I’ve been listening a lot to Brandi Carlile’s most recent album, By The Way, I Forgive You. It’s a raw, acoustic, melting pot of country, pop, and Americana sound with some beautiful tracks containing personal stories about her daughter and her parents. In a live radio performance in March, she played four songs interspersed with discussion about the new album. At one point the host asks her about the title of her album and the theme of forgiveness. In her response, Carlile describes forgiveness as a “not a word to be taken lightly,” but rather a “filthy radical, difficult, impossible thing to do” and shares the story of a minister who refused to baptize her when she was 15 because she was an outwardly gay teenager. She addressed the incident in an open letter to the minister, published before the album’s release, that explained that despite what happened she still loved him and never lost her faith.
To forgive is to let go of anger and resentment that we hold towards someone who has wronged us. We are taught that forgiveness is a virtue and that it frees us. The Bible preaches forgiveness of others as a way to ensure God’s forgiveness. Step 8 of the 12-step addiction recovery process asks you to reach out and seek forgiveness from those you have harmed. Forgiveness is supposed to help us grow and move on. It may be difficult, but to forgive makes us good people. Right?
When I think about the people in my life who I would like to forgive, the first person who comes to mind is my mother. I won’t go into my accumulated lifetime of grievances here, but I feel like this blog has practically become an outlet to vent about my parents and upbringing (ugh, sorry), so if you want context just read some of my recent posts. I think that I’ve turned out generally ok, but sometimes I feel that it’s despite my parents, rather than because of them. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more sympathetic towards and understanding of the (largely good) intentions that fueled my mother’s (sometimes misguided) actions. I can understand why she did much of what she did. Though I still don’t agree with many of her choices, I am at the very least able to make excuses for her (she was a product of her upbringing, a product of the times, a product of her culture, etc.). Knowing these things, I want to forgive her, but I don’t know if I can.
“Children begin by loving their parents; after a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.” – Oscar Wilde
Perhaps I find forgiveness difficult because my mother probably doesn’t feel as if she need to be forgiven by me. Even having gone through what she has and knowing what she knows now, she probably stands by her choices and would scoff at the idea that there is anything to forgive. And because of this, perhaps what truly makes it hard to forgive her is that she seems unwilling to change and completely absent of remorse**. And as a result, I believe she will continue to hurt me in many of the same ways. I spent some time with her and my brother this weekend, and in the span of 24 hours, she managed to criticize my weight and eating habits, she was rude to multiple waiters and excessively critical of our food, and managed to make false and disparaging remarks about a gay friend of my brother.
My weekend wasn’t entirely miserable and I do love my mother, though perhaps some of the conflict arises from the fact that we hold those we love to higher standards. We want the people we love to be good, perhaps even better than ourselves. I remember returning home for Thanksgiving in 2016, just weeks after the election, and running into some old high school classmates at a bar. We bemoaned not just the results of the recent election, but having to sit at the dinner table and make nice with our conservative, Trump-supporting relatives. To maintain civility would be a tremendous exercise in patience and restraint, we agreed.
I’m not asking for a 67-year old immigrant to adopt all of my liberal and progressive views. But it would be nice if we could dine out just once where my brother and I didn’t have to apologize to the waiters and leave an extra-large tip to compensate for my mother’s rudeness that verges on harassment. I don’t need her to jump on the body positivity train, but there’s a difference between showing concern and being condescending and critical; it would be nice if she considered the influence of a mother’s criticism on a daughter’s self-confidence. If forgiveness requires letting go of wrongs, then I’m clearly not there yet and don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I know that much of my mother’s happiness hinges upon hearing from me and my brother and knowing that we are doing well. So sometimes it makes me feel guilty to be so upset with her. Is it wrong or selfish of me to continue to hold this grudge? Will I regret it if I am never fully able to forgive her?
By the way, I forgive you
After all, maybe I should thank you
For giving me what I’ve found
‘Cause without you around
I’ve been doing just fine
Except for any time I hear that song
– Every Time I Hear That Song, Brandi Carlile
**Completely unrelated to my mother. But I believe that absence of remorse is huge obstacle to forgiveness. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the lens of the #metoo movement, and the many men who were knocked down from their positions of power but are now seeking to make a comeback (Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Mario Batali, Bill O’Reilly, etc.). I generally believe that people who make mistakes – especially isolated mistakes, which are different from an established pattern of behavior – deserve a second chance, but only if they express regret or remorse for their actions. Those men (and women) who haven’t learned from their mistakes, if they think their only mistake was getting caught, or still deny allegations that were proven to be true, do not deserve sympathy and forgiveness. They are not to be trusted and do not deserve a second chance because that chance will likely be squandered, and once returned to positions of power and influence they will only hurt others again.