To Forgive is Not a Verb: A reflection and Sawbonna
“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” Rumi
In my book about grief and spousal loss, I talk about unfinished business and anger, but I don’t talk about forgiveness. It’s not because of my more secular approach to spirituality and bereavement, but because “forgiveness” is not do-able.
To forgive is technically a verb like “to swim” and “to jump” so we are hoodwinked by the concept. We believe we have to do something, which, of course, we don’t know how to do.
You can conjugate “to forgive”, but it is not actionable. My friend and colleague Margot Van Sluytman calls it, “The other F word” which I think fairly describes the frustration that its implications evoke. Van Sluytman speaks instead of Sawbonna: “A recognition of seeing and being seen. Shared-humanity.” This doesn’t mean we have to like or condone or accept the behaviour, in the past, present, or future.
As long as we are trying to do forgiveness or get forgiveness, it’s frustrating and adds insult to injury. The concept seems to imply that if we can’t or don’t do it, we’re not loving, especially when it involves someone close to us or a person we would like to forgive, even for our own freedom. If to forgive is a verb, it’s a passive one: it happens to you as a result of other processes.
Forgiveness, if the word serves at all, is the outcome of a process of feeling and reflection where we give up on our goals and notions of goodness or badness. Colleague and grief scholar Robert Neimeyer describes it this way, “If forgiveness applies at all as a description it seems to be a side effect of something deeper and more complex—seeing the other’s essential humanity, practicing deep compassion and empathy, and deconstructing our own moralism and rhetoric of contempt.”
I can explain what I mean best with some more examples of other verbs that are not actionable.
After my spouse’s death, in moments of deep sorrow, well-meaning others gave me advice like: be strong, keep your chin up, remember the good times, and be grateful for what you have. Now imagine yourself in a moment of deep authentic sadness. Notice how unnatural it would be to try to do any of these things.
Imagine how exhausting and pressuring the very idea is!
What others wanted was for me to be okay; what they were saying is that they hoped I might bypass how I felt by doing or intending a wise-sounding action. This is a kind of magical thinking – it implies that we can transport ourselves to desired states merely by doing something. People who say these well-meaning things may believe they are wishing us well, but usually they are wishing away their own discomfort.
A friend who listened to my utterly water-logged heart and did NOTHING and advised NOTHING gave me some of the best help I got from anyone. Interestingly, after such moments, I would always feel stronger.
My chin would rise of its own accord. I was likely to remember a sweet or funny moment with my spouse. I would naturally fill with gratitude again.
Likewise a friend who said, “you don’t have to forgive anything; you can be angry, because you are,” did more to move me towards understanding, than anyone who was trying to bring me understanding.
So, to be with our anger or our sorrow, and let it be there without our resistance is the start of a kind of grace. After being with feelings, a dialogue about our humanity and the perspectives at the heart of the trespass can be useful.
The paradox should be happily obvious now: in accepting our resistance to forgiveness – and our willingness to be with what we didn’t want but has already happened – is to free the way for peace.
The idea of forgiveness actually starts to become redundant.
There is only one useful thing about the verb “forgive” – the moment the concept arises, we can use it to pinpoint the hurt. We can shine a light on what is yet unresolved and formulate a wish around it, “I wish I’d been heard in my fear around…” and “I wish I’d known how to speak my boundary.”
I didn’t forgive. Instead, I wrote. That was actionable. I wrote a dialogue between me and my deceased spouse. I told him what I was mad about. I added the voice of a really good counsellor into the mix, so we would be accompanied, and I’d be heard, and my love wouldn’t be able to get away with his old tricks.
You can try it too. You begin with words like, “Tell me what was going on for you when you shouted…when you didn’t talk about… when you wouldn’t open the door…when…” and let yourself write back from their perspective, from their vulnerable humanity. I got some very good answers, even things my spouse had already said when he was alive but which I couldn’t really hear at the time. I could see he had a point. He seemed to think my points made sense too.
I saw him. He saw me. It wasn’t too late. I saw that we had trespassed because of our fear and pain, not because we were right or wrong or needed to figure out some ultimate perspective on what had been our unique perpetual problem.
There’s the paradox. To forgive is to give up on the idea of doing anything, either “for” yourself or someone else.
And any thoughts you had about making yourself lower “to be forgiven” or any thoughts you had about making the other lower, so they would become “worthy of your forgiveness” won’t work at all.
Look at each other. See if you can hear each other without a clench. See if you can listen without defending yourself. There is usually a nod to our own foolishness, our moralistic thinking, or an acknowledgement that there were things we did not know until the moment we knew them. Any lamenting about what could and should have been is just a form of reverse vanity. To smarten-up is another unactionable verb; we can begin instead with “to listen”.
When we have met others in their humanity, there may be some tears, or a silence, or a grunt of recognition, and likely a sigh, or even a smile. Or as Margot Van Sluytman reminds me, “Perhaps a smile. Perhaps not smile. Either way, a recognition of seeing and being seen.”
Writing the Self in Bereavement A Story of Love, Spousal Loss and Resilience, Routledge, 2021
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