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So You Can't Forgive

Author(s): Brian Lennon

ISBN13: 9781856076371

ISBN10: 1856076377


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  • Brian Lennon SJ worked for many years with people affected by conflict in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. In a way that is both compassionate and challenging, he explains the myths and misunderstandings of what forgiveness is and the demands that society often puts on those who have suffered. He then outlines a way to move forward in freedom. "It nicely combines the psychological and spiritual dimensions," says Dr Maureen Gaffney. "I particularly liked the focus on the process of psychological separation and the desire for autonomy as important but often neglected aspect of the journey towards forgiveness."
  • Brian Lennon

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    In 2008 Josef Fritzl was arrested in Austria for imprisoning his daughter for 24 years, raping her continuously during that period, fathering seven children by her, and keeping them imprisoned.

    Should we forgive Fritzl? Should his daughter forgive him? Most people I know would answer an emphatic No to that question. Nor would they expect his daughter to forgive him. But they might expect people in other situations to forgive - for example, a woman whose husband had been killed by a drunk driver, or someone who has lost a loved one in conflict. In Northern Ireland people often say that forgiveness is the only way forward.

    This means that people whose loved ones have been murdered, or who have lost people to drunk drivers, and others, can have a different expectation put on them by society than that put on the daughter of Josef Fritzl. There is no pressure on her to forgive. Quite the opposite. But in these other situations, while people may not be told to their face that they should forgive, they will hear general calls for them to do so. If they do not respond some people will say: Theyre stuck. They never got over it. They were not able to let it go. And maybe this will be true.

    If they are Christians they will hear sermons in church talking about how Our Lord forgave those who wronged him and how he calls us to do the same.

    So a different burden is put on some people.

    A friend of mine who works as a counsellor had a client who was a devout Christian. She had been abused by her father when she was a child. She hated him as a result. She could not forgive him. She felt deeply angry. But what made things worse for her was that as a Christian she felt she should be able to forgive and in her adult life be able to have a new relationship with her father, to let the past rest. Because she could not do this, she felt huge guilt and that she was failing to respond to the call of God and to her church teaching. She stopped practising her religion and then felt a double failure. Her understanding of what the scriptures say about forgiving added to her trauma.

    My friend remarked that something similar happened with many of his clients who were open to a Christian faith, but far less to those who were not.

    People with Christian faith may suffer in a number of ways: first they have their pain; then their anger; then they think others see them in a poor light because they cannot forgive. On top of that they can see themselves as bad in the eyes of God and of their church. It is worth unpacking forgiving, if only to see if the burden we put on some people is justified.

    If you ask people why they would not forgive, the answer that many give suggests that they fear doing so would involve some element of excusing, minimising or justifying the wrong that has been done; or else they think it means letting the wrongdoer off punishment.

    In my view these ideas about what forgiving means are incorrect. The meaning of forgiving is one issue which will come up in the pages that follow.

    My focus in this book is on people as individuals, not as members of groups. Individuals are part of society and as part of society they play a role in the groups to which they belong. Further things need therefore to be said about group forgiving, responsibility and repenting.

    Secondly, my focus is on those who have suffered wrong. Other things need to be said about wrongdoers and what they need to do. But here I am going to focus on individuals who have been hurt.

    The ideas in this book have come to me from many sources. One is my work for nearly 30 years with people suffering in the Northern Ireland conflict. That conflict left many broken hearts and bodies. The bereaved face a chair that will always be empty. Some have been able to move towards freedom, some have not.

    A second source is counselling: I have been privileged to walk with people who struggled with difficulties in their lives; I have learnt much from conversations I have had with others who did similar work; and I have gleaned bits of insight from my own journey.

    The third source is from spirituality and theology: again looking at my own and others journeys, and trying to understand nuggets from the Christian scriptures and traditions. I think the scriptures have often been misinterpreted in a way that puts wrong burdens on those who have suffered most and that has been one motivation for me to write the book.

    In the first section I suggest that a significant part of forgiving is about separating ourselves from the people who have harmed us. So, in the first chapter I try to unpack what we mean when we say we forgive each other. In the second I look at the idea of stages in forgiving and ask: does it help if I get even a bit of the way on this journey? The third chapter will look at some of the blocks - the things that keep me stuck. The fourth looks at victimhood and asks: do I have to be a victim forever because I suffered some terrible wrong? The fifth looks at how we can move towards letting go of the past.

    In the second part of the book I look at Christian forgiving and discuss ways in which it includes but also moves beyond separation. The second chapter in this section asks how God responds to wrongdoers. The third asks how God responds to us when we suffer wrong and find it hard to get rid of our anger.



    When people talk about forgiveness the word can cover at least three things which need to be distinguished:

    The person wronged forgives.
    The person who did the wrong accepts forgiveness.
    Both are reconciled.
    What I am talking about here is only one of these: the person wronged forgives. One reason why it is important to distinguish the three senses of forgiveness is that if -and that is a very big if - you have been seriously wronged and you decide to move in the direction of forgiving, you need to be sure that you are not burdening yourself with other things - such as the wrongdoers repentance, or the task of being reconciled with the wrongdoer, both of which are separate. So it is important to work out what you are taking on - and what you are not taking on.

