Written by Dr. Robert Daylin Brown
My parents met in high school. My father was a year older than my mother, and near the start of her spring semester of her senior year, she was pregnant with me. By the time my mother was 21, she was a mother of two sons and trying to make ends meet with an off-and-on husband. They eventually divorced when I was a toddler.
Despite my father’s alcoholism and absence, and despite my mother’s yelling and abusive behavior, my childhood was still relatively stable. I was raised by a single mom who figured out fairly quickly how to make everything work. She was street smart, a quick thinker, very social, talkative, and action-oriented.
Eventually, I learned to forgive my parents. They were teenagers when they had me. No one could expect them to know what being a good parent really meant when they were busy trying to figure out what being an adult really meant. I realized that they did the best they could with the tools, resources, knowledge, energy, and lessons available to them at the time.
Years later, when I published my book Joker to King, I included a chapter for readers on how to forgive their parents. My intent was to teach readers how to incorporate forgiveness into their journey to healthy adulthood.
However, something happened a couple months ago that made me rethink my stance on forgiveness.
This semester, I decided to take my English 101 students through the forgiveness activity detailed in my Joker to King book. I gave them all an assignment. They had to forgive their parents or guardians in actual face-to-face conversations and then submit a written reflection on the whole experience. If one or more of their parents were not alive or available, then students could forgive their parents in the form of a letter to each one.
The students anticipated that these conversations would be difficult, but almost all of them agreed to take on the assignment. I work at a community college in San Bernardino, and many students had rough childhoods. Most of them planned out their thoughts beforehand and practiced their forgiveness conversations. Some students who were raised by awesome healthy parents couldn’t find anything to forgive their parents for, so in their conversations, they asked their parents what they wished they would have done differently in raising their children. It was a great assignment, and the students did well overall.
But one student in particular said she just could not have this conversation with her family. She insisted there was no way she could ever forgive her parents, even in the form of a written letter. She told me of the abuse and neglect of her childhood. She explained that she was the daughter of parents who were gangsters and violent thieves. Her parents were the second or third generation in a family tree of drug dealers. There was no forgiveness to be found within this student of mine.
Coincidentally, a few days later, the topic of forgiveness came up again. I was interviewed as a guest on a news program to discuss the death of Carolyn Bryant, the White woman in Mississippi whose 1955 allegation led to the brutal murder of Emmett Till. During this interview, the host asked me what I thought about Emmett Till’s cousin forgiving Carolyn Bryant.
It was then that I realized that forgiveness is a lot trickier than I thought.
I thought about my student’s trauma and how she felt pressured to forgive her parents before she was ready. I thought about the Black families who refuse to forgive the White officers who killed their loved ones. I thought about all the debates about Black forgiveness being a tool to ease White guilt. I thought about the fact that not one White person ever talked about forgiving al-Qaeda after the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.
So I did a quick internet search to see what psychologists felt about forgiveness being a part of our healing journey. And what I’ve come to understand is that forgiveness should not be thought of as a necessary part of healing, but rather as an option. Sometimes, forgiveness may NOT always be a good idea.
First, telling a victim of a traumatic experience that they will never truly heal without forgiveness is a terrible thing to do because it creates a “double victimization”. Why tell someone who is already a victim that they must act as the peacemaker or else risk a lifetime of perpetual suffering because they refuse to forgive?
Second, forgiveness is a relational concept. Dr. Diane Pomerantz wrote that forgiveness “implies that the forgiver and the forgiven take a journey together to reach conciliation…genuine forgiveness involves more than just one person. Therefore, it makes no logical sense to consider forgiveness unless both parties are involved in the transaction.” This explains some of the results with my college students. Most of my students who had actual forgiveness conversations with their parents reflected on how well it went and how good everyone felt afterwards. But it only went well for students whose parents were willing participants in the conversation and who acknowledged some of the harm (intentional or unintentional) that was caused toward their children.
Third, not only are relationships complex and nuanced, but trauma is also very complex and nuanced. A licensed therapist named Bren Chasse wrote that “it is simply inappropriate to generalize and apply a forgiveness model evenly across the board to all relationships…not all transgressions are created equal. For example, I may be able to forgive a close friend who lied to me but find myself unwilling or unable to forgive the same friend if they were to assault me. A one-size-fits-all approach to healing simply doesn’t work! More specifically, the forgiveness model, when applied equally across domains, is fundamentally flawed. It fails to account for context, attachment style, cultural implications, personal moral values, organic individual differences, past experiences (including prior trauma exposure), and the depth and breadth of the transgression.”
As I think back to the forgiveness assignment I gave my students, I realize now that I may have caused more harm than I originally thought for that one student who refused to forgive her parents. I incorrectly assumed that she would benefit from sharing physical and emotional space with the people who abused her. I incorrectly assumed that I had the solution to accelerate her healing. I incorrectly assumed that her personal healing journey was up to me instead of up to her.
This student was a first-year student who was a thoughtful, smart, and compassionate participant in my English course. But shortly after that forgiveness assignment, she left the class and never returned. My own guilt compels me to reach out to her someday soon and ask for forgiveness. I hope she does forgive me. But now I completely understand if she chooses not to.
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