To Forgive or Not to Forgive

Alina Turgend wrote a piece in the NY Times Sunday Business section last weekend on forgiveness, or more specifically, when it might not be good to forgive. The article focused on fallen celebrities in the world of sports, fashion and journalism. Though these cases get a lot of publicity, the incidents of betrayal in our own lives by friends, family and employers far outnumber these high-profile examples. Turgend says, “It has become somewhat common wisdom to believe that forgiving a person who did you wrong is not just the right thing to do, but will make you emotionally, and even physically, healthier in the long run by alleviating the anger and stress you feel.” I believe that, but it’s not always so easy to do. It takes some time. Reading this piece made me think of people in my own life that I’ve had to forgive. One incident in particular was so catastrophic that it changed me forever.

In my twenties, I had a volatile five-year relationship with a man named Michael with whom I was passionately in love. He was incredibly attractive, smart and charismatic, loved to talk for hours, and was generally the center of attention wherever he was. He also drank too much and was hugely irresponsible and unfaithful. I loved him so much that I forgave these indiscretions, because being with him was like being high on a drug. I knew it wasn’t good for me, but I kept going back for more. Back then, I thought love conquered all. I know better now.

It was an emotional roller coaster of break ups and reunions, but eventually our relationship ran its course, and we broke up for good, parting as friends. I still loved him, but I knew by then that we couldn’t be together. We were too different, and I had to save myself and get on with my life. A few months later, on a rainy night two days before Christmas, he walked me out to my car as I left a party at his mother’s house, and he revealed to me that he was gay. This didn’t shock me as much as you’d think. But knowing his history of sleeping around, I asked him if he had slept with men while he was sleeping with me. When he said yes, I completely shut down, got into my car and drove off without saying another word to him. We didn’t speak again for a year.

Funny thing was that, in the midst of my shell shock, all I could think were two thoughts: How could I not have known? And how can I forgive him?

From the outside, one might imagine there were signs in our private life that he was leaning toward playing for the other team, but honestly, there weren’t. We had a very passionate love affair. In hindsight, there were other indications, having nothing to do with his interactions with me but with others. Little clues that I ignored or pretended didn’t mean anything. I was young, too young, and while I forgave his infidelities with other women, it never occurred to me that he would sleep with other men. This was 1990, and the AIDS epidemic was raging. Knowing he was irresponsible and drunk a good deal of the time, I knew my life had been put at risk, and this was the most appalling and shocking aspect of the betrayal. Fortunately, I tested okay and am healthy today.

After a year of him calling my house and me listening to his voice on the answering machine, begging me to pick up the phone, one day I finally did. I decided that he deserved my forgiveness, because he had been a gay man stuck in a relationship with a woman, and he did the best he could in a bad situation. He still wronged me, but I didn’t have to carry that anger and blame and resentment around like a poison inside me anymore. We became friends again, and he introduced me to his new boyfriend. He moved up to New York City to start a new life, and I moved to Seattle.  We talked a few times a year on the phone, but eventually he would only call when he was drunk and depressed and wanted to talk about the good times we had in the past. The problem was that, by this point, I didn’t see our time together as so good because while it took me only a year to forgive Michael, it took me much longer to forgive myself.

It was clear from the moment of the betrayal that I had foolishly placed my life in the hands of a reckless man, someone who was incapable of putting anyone’s interests before his own. Worse yet, I had put his interests ahead of my own. I had allowed myself to be treated with disrespect, and in doing so, I had disrespected myself. So the big hurdle that took many more years to overcome was how to forgive myself for allowing that to happen. How could I be so stupid, so foolish, so naïve, so pathetic?  How could I have risked my own life like that?

That moment on a rainy December night changed my life forever. Now I had been given a second chance. I had an opportunity to change my life, live more purposefully, hold myself in higher esteem and demand that people treat me in the way that I deserved. I survived, but I wasn’t going to let the experience define me. I was going to rewrite my own story and live it. I had to forgive myself for who I was back then. Just as I knew Michael was doing the best he could at that point in his life, I had to grant myself the same acquittal. I finally gave myself the same forgiveness. I was young and inexperienced. I was in love. Now I know better. Now I’ll do better. I have different priorities for how I live my life. And I can thank Michael for teaching me the lesson that I can’t expect others to treat me with respect if I don’t respect myself.

I know this about myself: I can be more generous to others than I am to myself. I am my own harshest critic. We hear so much about forgiving others and letting go of old hurts. I believe fully in the power of forgiveness to ease our pain, release our anger, and improve our emotional health.

We need to remember to include ourselves in that compassionate exercise.