Today, as the country music world mourns Mindy McCready, I find myself thinking about the many well-meaning ideas, floating around in the culture, that increase the burden that people suffering great loss must bear. Ideas like the idea Mindy expressed in her last televised interview at the end of January, following the death of her boyfriend and soulmate from an apparent suicide. Asked “how do you keep getting through all these hard times,” McCready replied, “I just keep telling myself that the more suffering I go through, the greater character I’ll have.” In my darkest hours, I told myself similar things, not because I believed them, but because the idea that adversity makes you stronger is our official narrative, and I didn’t have another to replace it.
The story of the triumph over adversity is a heady one. It allows us to imagine that, no matter what, we will triumph in the end. Suicide gives the lie to that dream. Adversity doesn’t always make us stronger. It’s as likely to destroy as it is to ennoble.
The truth is, everything isn’t a growth experience, and sometimes the traumas we suffer leave us worse, not better, for the wear. It’s sacrilege to say this out loud — the gods of denial hold powerful sway over their faithful, but I have never found denial a useful tool.
I wonder how Mindy McCready’s story might have ended if she had been given permission to face the hard and liberatory truth that she wasn’t “getting through” it, that the suffering she endured didn’t strengthen her character; it crushed her soul. If you’ve ever suffered soul crushing trauma, and I have, you know that pretending your soul isn’t crushed doesn’t work. If you’ve ever gotten to the other side, you know that you get there by recognizing the wisdom of a classroom game we played when I was a child in which we chanted, to the sound of our hands slapping our legs, “Going on a bear hunt.” As we chanted and slapped our legs, we came to a river in our minds and chanted, “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, have to go through it.” Like the best childhood books — Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could andDr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go come to mind — Going On A Bear Hunt taught me lessons about life. It taught me that the only way to the other side is to go through it. Of course, the thing about going through it is, you may not make it to the other side.
My dream is that we will make it through to the other side of our suffering, however great that suffering may be, but it is a dream. The idea that suffering strengthens us is a myth, even if is sometimes true.
The suffering definitely makes us stronger myth is not the only myth I’ve broken faith with. Another is the myth of forgiveness. It’s an article of faith that we must forgive, not for the other person, but for ourselves, or so the priests of forgiveness would have us believe. They are no doubt speaking of forgiveness in the Wikipedia sense of the word. Referencing the American Psychological Association (APA)’s “Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results” and a random article on forgiveness that can no longer be accessed through their link, Wikipedia defines forgiveness as “the renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offense, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution.” But as the Wikipedia entry also points out, the Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness like this: “to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt.” Forgiveness in that sense can be destructive for the person who, in forgiving acts that are not forgivable, committed by people who refuse to accept responsibility for their acts, denies the validity of their own suffering and the fact that they deserved better than they got. For these people, it might be a relief to know that forgiveness is not a necessary tool in attaining wholeness and that acceptance may be a better way to go.
This lack of congruency between this psychological definition of forgiveness and the dictionary one have long troubled me. For years I struggled to overcome co-dependency, one of two psychological outcomes for the children of narcissists, though its more commonly discussed in the context of addiction, with the co-dependent playing the role of an enabler who helps the addict to persist in their self-destructive behavior by providing excuses or making it possible for her to avoid the consequences of her behavior. Enabling a narcissist is the same, except you’re enabling the narcissist to persist in behavior that destroys you. To forgive such behavior — to “grant free pardon and give up all claim on account of an offense or debt,” as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it — is to negate the self…and that is an unnatural act.
Wikipedia defines co-dependency as “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (typically narcissism or drug addiction),” and that“ also often involves placing a lower priority on one’s own needs, while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others.” Insisting that we must forgive those who have committed great violence against us exacerbates co-dependency and makes it likely that those who have responded to suffering with co-dependency will never heal.
In the context of co-dependency — and perhaps in other contexts as well — forgiveness is not particularly useful. Rather than free the person who forgives, as the acolytes of forgiveness promise us it will, forgiveness has the opposite effect, keeping the co-dependent forever chained to the pattern of abuse and co-dependency that demolished their lives. The converse is also true. Declining to forgive that which cannot be forgiving can set us free. It need not be accompanied by bitterness — indeed, if we are to be free, the bitterness must go, to be replaced by gentler, more truthful things. In letting go the quest to forgive what cannot be forgiven, in accepting all that we have lost anyway, we enter the realm where we can experience our suffering as it is, undistorted by our dream that what has already happened can be redeemed.
The truth, the truth none of us wants to face, is that lost things are lost. It’s a lesson we learn when we lose someone essential to death. In our dark hour of grief, all that remains is to accept. It is acceptance, not forgiveness, that sets us free.
Postscript: After penning this post, I found a post on Slate.com by Emily Yoffe that asks the question, “What do grown children owe the mothers and fathers who made their childhood a living hell?” In it, Yoffe observes, “Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns… “In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character,” Yoffe continues, “history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: ‘[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.’ [and] Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, ‘There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness.That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’” Yoffe writes, “I agree with these more bracing views about what forgiveness should entail. Choosing not to forgive does not doom someone to being mired in the past forever. Accepting what happened and moving on is a good general principle.”
PHOTOGRAPHY via Geronimo Balloons
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.