    This matters because we can have hidden assumptions that we have to do all sorts of things, when in fact many of these things may have nothing to do with forgiving. So one reason for asking what is involved in forgiving is to limit the burden on those who decide to move in that direction, rather than increasing it.

    One pivotal issue
    One pivotal issue is that forgiving is only an issue if a person or group has done something wrong to someone. Before we look at what is involved in forgiving we have to ask some apparently simple questions.

    Who did wrong?
    What was the wrong?
    To whom did they do it?
    Before we can address any of these we have to be able to distinguish right and wrong. Some people argue that we cannot do this, because our subjective experience colours our judgement. They are correct in pointing to our biases, which are normally greater than we think. But it makes no sense to conclude that we cannot know right from wrong. Nor is it sensible to argue that just because an individual or a group evaluate an action differently from us, we cannot come to a firm conclusion. Take rape or child abuse: there are people who defend both. That does not alter the fact that both rape and child abuse are wrong, and seriously wrong.

    If your loved one has been murdered you know the wrong that was done; and you know it was done to you. You may not know who did it.

    There are other cases in which the answers may not be so obvious. Think of family rows, where people have not been speaking for years: can anyone really remember why it started? You might be able to name one person but sometimes other family members were involved directly or indirectly.

    Or take the example of single people, especially women. Many have been left with responsibility for their elderly parents just because they never married. There is an unspoken assumption among their brothers and sisters - and often their parents - that single people, especially women, unlike married people with families, have no important responsibilities in their life and should therefore take on more responsibility for the parents than the rest of the family. Their brothers and sisters then combine with the parents to put pressure on the single person. This can cause huge resentment and deep hurt to the single person, which can be worse if unspoken. Is there something to be forgiven? If so, who has done what wrong to whom? The answer may not be that obvious: a series of misunderstandings and assumptions can lead to a confusing situation in terms of right and wrong. Also, looking at it in terms of right and wrong may not be the best way out of the mess.

    Another example is the conflict in Northern Ireland. Why did the Troubles start? Many think they know the answer. But if you start to probe, things can get very unclear.

    Suppose you cannot really say who did what wrong to whom, does the question of forgiving still come up? I think not. Other things come up, such as what can I do about my resentment, anger, powerlessness, etc. But I can only forgive if I have someone to forgive. And that can only happen if the person has done some wrong to me. If not, then forgiving is not an issue.

    Lets assume that we have established who did what wrong to whom. What then do I have to do if I have been wronged and I decide to forgive? Because there is confusion about the answer, and because people often assume that forgiving someone may minimise, excuse or justify a bad act, it is important to try and tie down what we mean by forgiving.

    I think there are several elements in it. Two are:

    To recognise my anger and accept it as legitimate
    To let go of the desire for revenge by separating myself from the wrongdoer.
    Element 1: Recognise and acept my anger
    If I have been hurt badly I will be angry. This can cause me fear because I may be afraid that I will not be able to control my anger. I may also feel guilty if I have been taught that I should not feel angry. What am I supposed to do with these feelings? There seems no room to express them in external society: there people expect me to be polite, not filled with fury or guilt. People do not like to hear talk of anger and revenge. They prefer gentleness and mildness. But if I have been hurt badly, I do not feel gentle or mild.

    Am I not entitled to my anger? Am I not entitled to feel like looking for revenge? Desiring revenge is a natural reaction: I want the persons who wronged me to know what the pain feels like, to give them a dose of their own medicine so that they understand what they did. It is a primitive but normal response. In a society that does not want to deal with anger I have to find some way to express my anger, and I need a way for society and my family to accept that my anger is natural, understandable and appropriate. Without that, what options do I have except to turn the anger on to myself, which can lead to depression, or to project it on to others, which will lead to other problems?

    None of the above means that seeking revenge is morally right but simply that desire for revenge needs to be acknowledged and accepted as normal and appropriate.

    Element 2: Separate myself from the wrongdoer
    When I am angry and seek revenge, the wrongdoer is in my head. I think of him or her morning, noon and night - especially at night. Forgiving in part means getting him or her out of my head. That means separating myself mentally from him or her. That means doing something about revenge. Instead of denying that I want revenge, I move, however slowly, towards giving up the desire for it. It means slowly letting go of the past and not being dominated by it. This is a task that I can only do for myself, but I may also be helped by others.

    If you agree that forgiving includes at least these steps then it is blindingly obvious that it is very difficult for most people.



    One way to look at forgiving is to consider it in terms of stages. This can be useful, provided - and it is an important proviso - some things are kept in mind:

    Stages are only an image, a way of looking at things. The assumption in this image is that forgiving is a series of tasks and normally one goes before the other. So people will usually come to terms with their anger and then slowly move away from the desire for revenge.

