almost as though you're saying, "I'm better than you, ‘cause I never would have done what you did to me . . . but because of my charitable ideals, I'm going to forgive you anyway." And it's this regrettable link between forgiveness and the presumption of superiority that makes me a little uneasy about the whole concept.
I can't help but wonder whether, if we were actually in the shoes of our "designated perpetrator," we might not have done the same pernicious thing done to us? What if we had the same parents they did? Or the same genetic makeup? Or if, in growing up, we "imbibed" the same messages about ourselves that our personal "wrongdoer" did--whether of inferiority, shame, or (indeed!) entitlement? Further, what if those messages left us with the same neediness, pent-up rage, or ruthless ambition that became their legacy? What if the negative beliefs about themselves and the world "inherited" from their environment were in fact part of our own endowment?
Ultimately, can we really be that confident that motivated from deep within to compensate for bad feelings about ourselves, or to "act out" positive (though unwarranted) notions about what is "due" us because our parents made us feel special, we ourselves could have refrained from doing to others the same unjust things done to us?
Let me offer an extensive example to illustrate the possibly "warrantless" grounds for forgiveness.
Say your father were a "functioning alcoholic"--meaning that though he managed to hold onto a job, his addiction compelled him to emotionally abandon you (and your sibs). Because he spent most of his non-working hours supporting his habit, he couldn't possibly have been there for you in the many ways you needed him to be.
Moreover, let's say your mother (as is typical in such cases) was his "enabler." Endeavoring to safeguard what she perceived as the family's welfare, her life pretty much revolved around your father's dysfunctional drinking. Desperately laboring to keep things from falling apart, she made excuses for him, denied the seriousness of his problem, and in various ways accommodated (or "succumbed") to his noxious life style. (And this despite the obviously abusive effects of his inebriated behaviors.)
Sadly--tragically--as a result of her misguided efforts, you felt abandoned by her as well, particularly since she did little to protect you or your sibs from your father's drunken rages. Given the role that her anxieties obliged her to play, she simply wasn't--couldn't--be there for you anywhere as much as you required her to be. Either she was busy frantically trying to keep your father from getting fired (e.g., lying to his employer about his being ill at times when he was simply too "hung over" to report for work), or she was nervously scheming to prevent his drinking from getting further out of control.
Additionally, if she felt obliged to defend your father whenever you said something bad about him, you may have ended up believing that you didn't have any right to have needs of your own--that such needs weren't worthy or valid, or that merely asserting them was selfish. Worst of all, your mother may have given you the message that your very value in the family hinged on your willingness to renounce your needs and desires for the good of others (thereby setting you up, as an adult, to follow in her own dysfunctionally self-sacrificing footsteps). And finally, if she took out some of her mounting frustrations about the whole situation on you personally--because, after all, you were the one raising the issue--you may well have ended up feeling guilty and ashamed.
In accounting for such an unwholesome family dynamic, I'd like, hypothetically, to trace it back to its possible origins, suggesting how each of these parents may actually have been "pre-determined" to enact such maladaptive, detrimental roles.
Most wives who are co-dependent with their spouse's chemical dependency are so because of their own unresolved issues from childhood. They may well have had an alcoholic father (or mother) whom they never felt adequately loved by. The "inner child" part of them--still yearning for the affection and devotion they could never experience earlier--may unconsciously be drawn to a man who drinks, but--during courtship, at least--really does seem to love them. And so committing themselves to such a man seems to offer a resolution to the child's enduring dilemma.
The childish assumption here is, "If I just love him enough, show him he can depend on me, he won't need to drink anymore and I'll get the loving relationship [with my father] I never got when I was growing up." Or, it might be: "Unlike with my dad, I now have the power to keep a man from abandoning me . . . if only I can take good enough care of him."
What this woman cannot appreciate is that anyone who's become alcohol-dependent (or, for that matter, dependent on any experience to "lift" their mind or mood) will eventually separate from them emotionally, as they become increasingly "committed" to their addiction. To whatever degree, they're destined to abandon virtually everything outside of what they've come more and more exclusively to depend on. In consequence, partners of alcoholics almost invariably discover that their attempts to change their addicted spouse have been little more than exercises in futility.
