Understanding Forgiveness as Self Care

Photo by Felix Koutchinski

As I get older, I find it easier to learn things by experience than by reading about subjects or listening to someone wise and sage talk about them. It wasn’t always that way, but now concepts tend to “stick” more when I experience them. Recent events prompted me to contemplate the real benefit of forgiveness and who gains the most from it. 

My mother passed away after a long bout with dementia last month. It took its toll physically and mentally on the family members who were her major caregivers. I would often sit with her in hospice towards the end and think to myself that this soul lying here isn’t the mother that I’ve known. Most of us were at peace when she passed because we knew she didn’t enjoy being caught up in a world closing in on her as she became less and less herself. She had hallucinations and would often wake up not knowing where she was. But even in the last few days, she still recognized our voices. It was as peaceful a passing as that type of tragedy can be.

During the last 18 months of her illness, we also had to manage relationships with my father. My father, who had always been the caretaker of the family, who always knew what was going on and took the steps to make sure his family (that being my mother) was cared for to the end. Or so we thought. It came to light in these 18 months that he had no good insurance coverage, had no savings and was using mostly my mother’s retirement income to pay bills. This meant that the bills for her care were left to other family members. 

So much came to light about how my father and mother had actually lived, rather than the picture they chose to show us, that my sister and I questioned whether anything we thought we knew about our childhood had actually happened. There were stories that didn’t have any basis in fact at all. My mother was born under a different name that we found through genealogy records. The anger at everything that we should have been told started growing. 

I know my father’s world was unraveling, but I was so angry with him I couldn’t look at him or talk to him. I was fine taking the two hour drive to visit my mother, staying with her, and then driving home afterwards. But I would go home and spend at least two days recovering for every day I visited my mother if I had to see my father during the visit. Until my sister told me she felt the same way I didn’t realize how much that anger was hurting both of us. It obviously wasn’t having the same effect on my father. Any effect that I could see, anyway. 

I started reading more about Stoicism and managing emotions during this time, and learned that the only thing I had control of in this situation was my reaction. My reaction to years and years of untruths being told, years of negligence that could have brought my mother a better life in her last months. And years of a made up facade that is still being played out now.

I decided it wasn’t worth my own health. The anger had to go. As I worked on getting rid of the anger, I read more about forgiveness. I haven’t traditionally used forgiveness as a tool because I “thought” that the object of the forgiveness needed to seek it first. Now I realize nothing could be further from the truth. The reasons and benefits of forgiveness started to became clear. Forgiveness is most beneficial to the person doing the forgiving. If I forgave my father I still couldn’t control his actions. He will not change. But by forgiving him for the past, the present and yes, even the future, I ensure that my interactions with him don’t end with my own unhealthy emotions. He is responsible for his own interactions in the world, as I am responsible for mine – including my reactions. 

Whenever somebody wrongs you, ask yourself at once, ‘What conception of good and evil led him to commit such a wrong?’ And when you have seen that, you will pity him, and feel neither surprise nor anger. For you yourself still hold the same opinion about what is good as he does, or another not unlike it; and you are thus obliged to forgive him. Or if you no longer suppose that things of that kind are good or bad in themselves, you will find it easier to show kindness to one who is still in the dark.
    – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.26 

The lesson on forgiveness was one of those “aha” moments. It was a lesson that I could only learn through the chain of events that occurred during that time. I’m still learning about forgiveness as I find that the hardest person to forgive seems to be myself. Even though the benefit of forgiving others is mine, I still think of my own perceived faults and dwell on them without the formal thought process of forgiveness. For the present time, anyway.

I now visit with my father a few times each month and enjoy his company for a meal. When he starts into one of his “episodic stories,” I detach myself from emotion at that point and let him get through his story, and then I move onto the next conversation. As I’ve seen the power of forgiveness over these last few months, I am starting now to pick up on the times when I am critical of myself and need to offer myself a little kindness and forgiveness. That’s not to say that it’s a free pass, and I don’t need to work through my faults and bad habits to be a better person, but I can forgive myself for not being immediately perfect. After all, who is?


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