Why We Can’t Rush Others Into Forgiveness

Read about how to take care of your mental health in a quarter-life crisis

In between the joys of a happy marriage, having her first baby, and relocating to a new country, my friend Alice* seems to be finally finding herself. She had what she describes as a difficult childhood in which love was an elusive thing. With the heaviness of hate as thick as dense, blinding fog still surrounding those memories, she has struggled with truly forgiving the agents of her past pain.

Alice was a soft-spoken kid who never said much but quietly observed everything around her with rapt attention. With her parents separated, she spent her toddler years with her maternal grandmother and occasionally-present mother until she was taken to live with her father at about the age of four. This new home would have been easier to adapt to had she not been subjected to the overwhelming mental and emotional turmoil of living in a polygamous household — her father had a number of wives at different times, all of them being called, “Mummy.”

In virtually all sub-Saharan African cultures, particularly West Africa, polygamy is common and legal. It is so prevalent that all but one of Nigeria’s presidents since the country’s return to democratic governance in 1999 have had multiple wives. And this is not a practice exclusive to the older generation. In 2009, two of the daughters of the president at the time also married men who were governors. One daughter became the third wife while the other joined a family that already had three wives, making her the fourth. While it’s been normalized and accepted, I personally don’t know of anyone from a polygamous home who has a good tale to tell about such a family setup — and I’m from one myself. 

And so it was that Alice was made to grow up in a home where she felt little love from step-relatives and divided attention from her father. She was treated as a pariah by her step-mum who made her feel more like a maid than a daughter. The woman created a barricade between Alice’s free relationship with her father by setting rules in the house that prohibited entry into the bedroom the woman shared with her father and influencing his decisions towards her in small things and bigger things.  

She was vindictive in other ways as well. Her step-mum once labeled her a witch and followed it up with attempts to exorcise her in a Church. Isn’t it baffling how some of the greatest evils are done in the name of God? The aftermath is that Alice is now triggered by any talk of religion — right there is a broken wing. 

We all come into this world with special attributes, or “wings” as I like to call them, that set us apart. It may be little quirks like a contagious smile or laugh; or hidden, unseen gems like someone’s uncommon ability to love deeply and freely. I think of Mother Teresa, who lived like an angel, pouring out herself to abandoned babies and the poorest of poor; or Martin Luther King, Jr., who possessed a voice so powerful that it continued to reverberate through future generations.

However, throughout life, others will either subconsciously or maliciously injure the natural character or gifts that we are born with. When these poisonous arrows are shot at our wings, some people — whether by grace, grit, or a combination of both — overcome them. But there are others for whom the arrows leave a permanent scar — these are the broken wings. And they are not so easily healed.

We tend to be quick in righteously calling people who’ve been offended or hurt to forgiveness. “Just let it go,” we casually say. As well-intentioned as this may be, it’s dismissive of the emotions of others and glosses over the issue — ignores the broken wing. How do you forgive those who made you a friend of the dark, only at peace with communication with shadows; afraid of the light, uncomfortable with being seen? How do you forgive those who made you build insurmountable walls of insecurities that remain a lifelong struggle for you?

We must allow ourselves to be patient, eager, and interested listeners of the emotions of others. We must be fully present for the joyful and exciting — and also the bitterness and anger.

Most times an aching heart continues for so long because we’ve tried to numb the pain without speaking about it enough. Just as a stubborn fly keeps returning to exposed food no matter how many times you shoo it off, so do pent-up emotions for as long as they’re not expressed. Alice is now actively choosing to come face-to-face with the demons that have held her down by speaking more about them. She’s learned that there’s transformative power in sharing your narrative.

Although many of us may say we’ve forgiven those that have hurt us, when we begin to plumb the depths of our minds and examine the private rooms of our hearts with honesty, we see a hollowness. While the circumstances that keep us away from true forgiveness are varied, and while we may want to be more intentional in marching stridently in the direction of inner peace and reconciliation, there are often obstacles in the way. 

Among the most formidable of these obstacles is the obstinacy of those who’ve offended us and their refusal to change. Coming to the realization that even after many years, they’re still unapologetic can make it even harder to forgive. That’s because hurtful words cannot be erased by silence — they can only be blotted out by the healing power of kinder words. Evil actions cannot be undone by inaction — only good actions done in reparation for the evil have a chance at remedying the wrong.

Will Alice ever get the apology she deserves? Maybe not. However, her experiences have prompted heightened solicitude towards her son and others around her. She says she wants her boy never to be left in doubt about her love for him. And as she begins to find her voice, it is my belief that the process of gradual healing and forgiveness is underway.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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