The Emotional Economics of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is praised as not only moral but bestowing physical health benefits, a kind of emotional teetotalism. Like many Judeo-Christian doctrines, forgiveness is unpalatable to both human nature and good judgment. To give my cloak to someone who has sued me for my tunic is to rob myself to provide for a vicious person. To offer my other cheek for striking is to demean myself and encourage undeserved violence. To walk two miles with someone who has forced me to go one is to tire myself in fruitless labor. It is not wise, nor is it just.
I’m not speaking of the minor slights that inevitably occur in social intercourse. I refer to unapologetic, egregious wrongs joyfully tossed on by those with no purpose but to use. The foremost in my own life were the humiliations, emotional manipulation, spurious tears, and lies piled on generously by my former husband. The financial cost when he sued me after declining to repay his parents the many loans they offered him. His methodical alienation of my friends. Implying to my family that I was unfaithful, while he gleaned hookup websites and offered oral sex via Craigslist to women who fell into the categories of “white, clean, and over 18” and proposed that he help someone on her “quest for a child.”
Years later, it’s difficult for me to tell my current husband that I love him. It’s difficult to wring out the vulnerability required to engage in emotional intimacy. The experience of being in love with a socially inept pathological liar, who once held a revolver to his head as he sat in bed beside me, will do exactly that.
What would it cost for me to forgive him? Surely it would lighten my heart, cleanse my soul, improve my outlook on life, jump-start the healing process, and so on?
It would mean dismissing all of the horrible, and extremely necessary, lessons I learned from that relationship. (For years, in fact, I did forgive him, because I did genuinely love him and intend for our marriage to last. I forgave him over and over. I meant to help him be a better person by being a loving, supportive wife. I actually believed that would work. I tried to earn the respect that I needed for the relationship not to destroy me, earn the respect that should have already been there. Needless to say, I couldn’t.)
It would mean writing off the night I woke up to find him touching me without my consent, (and he knew perfectly well that I would not have consented); the night I froze, and pretended to be asleep, and didn’t defend myself, and didn’t tell anyone.
It would mean excusing him for giving his brother, not me, access to his accounts when he left for basic training so that I had to call his family for help when I learned (via threat a letter threatening eviction) that he had written our rent check short by $400. It would mean accepting his only explanation, which was, “It is what it is.” His father scolded me about my spending habits. Before my husband left for boot camp, I had been the only one with a full-time job and had been the one providing health insurance. But I should have put these paltry matters aside and just been a good wife.
It would mean I am not worthy of better; that I should hold the door open for more of the same; it would mean that I was wrong when I finally, finally refused to tolerate it; it would mean throwing away everything valuable to be gleaned from those shitty years.
Everything within me rejects this belief as harmful and immoral. But women, especially, are spoon-fed the belief that we must do it. We must be soft, not hard; we must be always permeable, not build walls; we must be warm, not cold. To forgive is the ultimate feminine act. To welcome back a tyrant with open arms, to love until it destroys us. It says: You have no right to judge, you’re not perfect either. To be loving is more important than my happiness, my well-being, my self-respect, my safety, my life. It is a regurgitation of the classic beliefs which lure women into abusive relationships and discourage them from leaving: Give him another chance. Give him the benefit of the doubt. You can’t abandon him; who will love and take care of him, if not you? Don’t be selfish; don’t be cold; don’t build walls (never mind that walls keep you safe).
I don’t sit in a rocking chair, knitting angrily like a Madame Defarge of women scorned. I do not think of him much at all, for which I am suitably grateful. It took half a decade. Thanks to the stark wisdom gained from my obnoxious naïveté, I could crawl away, and eventually stand, and even walk.
I choose not to forgive what was done to me in an ongoing effort to squeeze out every benefit of my physical and emotional labor. One does not earn moral improvement by allowing someone to dole out further damage. There is nothing but misery to be gained by extending the reign of the vicious, the callus, the users. I should know.
I choose walls because walls keep undesirables out, and I choose the autonomy to state who is undesirable in my life. I choose to learn from my mistakes instead of wallowing in a childish degree of trustful optimism. I choose myself above those who would plunder my kindness.
I choose my best interests. And that is the real sin for women, isn’t it? To place yourself above others. To ‘hoard’ your resources instead of disseminating them freely to all takers. To, when it comes down to it, be the one who benefits most from your work. To prevent others from taking so much that they injure you.
This is the sin I choose.