To Understand All Is To Forgive All

Forgiveness. I get cross with myself about it.

I am acutely aware of what many, many other people have had to deal with on this score: murder, torture, war, rape etc. I’ve always been fascinated by stories of people who have achieved forgiveness under such circumstances. I’m not talking about trotting out religious platitudes, but really forgiving. Meeting the man who killed your father, shaking his hand. That sort of thing. Years ago I heard a woman on the radio who did just that. And she and the IRA terrorist tour the world together, spreading wisdom about the power of forgiveness. I read the book by Gill Hicks in one sitting as soon as it came out, in complete awe of her fiercely magnanimous spirit. One of my friends has forgiven the men who raped her aged 13 after realising ‘they were not born rapists’, and not to live a full life was only perpetuating the harm to herself.  Primo Levi is one of my favourite authors. (Not sure whether he ever said he forgave the Nazis, but certainly he did not appear to be bitter.) I think it’s understanding and empathy. Putting yourselves in one another’s shoes. To understand is to forgive.

I tell myself that my own situation is so trivial: if these others can forgive, why do I have such trouble with it? I am making progress with regard to my ex. Much of it I can understand. But not all.

So Primo Levi was not bitter after his years in concentration camps, and all the horrors he witnessed, and I (suburban Londoner who has barely known any misfortune) am hurting myself with voices that go ‘HOW COULD HE?!’

I am not proud of this, obviously. I’m very ashamed.  I aspire to do better. And I try.

It would be easier if he did not continue to behave badly towards me and (more) my children.

On the radio I heard Derren Brown say ‘If you try to control what you cannot control, it’s going to make you anxious and frustrated’. Ping!  It’s something I’ve heard a million times, but a penny dropped. That was me in my marriage. I’d become increasingly dependent on my husband; he was lying to me, so that nothing made sense, and I believed him and not me and tried to control things I could not control. I shudder to remember how extremely stressed and wired I was 24/7. Feel guilty about my brittleness if, for example, one of the children was late home. I was gaga with it. It affected my eyesight, my bowels and speech and my whole body as well as my thoughts.

I’m not saying I was never anxious or socially awkward before I started to vibrate and hum with it in the later years of my marriage. There was a step change when I became a mother. On the one hand I found strength to do for my children what I would not have done for myself. At the same time, I suddenly had something to worry about. The reasons I did not return to work may be the subject of another post, but the overwhelming one can be summed up with the words: ‘Munchhausens By Proxy’.

And the reasons for my anxiety, and how I cured myself, well, again, maybe another post, another day, but briefly, they appear to be ‘gaslighting’ and ‘Alexander Technique’.

Today I want to talk about forgiveness. I just read a post about a case even more trivial than my own – a short love affair gone wrong. Nonetheless I found it moving. Partly, because though half of my friends and half of my family are Jewish (and half of me), I had never heard of anyone taking the Day of Atonement as literally as the writer appears to in the article.   Partly because it reminded me of the ‘making amends’ of groups like AA, and of the time one of my sisters, clearly on such a mission, apologized (quite unexpectedly and unnecessarily) for ‘not having been a better sister’.

I love the idea of forgiveness. And I totally get what the author of the post says about how (quoting Leonard Cohen: another plus, in my book) ‘I don’t even think of him that often.’ I used to think about my ex non-stop. What is he doing/where is he/who is he with/is he laughing/having sex/thinking about me and so on ad nauseam. But the writer, who was aged 19 at the time of her split, has some advantages when it comes to forgiving. She never saw him again and doesn’t need any further association with him. What’s done is done.

What makes it hard for me is not only that we have three children. Not only that one of them is living with him. Not only that there are therefore graduations and (inshallah) grandchildren and so on to make things awkward (or not). If I had not so completely lost myself in my marriage to him (not his fault) that – amongst other things – I was utterly financially dependent on him (not entirely his fault) then presumably right now I would be at work. I would be independent. I would have important (or unimportant) work to do, to occupy my mind, to give me purpose and maybe colleagues. And to give me money.  It makes me feel slightly sick and guilty to bring the subject back to money. But there it is.

Currently I have a total income of £52 per week child benefit. Which will cease in a few months. Obviously, I should be earning, and I hate myself for not having sorted myself out. Not having tried harder, or succeeded better,not knowing where to turn. I hate myself for having become such a worthless, incompetent lump and continuing to be one. And I hate myself for thinking about how my ex is in breach of the Court Order which says that (for a couple of years) post divorce he has to pay maintenance, and is simply refusing. He disappeared four years ago and never gave us a penny. At the time I had three teenagers living with me, sitting exams etc, and I was a student myself. The mortgage went unpaid, and I literally sold all the contents of our home that were not absolutely needed for the lodgers I was taking in, just to feed us. Finally I got the house sold and the divorce settled. After over 20 years as a stay at home mum, married to an international banker, I was initially advised (as he promised) that I would keep the house and receive maintenance for life. He was very generous at that time, with words. But not with deeds. By the time we divorced I was getting over it all. Water under the bridge. I was no longer interested in him. Then, exactly as everyone (except me – but then I am an idiot) predicted, he paid the absolutely tiny amount of maintenance (for me and the children) for a few short months and lost interest.

I would love to forgive him. I know only too well that not doing so is hurting me and not him. But every fibre of my body is screaming ‘HOW COULD YOU????’ The fact that I don’t have the wherewithal to pay for food, or council tax, or shoes, or internet, or the rat catcher, or (hahahaha) a holiday is one thing. And if it weren’t for the fact that someone is meant to – has been ordered by a judge to – pay a peppercorn maintenance which would allow us to live very frugally while I find my feet, I suppose I would just have to get on with it. Arguably I should forget about him, and the court ordered maintenance, and just get on with things myself as best I can.

But it HURTS. It hurts that he does this to MY CHILDREN, not just to me. That he has cheated and lied for years and put himself before my children for years, and continues to do so.  That they have a deadbeat dad.

How? Please tell me how one can forgive someone who GOES ON doing the thing that requires forgiveness. I can forgive what he did in the past. But I can’t seem to forgive what he blithely goes on doing and getting away with. What he is doing is wrong. And it hurts. And that is not right. And that is where I get stuck.

Image: Taken in The Golden Chamber in the Basilica of St Ursula, Cologne – a macabre room created from bones, said to be those of 11,000 virgins.


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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

2 thoughts on “To Understand All Is To Forgive All”

  1. You already have a lodger–your ex-husband. Exactly how much space do you want him to take up? YOU are putting HIM before your children. Life is not guaranteed to be a rose garden, but you are missing precious moments that your life does have to offer by spending life depressed and stymied. At the very least, wouldn’t you want the story to end with you as a victor and not a victim? We don’t forgive for that person. We forgive to let ourselves off the hook. You’ll have much more energy and mental capacity once you forgive and let it go, and be better able to make decisions to move forward in your life. You can argue with reality–and the reality is that he’s doing this and you can’t make him do anything else–but you’ll only lose 100 percent of the time. And here’s one for you to chew on: Just because you hurt doesn’t mean you’re suffering. I wish you the best outcomes in this. (And just so you know: been there, done that. I was married and SAHM for 19 years when mine left on Father’s Day some years ago. He paid a strikingly small sum for child support for our two children for 18 months until his new wife cut that off completely.)


  2. Hello.
    I wrestle with forgiving someone who continues to behave badly towards me. I find that forgiveness certainly enlarges the future but it’s effects almost “wear off” after a while. Unsure about how too counteract this, except I am reminded about the verse in the bible about forgiving “70×7” which basically means over and over again. If you succeed in doing this please tell me how.


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