Forgiveness is a one-way street. Reconciliation is a two-way street. This means that it is possible to forgive someone who has hurt you deeply without restoring your relationship with that person.
As I have been studying the topic of forgiveness for the past three years, I have made a few mistakes along the way: one big mistake, in particular. I would like to share my big mistake with you as a means of explaining the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
Throughout the process of writing Auschwitz and the Comedian (a play about forgiveness) I was often challenged by my own conscience to keep clean records of forgiveness. I felt like it would be hypocritical to advocate forgiveness and not to pursue it in my own life to the best of my ability. There were a few people in my life who were like sand paper: some of them provided constant sloughing away of my patience, thus promoting a stronger will to remain patient. Others grated against my sense of self worth, thus polishing my choices in friends and other members of my tribe. Still another sat in a chair in the corner of my mind scuffing at the edges of my memories leaving scratch marks and sand on the walls. This particular character—the man who sat in the corner—seemed to scrape instead of buff so I knew I needed to evict him from his cozy apartment. I needed to forgive him.
The man I am talking about was a teacher in my high school who preyed upon young women who were intelligent, artistic and kind. His main mode of operation: to build a sense of trust and co-dependence between himself and the girls whom he pursued, while also constructing a platform upon which he lounged, like a man drinking wine and eating some form of pig flesh in an old Italian painting.
He was the variety of predator known as a “groomer.” According to urbandictionary.com, “The perpetrator of ‘grooming’ must have a significant advantage of emotional intelligence, financial independence, intelligence quotient or simply perpetrating against a minor.” I watched him flit from one girl to the next, knocking on the doors of their naiveté so that he might gain entry to both their hearts and their bodies. One day, he began knocking for me through lurid glances, hand-written notes and touches so inconspicuous they became like little ghosts asserting their presence while also making me doubt my own instincts and wondering if I was going mad. The groomer eventually made his way into my heart but gave up further pursuit when he could not gain physical entry.
As an adult, I needed to forgive him. In theory, forgiveness is a great idea. But it becomes sticky in the practice. I had never really tried to forgive the groomer and I knew this was my first big opportunity to put all the theory into action.
About one year into my journey with Eva Kor and my own research, I decided I wanted to forgive him. I placed the things I had learned from Eva before me and considered several of the lessons I was learning:
- Forgiveness is an act of self-healing.
- Forgiving is not forgetting.
- Forgiving is not a means of condoning evil acts.
- Forgiveness is not for the perpetrator but for the victim.
- Forgiveness cannot take place on the battlefield, it can only be considered from a place of physical and mental safety.
- Forgiveness is active, instead of passive. It is a conscious choice.
With these things in mind, I made the decision to forgive. My mistake, however, quickly followed.
Once I felt I had forgiven the groomer, I decided to tell him. My reasoning in the moment was that reconnecting with this man might somehow prove redemptive. When I knew him as a younger woman I was a victim. I thought that knowing him as an adult might redefine the relationship between us, thus painting a new picture on an old face. Instead, when I told him I forgave him, he said he accepted my forgiveness but then he said, “I forgive you, too.”
He was forgiving me for bringing his acts of perpetration before the school board the year after I graduated. You see, he had continued knocking on door after door and one of the young women upon whom he was preying told me of his advances. When she expressed both fear and confusion, I felt it was my responsibility to expose his patterns to adults who might be able to help stop his nefarious pursuits. After an investigation, he was forced to resign.
“I forgive you, too,” he said. “I forgive you for ruining my life; for ending my career. I lost friends because of you. I had to work odd jobs because of you.” The list went on. He proceeded to blame me for the consequences he received for his own actions. In a stunning production of blame shifting and slight-of-heart tricks, the groomer cast me in the role of perpetrator. He took my words of forgiveness and twisted them into his own drug, kind of like rolling a joint with the pain, bewilderment and memories from my teenage years, and smoking them; and then exhaling into my face.
Months later, I told Eva about this experience. I asked her, “What went wrong? What did I do wrong?”
Eva explained to me that forgiveness is for the victim, not the perpetrator. “You made a choice to forgive this man in your heart and that should have been enough for you. Instead, you went back to him to tell him you forgave him. Why did you do that?” I told her the answer I told myself many times before, “I wanted him to know that I have grown up and become a strong woman. That I had the ability to forgive him.”
“Well,” she said, “Usually when a victim forgives there are two reasons she reconnects with the perpetrator. One reason is that she wants to restore the relationship with this person. The other reason is that she wants to show him how strong she is and to, in a sense, say ‘Look at me. I used to be weak but now I am strong. Look how strong I am.’”
I knew the latter was my true motivation. “So, I was being prideful and showing the groomer how magnanimous I am. And maybe I was trying to gain some equality in the relationship by proving to him that I am no longer a little girl.”
“I believe that is true,” Eva answered. “And remember, the relationship with this man was already poisoned. It was poisoned the moment he began to interject his adult emotions into the relationship with a minor. This relationship is toxic and it no longer serves any good purpose.”
And so, here is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation: forgiveness is a one-way street and reconciliation is a two way street.
I assumed that because I had changed, the groomer might have also changed. Instead, I allowed him to inflict a new wound onto the corner of my mind in which he used to sit. And then, I had to forgive him all over again, regardless of the fact that he was not sorry.
What I learned from this experience is this: I have the power to forgive as an act of self-healing. My decision to forgive does not require anyone’s permission, understanding or validation. Reconciliation is not always a good idea: a poisonous relationship is best left to the past. If reconciliation is appropriate, there must first be forgiveness and then a setting of boundaries that ensure the physical and mental safety of both parties. Forgiving someone does not necessarily mean that reconciliation will or should occur.
–copyright Jill Szoo Wilson