Forgiveness XI

Every time I think I’m done writing about forgiveness, I get another freaking idea for another freaking poem. The topic is just so interesting to me– there’s so much there to explore.


Do not confuse
with forgiveness.

You cannot forgive
something you haven’t yet
let yourself feel.

I repeat:
you cannot forgive
something you haven’t yet
let yourself feel.

Forgiveness X (on self-forgiveness)

In Eat Pray Love (before you roll your eyes at how much of a stereotypical white girl I am for quoting that book, just read the quote, I promise it’s good), Elizabeth Gilbert quotes a nun she meets in India, who tells her that “guilt is just the ego’s way of tricking you into thinking you’re making moral progress.” As someone who’s very prone to feeling guilty, often excessively/disproportionately, I needed to read that. Productive guilt, which involves accountability, is a good and necessary thing. Unproductive guilt (self-pity and self-flagellation) is a torture chamber that helps no one– not yourself or the people you’ve hurt.


I read a letter online
written by someone who’d lived a through tragic childhood
with an absent father
and an abusive mother.
There was so much pain,
so much anger.

Before the mother had died,
she and the writer
had made amends
after a long period of separation.
The writer had told her
he loved her
and it was okay to go.
even now,
even after all of that,
he still wasn’t okay.

I read the letter
and I sobbed
from all the beauty
and all the pain.

Then, I rose above my body,
I watched myself reading,
I watched myself sobbing,
and I watched myself rewriting
the narrative I’d been holding
of myself.

This woman here, sobbing
is not evil and irredeemable
as her shame
may have her believe.
She is a deeply flawed person
who still feels empathy,
who still loves,
and who is capable of change.

Whether we like it or not,
we must see the humanity
in ourselves,
regardless of what we
have done.

At the end of the day,
the question of whether or not
we deserve our own forgiveness
is irrelevant,
because we cannot move forward
without it.

Seeing ourselves as monsters
is a disservice to both ourselves
and those we have hurt.
It’s a copout.
It’s selfish.
It disavows real accountabilily
in favor of a cheap imitation: self-pity.

A monster
is born monstrous.
It does monstrous things
by its nature,
not by choice.

Whether or not
this is our intention,
if we see ourselves
as inherently evil,
we excuse
our bad choices,
and we deprive ourselves
of the opportunity
to move forward
and choose better.

We cannot expect
those we’ve hurt
to forgive us.
That’s THEIR journey,
and THEIR choice.
Wanting to control
how others handle their pain,
especially pain we caused,
is deeply inappropriate,
emotionally violent.

They don’t have to set us free.
It’s not their job.
But it’s our job
to set ourselves free.
And we do that
through accountability.
Real freedom
involves responsibility–
freedom and responsibility
go hand in hand.

In the words of a wise ex-boyfriend,
quoting his Catholic roots,
we address
our past mistakes
“remorse and penance.”
We cannot undo
what was done,
but we can, and must,
move forward
and do better.
We can, and must,
find and take
a healthier course of action
to give ourselves evidence
that we are changing.
This is how we earn
our own respect


Writing/ideas referenced in this poem:

1. If you’re interested, here’s the letter I was referring to.
2. No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu: Tutu introduced me to the idea that viewing someone as a monster takes away their accountability; and, on the other hand, seeing someone’s humanity and complexity holds them more deeply responsible. I loved that perspective, and his perspectives on things generally– the man is brilliant.
3. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl: The author of the book’s afterword describes how Frankl sees freedom and responsibility as two sides of the same coin, quoting a Frankl saying, “I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” Though Frankl presumably was not discussing self-forgiveness specifically, I thought this idea could definitely apply to the poem. (Also– if you haven’t read this book, I *highly* recommend it!)

Forgiveness IX

I’m so, SO proud of this one.

Be sure to read the end note, in which I shout out the authors whose ideas I reference in the poem.


Anger and forgiveness
are like yin and yang:
both can be bad,
both can be good.

If someone has hurt you
for heaven’s sake,
don’t forgive them
Especially not
if you are in danger
of further harm—
physical or emotional.
Be fucking angry.
Be angry enough
to set boundaries,
or to run
until you reach a healthier,
we must learn to love ourselves
enough to hate those
who hurt us.

Embody your anger—
feel it unabashedly.
Let it give you self-esteem.
Soak up all of its positive aspects–
its power,
its calls to action,
the recognition that you did NOT deserve
what happened.
Anger is your immune system
against injustice.
Hold onto it
if it’s cleaning you.

Be angry for as long as you need to.
No one has the right to tell you
if and when
to forgive.
Not now,
not ever.
Only you
know what is right for you.
Listen deeply
to the still, small voice

And then one day,
perhaps in the middle
or distant future,
you might find
that your anger
has stopped being
your immune system
and started being
the virus.
You might find
that it has stopped
healing you
and started
making you sick.
If that happens,
consider forgiveness.

Now, I want to be abundantly clear:
You can forgive someone
and still condemn their actions.
You can forgive someone
and still chose to never speak to them again.

There are two kinds
of forgiveness:
the unhealthy kind,
which involves denial
and permissiveness,
and the healthy kind,
which involves
deep truth,
deep love,
deep accountability,
and, often,
deep discomfort.
It acknowledges
*exactly* how bad things were.
It holds everything
that does not align
with truth and love
to the fire.
Unhealthy forgiveness
involves giving your power away.
Healthy forgiveness
IS your power.
It is looking directly
into the shadows
and choosing
the light.
It is fighting the beast head-on
and coming out of the arena alive.
It is acknowledging the depth
of an event’s impact on you,
while deciding
not to be defined by it.
It surrendering
to your own annihilation,
having faith
that you will find
something in you
that is indestructible.
And that someday,
against all odds,
you will be okay again.

Don’t forgive
in hopes that the person you’re forgiving
will appreciate your forgiveness—
they might not.
Don’t forgive
in hopes that it will repair a relationship—
it might not.
Don’t forgive
in hopes of being a hero—
you might be one,
but even so,
others may not see you
that way.
Do forgive
because you deserve peace—
you do.
Do forgive
in order to move forward
and live a fuller life—
you will.

Anger and Forgiveness
are like yin and yang:
both can be bad,
both can be good.
If/when forgiveness is hurting you,
be angry.
If/when anger is hurting you,


Authors and speakers who inspired aspects of this poem:

  1. Martha Beck— I stole the idea of anger as our “immune system against injustice” from Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star. The first time I read that section, I was floored– it completely changed how I view anger. I love the perspective that there are positive sides to every so-called “negative” emotion. I think it’s critically important that we understand anger’s positive qualities and the messages it sends us. This is especially true for women, as our culture often tries to shame us out of our anger.
  2. Pema Chodron— I adapted a breathtaking quote from her book When Things Fall Apart for use in my poem: “Only to the extent to which we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
  3. Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger— (TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual violence) In their TED talk, Elva says, “regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace.” This statement helped me reframe how I view forgiveness.
    [Side note: I recognize that this talk is controversial. While I don’t think it was the speakers’ intention to convey this message, I do want to assert my own belief that forgiveness is a personal choice and should *NEVER* be held up as a goal or moral standard for survivors of trauma. Period.]
  4. Desmond Tutu— His book No Future Without Forgiveness, about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa, is disturbing, heartbreaking, beautiful, thought-provoking, and deeply challenging. He and I share similar views about forgiveness, many of which I came to on my own prior to reading this book. That said, I have to give his writing a shout-out, because he has much more wisdom and life experience to share than I do, and he articulates his views far more beautifully than I can. If you liked the perspectives on forgiveness I expressed in this poem, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.