    Stages as an image should not be taken literally. No one starts at stage one, finishes it and then moves on to stage two, etc. People are not like that. If the stages image works at all, then people move back and forward continuously through different stages. Some people seem not to go through stages like these at all, but arrive amazingly quickly at complete forgiving.

    It can be hard for us to see if we are moving at all from one stage to another, however fitfully. But think of the tide going out: if you are standing up to your waist in the middle of it, the tide may be going out, but that is not what you think when a new wave hits you and goes in quite a bit further than the last. But if you are standing on a headland looking down on the sea you can see soon enough that, despite some waves coming in further than the last, the reality is that it is going out. This simply reinforces the point that a stage is not something that one completes and then mechanically moves on to the next.

    Using stages as an image has the danger of bringing in the idea of Brownie points: you get them for each stage completed. We can do this either consciously or unconsciously. You might find yourself in a situation where other people who suffered trauma graciously explain to you how they can remember once being at your stage, but fortunately now they have moved on. The thing to do with people like that is to remove yourself from them as far and as fast as you can.

    With these caveats there may be some value in thinking of stages as part of moving toward forgiving.

    Olga Botcharova (l) worked with conflict victims in the former Yugoslavia. One can imagine some of the horrors involved. There were villages in which mixed ethnic groups lived together with tolerance and respect, many in mixed marriages. Within 18 months of the start of the war many were gang raping other villagers. How does a society, how do the individuals involved, both those wronged and the perpetrators, deal with that?

    She suggests that those who choose to move towards forgiving go through the following stages. The same pattern may also apply to people who have suffered from abuse, or loss through violence.

    Stage 1: Denial
    The first is to deny the experience: it could not have happened. Everything is a daze. Often in the case of a murder people remember little about the funeral, except that there were many people there, expressing sympathy. Sometimes the victim experiences it as a film reel, something she is looking on at, but not part of. Denial can also be an early response to childhood abuse, or to domestic violence. In the first case this is because abuse can be such an attack on our whole sense of personhood that the only response for a long time may be to block it out. In the second it can happen because partners invest so much in their relationship that they need to see the other partner as good, decent and upright, not as a violent thug.

    Stage 2: Reality
    Then reality begins to sink in: he or she is not coming back. The silence will continue. The chair remains empty or the beatings and abuse continue.

    Stage 3: Supress the grief
    The first reaction to this may be to try to suppress the grief, or to say that you will cope with the abuse or violence. But it doesnt work. The tears flow. For some, the tears never flow. Then, to an extent the grief is repressed. That leads to other psychological problems.

    Stage 4: Anger
    After this comes the anger. Why me? is a common question.

    Stage 5: Seeking
    With the anger comes the desire for revenge. You can be tempted to operate on the thesis that if the wrongdoer is punished then you will be restored to your former position. But of course this will not happen because the experience of losing a loved one through murder, or being abused, or being in a violent relationship changes you. You can never go back to the way you were before.

    Stage 6: Myths
    You may try to create myths to help you justify revenge, because revenge can be so attractive. These myths can be true or untrue. The original context is kept simple. Olga Botcharova suggests one:

    The story is told in terms of heroes and villains: This myth looks especially attractive because the natural instinct of others is to offer sympathy and support to the victim and to punish the perpetrator. But you may pay a price if you focus on yourself as a victim, as we will see below. At a political level it might come out as great powers attacking smaller ones, or the emphasis might be put on breaches of human rights by the enemy.

    Some other myths may be ideas about struggle, suffering, or blaming, among other things.

    Struggle: Struggle was a big word for Republicans during the Northern Ireland Troubles. So if one of their members was murdered, or killed on active service as they saw it, he or she was killed in the struggle for Irish freedom. That gave the death meaning which made it easier for some to cope. But like the next myth, it helped prolong the conflict.

    Service: Unionists interpreted their deaths within the idea of service: serving the cause of freedom or democracy, or fighting terrorists. Each year on Remembrance Sunday (around the time of the anniversary of the ending of World War I in 1918) their dead are remembered as part of the war dead in the United Kingdom as a whole. Yet this countrywide liturgy makes it easier for the UK armed forces to get more recruits for the next war.

    Blaming: Blaming can be a theme for the wider society, especially the tabloid press who thrive on seeing things in terms of good and bad guys. Murder and abuse is interpreted within this wider framework. It is especially attractive because it highlights the wrong done. It appeals to the need for self-righteousness in us. But does it help us to get rid of the fire in our belly?

    Secondly, blaming encourages revenge and thereby can help the person wronged to feel justified in responding to the oppression. This then leads to a cycle of violence.

    Stage 7: A cycle of violence
    Myths can be attractive - and as mentioned already they may be true or false. But if they end up encouraging us to seek revenge, then there is simply a cycle of violence in which more people suffer and more people do wrong.

    Looking at forgiving in stages, with the caveats mentioned at the beginning of this section, can be helpful, but what are some of the things which make it difficult for us to move forward?


    1. Paper at Woodstock Theological Center, Washington, Colloquium on Forgiveness in Conflict Resolution, 9 December 1996.


So You Can't Forgive