Forgive and forget. That’s an expression I think we’ve all heard at some point. I’ve heard it so much that I subconsciously fused the two things. I thought that if I couldn’t forget something, I must not have actually forgiven the person. Sometimes, that’s true. Usually, it’s not. Memory is very different from action. Memory connected to trauma is a whole other animal.
It’s easy to forgive someone for the little things: cutting in line, forgetting to send you something they promised to send, accidentally bumping into you. Those things are also the things we tend to forget. Because they don’t matter. In the grand scheme of things, it will not matter to me even five minutes from now that someone accidentally bumped into me on the sidewalk or that they cut in line. Those things may cause me anger or discomfort in the now, but they don’t affect my life. I can forgive those things.
How do you forgive something that does matter, that does affect your life in some way? I never did know before. For years, I’ve lived with unresolved hurts because I didn’t know how to forgive them. I still don’t know how to forgive everything, which I will explain later, but I want to share what I’ve learned so far. Maybe it will help someone else. I wish someone had told me a long time ago.
I think the real reason I never could forgive before was because I wasn’t invested in learning how. I didn’t necessarily want to forgive people who hurt me so deeply. I felt they didn’t deserve my forgiveness. Maybe they don’t. Forgiveness isn’t for them; it’s for me. Most of them will likely never know whether or not I’ve forgiven them.
Something happened recently that prompted this urge to learn to forgive. I have a friend, we’ll call him Joe, whom I’ve known for decades. We weren’t particularly close in all of those years, but Joe moved back to the area a couple of years ago and we started chatting on social media some. Last year, we were chatting a lot. I learned he had a girlfriend, which is totally fine as we are just friends. Then, they broke up and he told me that she never liked me. I’ve never met her. How could she not like me?
The short of it is, I believe, that she was jealous of the time he spent talking to me and the connection that we had developed. For a while, I felt guilty, like it was my fault that they had broken up. It ate at me because I so want for Joe to be happy. He deserves to be happy. The thought that I could have been the cause of his being unhappy was crushing. Eventually, I came to realize that it wasn’t my fault. Joe should have set boundaries. I had even asked him if he needed to set boundaries when I learned that he had a girlfriend. But, I digress.
Some months later, Joe asked if we could hang out. We hadn’t ever hung out. I’d seen him a couple of times briefly, but that was it. I was so excited to hang out with him! I honestly didn’t know if it was literally just hanging out or if it was supposed to be a date (our most recent conversations had hinted that might be the case), but I was happy for either. I absolutely wanted to see him and I wasn’t opposed to the possibility of dating him (a rarity for me).
About an hour before we were to meet up, he said he’d had a COVID exposure and didn’t want to risk possibly getting me sick. He knows I’m immunocompromised and I can’t tell you how glad I was that he thought about that. We agreed to reschedule. A few days later, I found out that he and his ex had gotten back together. I don’t know that I can name all of the emotions that I felt at that moment.
Certainly, I was angry. I knew this meant we’d never hang out. She doesn’t like me, so there’s no way she’d allow that. I wondered if it meant we couldn’t talk anymore. He had told me at one point that she had specifically asked him before not to talk to me anymore. I also started to wonder if he’d made up the COVID exposure so he wouldn’t have to tell me the truth. I eventually decided he wouldn’t have lied about that. He has always been honest with me. Maybe not always forthcoming, but always honest.
I was sad. Even if I could still talk to him, I knew this would change things. I was afraid for him. What if she broke his heart again? I was hurt that he didn’t even consider me in the equation, knowing full well that getting back with her would mean he couldn’t see me. Didn’t I mean enough to him that he wanted to see me? I thought I did.
I hated these feelings. I didn’t want them. I wanted to go on loving and supporting Joe in the way that I always had. I wanted him to go on loving and supporting me in the way that he always had. I had no control over the latter, but I had control over the former. In order to go back to feeling good about Joe, I had to forgive him. But, how?
I had no real frame of reference for it. I thought about Joe and some of the conversations we’d had for a while. One, in particular, came to mind… the time he told me I’m an empath. And then it dawned on me that I need to empathize.
Why did he go back to her? I can’t know for sure. Knowing what I do about the situation, I think it was an opportunity for him to prove to himself that he is worth loving and that someone could love him unconditionally. I can understand that. As someone who struggles with a lot of the same insecurities, I can understand wanting a chance to be loved by someone with whom you had felt unlovable. I can imagine the absolution in that.
Why didn’t he consider me? Maybe he did. I didn’t know. Maybe he considered me and judged that his own happiness was more important than anything I may or may not feel. It sounds harsh, but it’s absolutely his right. And he should care more about his own happiness than mine. If he didn’t consider me, that’s ok, too. In the end, the only person we spend our whole life with is ourself. We should endeavor to make that life the best possible experience it can be.
It didn’t make it any less heartbreaking for me, but I understood. I forgave. I learned that empathy is the key to forgiveness. Joe taught me that. Even if it’s the only good thing to come from this experience, that makes it worthwhile.
Yes, even the heartbreak was worth it, because immediately after that, I thought about my mother. I won’t go into a lot of details about what happened. My goal for writing isn’t to call people out or air dirty laundry. I only want to share what I’ve learned and provide necessary context or examples.
Anyway, suffice it to say that my mother made some decisions that resulted in my having trauma responses every time I see her or hear her voice. Actually, every time I get mail from her too. Just the thought of having contact with her starts me hyperventilating and going fetal. Nine years ago, I made the decision to cut her out of my life. I wrote her a ten-page letter explaining why, in detail, because I didn’t want to just ghost her. I asked her not to visit, call, write, email, text, or send presents.
She has done every one of those things since. This past Christmas is the very first time I didn’t receive anything from her. I don’t know if my dad having to intervene is what stopped it or if he intercepted a package before I got it. Either way, this was the first time I didn’t receive anything. I’m digressing again.
So, to the point. I thought about my mother and why she did the things she did. I know that the immediate reason is that she felt lonely. Ironically, her choices pushed people away. The deeper reason is that she never felt loved as a child and therefore never learned how to express love. To her, love is forcing people to stay with you and guilting them when they don’t. What would I have done if I hadn’t felt loved as a child? What would I have done if I felt lonely all the time? I might have done the same things. And so, I forgive her. I will not invite her back into my life because boundaries are necessary and she likes to blur them, but I do forgive her.
As I mentioned before, there are some things I still don’t know how to forgive. How do you forgive someone who intentionally harmed you and has no remorse for it? Without getting into too much detail, I have been physically abused in the past. How do I forgive the person who abused me? I don’t know. Maybe I won’t ever be able to forgive them.
The only thing I can do is forgive myself. It sounds strange, I know. But, I can forgive myself for allowing it to continue for years. I can forgive myself for being afraid. I can forgive myself for blaming myself. I can give myself the empathy that I give to others. In that way, I can move forward.