Getting back to your alcoholic father, he may have grown up in a family where he was constantly being criticized, invalidated, disrespected, and physically abused. Feeling defective and inferior--and thus suffering from poor self-esteem--his childhood was one of frequent distress and a depression never that far from the surface. Perhaps as a teen he discovered that he could feel a lot better (or at least not as bad) when he illicitly drank with his buddies. So getting high became his favored way of alleviating (though hardly "resolving") ever-nagging self-doubts.
Researchers generally agree that at the root of almost all addictions are serious self-esteem deficiencies. And alcohol (like any other addictive substance) can never address, or rectify, such deficits. It can only cloud them over . . . for a time, at least. Which is why substance abusers must return again and again for their fix. And why abuse almost inevitably turns into dependency. Thus the more dependent the addict becomes, the less anything else matters--and that, of course, includes his (or her) entire family.
So although as a child you may have felt compelled to interpret your father's insufficient caring for you as signifying your own lack of worth (i.e., taken his disengagement from you personally), it should be obvious that, blinded by his own addictive needs, he could barely see you, let alone adequately attend to your basic dependency needs. He was, after all, much too busy attending to his own never-met-from-childhood dependency needs.
So--finally--how much can you really blame him for all of this? Sure, it's your prerogative if that's what you want to do. (And, to be sure, blaming others for our difficulties does tend to make us feel a little better about ourselves.) But if you're seriously interested in learning all you can about how you got psychologically wounded, you might want to look at why your father was actually driven to become an addict because of his own desperate need to feel better about himself. And at this level, can you really blame him? That is, don't we all strive to escape pain (physical or psychic) and move toward whatever offers us more pleasure, or at least takes the edge off our distress--or despair?
In other words, can you be so sure that if, however unintentionally, you were brought up as he was, to essentially dislike yourself, and then introduced to something (whether a substance, relationship, or activity) that made you feel considerably better, that you, too, wouldn't return to that addictive experience repeatedly--particularly when you started to feel down? It's hardly coincidental that we commonly talk of addictions in terms of "getting high." And the lower you feel about yourself, the more compelling the need to find just that thing which will (dependably) lift you up.
I believe that when we're fully able to grasp why our parents (or anybody else) did things that harmed us, that our native ability to experience compassion for all human suffering can empower us to let go of self-righteous feelings of anger and resentment which impede our personal evolution. We need to comprehend that our hurts and wrongs were not done to us deliberately, but rather derived from others' not knowing how to heal their own wounds in a healthier manner. And this understanding can then liberate us from negative feelings that may be continuing to keep us stuck in our lives. As many writers have pointed out before me, proclaiming ourselves a victim, however justified, isn't really very helpful in enabling us to live a life we can truly be proud of.
At first, you may have trouble convincing yourself that your parents were actually doing the best they could. But the more you're able to emotionally identify with their own troubles and torments, the more you'll discover how, given their struggles--and their limited resources to cope with them--they really couldn't have done any better. In a sense, they were simply destined to make a "royal mess" of things. And hopefully, with this new awareness and understanding, you'll find within yourself a depth of compassion that can help you put into perspective your own pain.
As I said at the outset, forgiveness is a stance that implies a certain condescension, maybe even a little disdain (as in, "I deign to forgive you."). But if you're able to access the more benevolent, gracious, humane side of your being, and become truly compassionate about the suffering of those who caused you to suffer, you can begin--with humility--to discharge your toxic feelings toward them independent of forgiving them as such.
Moreover, cultivating such compassion for those who hurt you may help you accept--and move beyond--many of the negative beliefs that their neglect or abuse generated in you. And going through this deeply personal process (for it's really a kind of "grief work") can lead to a hard-earned wisdom finally indistinguishable from becoming a more compassionate individual--the kind of person that others might be pleased to call a friend and confidant.
Once "blessed" with such bounteous, high-minded, and heartfelt compassion--which actually subsumes and transcends the process of forgiving--you're free to get on with your life . . . get on with it disencumbered of any self-defeating thoughts and feelings toward those who, however inadvertently, did indeed harm you. For it's compassion that makes possible your successfully grieving (and letting go of) the various injustices you've experienced. And through at last relinquishing the false power of anger, blame, and self-righteousness, you'll finally be free to become who you were meant to be all along.
Note: I invite all interested readers to join me on Facebook, and also on Twitter, where not only do I notify followers each time I publish a new post but also add some generally unorthodox psychological/philosophical musings--and include those of others, too--such as Jalen Hurts', "You either win, or you learn."