How To Find Clarity When You’ve Forgiven (But Aren’t Ready To Talk)
”You should forgive…” a close family friend had said this to me over lunch.
A year and some change had passed. In that year I had resolved to do a lot of nothing (an excruciating feat, at first), cried, prayed, meditated, discovered a love for French baguettes, rekindled my love for okra soup, and woke up one day with the realization that though everything in my life had unraveled, all was well. Perhaps it was finally giving myself permission to turn my attention to other matters, but when a close family friend said these words to me, I felt somewhat blindsided.
I had become fully immersed in the thing I had fought decades to reclaim, my life. Everything else: the confusion, the arguments, the hard to swallow feelings, and even those moments of camaraderie that comes with familial ties felt delightfully secondary. His eyebrows furrowed deeper in his forehead as his voice lowered revealing concern. Goodness. I thought. Why do I always get that look when this subject comes up?
I wanted to explain myself, convince him that ending communication with family was not a rash decision made in haste or anger but something that had taken a decade of reckoning. Perhaps it was an ending for them, but it was certainly a beginning for me. I wanted him to hear the voice I had grown accustomed to listening to the day I chose myself. The one that was both gentle and decisive. Loving and truthful. Quiet yet persistent. A voice that I can only describe as the voice of the heart. The one that said:
“You have a garden to till.”
My own garden. And it required picking out the weeds of dysfunction, poor habits, denial and a pathology that had scorched the earth. I had to start over, and after much ardor, I could finally see a bud opening up. My true nature was beginning to sprout and I began to develop a joy that surpassed all understanding. Instead of mulling over the realities of disappointment, I began to dream about an existence that honored me. For the better part of the year, I was rendezvousing with faith and the unknown.
“They miss you…it is family after all.” He offered.
A slight irritation crept in. An irritation hard to articulate but that was buzzing nonetheless.
I had heard these sentiments before from well-meaning friends, mentors, therapists, and family: You should forgive, you’re gonna need it someday. It’s all love at the end of the day. Why can’t you live your life and still keep your relationships? Relationships take work. They really love you, don’t you know that? You have to heal and move on.
I was reminded of the unspoken social pact that comes with familial ties. It’s a secret obligation that says you must always consider staying within a family unit, no matter if that bond is unhealthy or feels like bondage. It’s the expectation that forgiveness automatically calls for reconciliation because the prevailing logic says, “family is everything.” And this logic leads to “family ought to get along,” which leads to, “forgive, forget, love”.
A few years ago these messages had overrun my life. I often felt like I was the disruptor or some whiny adversary who required much explanation for my decisions. I didn’t want to hurt anybody, but it seemed that the only way to exist in these relationships was to keep silent and shrink. I didn’t want to wilt away for some noble idea knowing my insides didn’t match my outsides. I could no longer deny that forgiveness without knowing my boundaries and perspective felt like a betrayal.
In the year I had to myself, I had learned that love takes work. It takes acknowledgment and much self-forgiveness, it takes bringing dark memories to the light, it takes tilling emotional landmines so something new can grow. Sure, I could very well forgive, in fact, after forgiving myself, forgiving everyone else became much easier. But what I couldn’t allow myself to do was go back. Re-enter the gravitational pull of denial and negation.
The thought of having to put in all that emotional labor, again, was utterly exhausting. And for once, I wasn’t exhausted. It felt like the onus of forgiveness was on me. This wasn’t about who was right or who was wrong, this was about me deciding how to best spend my time. Did forgiveness have to mean going back?
Can’t simply stamp an “I love you” on this one, I heard that small voice say.
Love, is no small feat. It really is a verb.
I realized that something had shifted. Instead of being caught up in what others thought, I began thinking about what I thought of myself. Instead of searching for someone to say sorry, I said sorry to myself, and instead of yelling to be understood, I began doing the work of understanding myself. In this wild process, I connected with another kind of bond, an unseen force that also loved me enough to keep my lungs breathing and blood flowing and the birds chirping. It wasn’t a question of love or even forgiveness, it was a question of growth.
Of course, in spite of all this learning, I still had doubt. And when my family friend paused to eat some food I asked that small voice in myself, “Well, should I?”
He put down his fork and spoke again.
“It’ll be a slow process to heal but please start somewhere.”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“You’re right. I’ll think about it.” I responded.
The complicated thing about this, is that in many ways he is right. They do love me and I love them. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes. Reconciliation takes time. But my heart says, Not today. Healing is a slow process and I’ve decided that it starts with me. I didn’t come this far to be right, I came this far to be free. After a year of soul surgery, I’ve finally noted the difference.
Here are three big insights that I want to share, I hope it supports you on your own journey.
You don’t need to find a moral or spiritual high ground
With forgiveness and love there’s almost an expectation that it’ll look a certain way. Usually, it’s a vision of everyone reuniting in a more high-minded and “tolerant” state. There’s usually a moralistic attitude of, “This is what enlightened people do.” Forgiveness and love is not a one size fits all destination. It’s a journey. At one juncture it can look like limited face time and distance, and at another junction its a conversation. It’s much more rewarding to fully integrate and embody a principle rather than pretending to be something you’re not. Something as mysterious and expansive as forgiveness can only be known through the experience of it.
Let yourself have your experience. You’ll know when to shift into new terrain. What matters is that you make choices out of personal integrity.
Trust your perspective
I made a vow that I would not spend another three decades honoring the perspectives of others over my own. If the milk tasted sour, I’d have to stop drinking it. And if the house was burning, I’d have to find water. There will always be someone with their perspective on your life. Most of the time they’re speaking from what they would do and not from an understanding of who you are. And how can they know anyway since they’re not you?
Especially if someone wants to hear your side or things (though I try not to view things in this polarity), it can feel like you constantly have to defend your perspective. I’ve had to accept that often I’m not the person in the room who says the most likable or charming thing, but I am the person who can note inconsistencies (including my own), and who might bumble through a sentence trying to get to the heart of things. I find myself saying less and letting myself feel good more.
Whether I’m seen as the person who separated herself from the whole, the person everyone is concerned for, or even the person who is brave, it is what it is. It took me a while awhile to see that I don’t have a problem, nor am I better than anyone for saving myself. I am not superior or inferior to anything or anyone. I am human trying to live my best life. This is where my perspective starts.
Allow all things to coexist
You can love someone and not feel the need to talk. You can be horrified with a person one day and understanding the next. You can be born into a family and choose a new one. You can actually forgive and move on with no one standing on the other side but yourself. You can feel both grief and relief at the same time. And yes, if it works out, you can reunite with everyone that’s hurt you (or vice versa) and live to tell the tale. It’s all possible.
I’ve found that contemplating spaciousness has helped me see that I can hold more variables than I ever imagined. If there are universes upon universes, and an endless amount of stars I’ll never completely count in the sky, then imagine how much life can hold for me? The old adage that says, “Experience is the best teacher,” is so true here. You’ll learn what to do breath by breath, moment to moment and action to action. Mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned but at the very least if you can manage to find your peace in the chaos then you’ve managed a great feat.
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