Auntie SparkNotes: What's the Big Deal with Forgiveness?
Dear Auntie SparkNotes,
I am, as the kids say, suffering. I'm in a really complicated situation with one of my best friends and my dad right now and I could really use some unbiased, third-party advice.
My dad is a selfish person and emotionally abusive. He's forced me to lie to my mom to make things convenient for him, manipulated me into accepting his horrible partners, and forces me to be his best friend. He'll talk to me about his dating life (like semi-explicit details) and then say I'm "rejecting him" when I don't want to talk about it or I want to sleep in instead of doing something. He expected me to carry his emotional baggage, to be his crutch. Yet, when I would go to his house (I spend the weekend with him and the week with my mom) he didn't really care about me? Sometimes I would stop talking halfway through my story and realize he wasn't listening, he wouldn't be present.
Things got really bad when he tried to get back together with his ex-girlfriend, someone who hurt him really badly. I didn't want to talk to her cause she did a lot of crappy stuff to us and I didn't want to invite that back in. He was super mean to me, saying I was selfish and emotionally manipulative. She continued to stay at our house while I just suffered in silence. I eventually left his house when my mom and I found out he was selling/using drugs. I didn't feel anything.
Continuing on to my friend. My friend and I, let's call her Rachel, were really tight. She was one of my first friends when I first entered high school and she kinda created our friend group in ways. She's super outgoing and funny and smart, but she has a really abusive mom and mental issues. She cuts herself and has attempted suicide before. Her latest "issue" I guess, was right after Thanksgiving: she told my friends and I that she wanted to kill herself, and we should let her because she's a pedophile. Yeah. What the f***. Being the rational, morally right person that I am I stopped being her friend.
Yet all my friends continued to be her friend. After she said she was a pedophile and wanted to die, she gets a super cool job, gets applauded for it (I work too and no one gives a crap), has a great relationship with our friend group, etc. For a long time I didn't hang out with any of them, I was really upset and angry. None of my friends lifted a single finger to ask about how I was doing or hang out with me. My friend said everyone "moved on." Eventually I decided to sit with them again and I'm getting steadily less and less upset with Rachel. Sometimes she's not even on my radar and sometimes I want to shove my hand through a wall.
I'm sorry this is so long, but this is where my dilemma-dilemma is. It's almost the end of senior year and my dad is going to rehab near my grandparents. Everyone I know wants me to start talking to both people again and forgive them. But?? I don't know how I can when they've done the sh**tiest thing imaginable to me. They've manipulated me and betrayed my trust. I've given my dad at least 100 chances and if someone says they're a pedophile, how do you get over that? And I feel like if I did forgive them, I would be losing. It means that I'm weak and I need them in my life when they should be suffering. For once, I want to be the one who doesn't forgive and forget, I want to be right and justified. But I'm also sad/angry all the time and? I just, Auntie I don't know what to do. How can I forgive them? Can I? What's the whole big deal with forgiveness anyway?
Ooooh, let's start there.
Because to put it simply, Sparkler, the big deal with forgiveness is that it frees you. Forgiveness is saying, "That happened, and I accept that it happened, and I embrace that no amount of dwelling or grudge-holding or howling at the moon will change the fact that it happened." Forgiveness is nothing more or less than the ability to move forward unburdened by directionless, useless anger.
And man, is that burden ever heavy for you. Your letter is riddled with it. You are angry, and resentful, and envious. You feel overlooked and owed. You want to stride furiously out of a room to show your friends how wrong and bad they are—but you also want someone to run after you and beg you to come back, and when they don't, you feel like it's just another example of how the world never stops dumping on you. You want everyone to hurt like you hurt. You want them to feel bad so that you can feel strong and righteous by comparison. You want to feel just once like you have the upper hand, like you're in control and calling the shots. You are buried so deep in your mire of misery that you are actually, actively wishing suffering on other human beings, because at least then you wouldn't be the only one who's so unhappy.
And here's where things really get interesting: You seem to believe that your current approach is a show of strength, whereas letting go of your anger and moving forward would make you weak and a loser. But tell me sweet pea, honestly: Do you feel strong right now? Do you feel in control? Do you feel like you're winning, at all, in any sense of the word?
Because everything in your letter suggests otherwise. In fact, everything in your letter tells me that the longer you stay angry, the weaker and more desperate you feel.
Which is awful, and I don't even have to tell you how awful it is; you're living it, so you know. What I can tell you, though, is that what you're doing now is so clearly not working, not helping, not making you any happier. And that doesn't mean you have to let you dad or your friend back into your life, but it does mean that it would behoove you to try doing something differently.
In your case, I'd like to suggest that you open yourself up to the possibility that you can be strong, and you can be right, and you can also at the same time be forgiving of other people for their flaws and weaknesses and poor choices. I'd like you to consider, actually, that there is enormous strength in being able to accept people, shortcomings and all—to not be eaten alive by resentment when a selfish or self-sabotaging or emotionally stunted person acts like exactly who you already know they are.
And on that same note, you might want to consider that not all flaws are created equal. The facts of a person's character are not the same thing as an act of betrayal. So, for instance, it's easy to see why you're reluctant to resume a relationship with your dad after the way he treated you; on the other hand, it's somewhat less easy to see why you're lumping your friend in with him, when her only crime as far as I can tell was to confess something about her psychological wiring that repulsed you. (I'm also not entirely clear on how icing out a person who's just admitted to being suicidal over her sexuality ends up being the "morally right" thing to do; did you ever even ask her what she meant?)
With that said, I'll be honest: the fact that you so easily conflate your friend's surprising and upsetting confession with your dad's repeated failures to be a present and responsible parent tells me that you have some work ahead of you when it comes to developing an emotionally healthy outlook on your life and your relationships—work which will be accomplished best with the help of a qualified therapist. I can tease out the ends of all these different issues in your letter—anger as a defense mechanism, fear of vulnerability, a total lack of trust or faith in anyone (and especially the adults) around you, and your desperate desire to feel in control—but you're going to have to be the one who pulls on them until they unravel. I suspect you're going to have to spend some particularly serious energy digging into your relationship with your dad, and how it's taught you to view other people as inherently unknowable, selfish, and untrustworthy.
And I know, I know: none of this even gets close to giving you an answer to your original question about whether or not to let your dad or your friend back into your life. I'm sorry. But that's not up to me to decide. You can forgive your dad for his past bad behavior while asserting your right not to expose yourself to any more of it—or you can give him a chance to prove that he learned something in rehab. And you can reopen the lines of communication between yourself and your friend, and maybe talk about what she told you, or you can keep your distance. The point is, no matter what you choose, you can make that choice from a position of strength and certainty without the anger. The anger doesn't serve you. It doesn't make you better. So if you do nothing else, please at least try to let it go. Write back and let us know how you're doing, okay? Okay.
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