I had the tremendous privilege of seeing one of my literary and faith heroes of modern day, Nadia Bolz-Weber in person last weekend. And afterwards, several of us went out and discussed what struck us during the evening. As much as her prepared material was thrilling (and I cannot wait to read her new book, Shameless), the thing that struck me like a mallet over my head was her first answer during the Q & A. (She called it Q & O because she has more opinions than answers!) The question pertained to the idea of forgiveness. For those who haven’t seen it, Nadia did a recent short video for a feminist media company, Makers on this topic and it has been seen over 60 million times. Obviously, this is something we are interested in as people and something we may not fully understand. I know I don’t, which was why her comments struck me anew last weekend. She described forgiveness being about cutting a tie with someone who has hurt you. That we often think of forgiveness as saying the hurtful act was okay. But it wasn’t okay. Forgiveness is about freedom for the person giving it rather than an endorsement of the behavior of the one receiving it. When I’ve heard this idea described in the past, I always received it like shame or pressure, that a Christian person forgives no matter what and that if you cannot do that, you’re a bad person. I’ve also seen the idea of forgiveness weaponized to condone ongoing abusive situations. The responsibility to make things right ends up always being on the person harmed. And I just cannot process harm that way and not feel gross. It inevitably feels like excusing toxic abusive behavior and sweeping everything under the rug, releasing the other person from true accountability or consequence.
I’ve recently been through a relational dynamic that I feel inextricably tied to in an unhealthy way. I’ve been carrying it around with me like a talisman. If I feel particularly vulnerable, I will go back to that experience and relive it again and again. I can think about it and inevitably tears will spring to my eyes and flow within minutes. Like a dog to a bone, I am drawn to chewing on this thing. My teeth are broken and I cannot cry about the loss every time I’m in pain anymore. I know it’s poisonous to me, sinking into my identity, filling me with shame. It has been incredibly hard for me to sift through this with kindness and grace for myself. It is clear to me that I was not faultless in the dynamic that occurred and I have pressured myself to somehow fix what happened or to find some way to bring myself closure. Clearly, the rehashing has to stop. The peeking into social media windows of other people’s lives has to stop. I just need to be free of it. I am ill with the grief of it. And though I didn’t know of another way to process the pain, this approach is simply not serving me.
So I’m cutting the cord. I just cannot be tied to this dead weight of shame and loss anymore. I’m not really sure what it looks like to cut this cord, but the scissors are out. I just have to leave this behind me. There is only death for me in this. In the video, which is unfortunately titled “Forgive Assholes” as if all people who require forgiveness are assholes and that is entirely untrue, Nadia explains that sometimes a lack of forgiveness actually perpetuates the harm we experience. I think this is true in my experience. Because in the regular rehashing of all of this, I end up calling my intuition into question. It makes me think maybe I can’t trust people as I am inclined to do. I feel tempted to stop giving people the benefit of the doubt, to violate my ethos of assigning positive intent. Because I continued coming to the table with those things and was faced with a wall. There was no positive intent assigned to me. And it felt really, really terrible. So while the pain of that makes me want to hide from intimacy and to protect myself from future pain, my experience of being unable to scale that wall is exactly why I should continue assigning positive intent. It is why healthy conflict includes being brave enough to stay vulnerable, to give people the benefit of the doubt, even if their behavior makes us feel tempted to run for cover. Or to judge without a conversation filled with curiosity rather than condemnation. Because when we don’t risk to love in conflict, it shuts people out. People who would scale our walls if they could. People who would do anything to preserve relationship. And it begins to dawn on them, that there are not enough ladders in the world to scale that wall. And then they’re forced to question if maybe they should scale that wall. What is waiting on the other side of it? Probably not an altogether healthy, safe love. And that, my friends, is a crushing disappointment.
And so, I have to move forward without the confidence of some whom I thought would love me forever. That has been incredibly disorienting and painful for me. But the path I was on in this was full of decay. I have to be brave enough to hold my identity as sacred, no matter how tempting it is to listen to people who want to tell me who I am. This act, protecting my identity, feels like another wall in front of me. Daunting. Tall. But I have a feeling there’s freedom on the other side of it. Life is waiting for me there. And I know scaling this wall is the only way to be who I need to be in the world. Right now, thoughtfully climbing rung by rung is the best way I can show myself that I am lovely even when I have not been loved. People can be really good people. That doesn’t mean they know how to love you well. And it’s okay to start climbing the wall between you and freedom. Or in Nadia’s vernacular, take the bolt cutters.