Book Review: How Can I Forgive You? by Janis Abrahms Spring

Last year, I reviewed Desmond Tutu’s The Book Of Forgiving, and completed the Global Forgiveness Challenge. While I found the experience and advice beneficial, it left me feeling … slightly inadequate. Tutu reiterated that forgiveness is for the victim, not the transgressor, and while lack of remorse, not to mention ongoing offences, present more challenge, it is still entirely feasible, and best, for the offended to rise above, be the bigger person, and forgive.

I completely agree. Theoretically. Ish.

For me, the problem with Tutu’s program, and forgiveness construct, is that it not only fails to give enough weight (in my opinion) to the remorseless offender, but does not adequately incorporate the notion of ongoing hurts (which, as any psychologist will tell you, continues to rip the bandaid off the healing of all the previous injuries). Tutu acknowledges that the process may be cyclical, needing to be completed many times.

Quite frankly, that’s exhausting. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

This brings me to my book review of Janis Abrahms Spring’s How Can I Forgive You? 

How Can I Forgive You?

 

 

 

 

 

 

On page 2 of the introduction, she writes, “Some of us believe we have an obligation to forgive, unconditionally, categorically, and that to do so is central to what it means to be a decent human being. Most of us, however, can’t live up to such high moral principles, or feel that we would compromise ourselves if we did. We can’t – and won’t – just dust off an injury, pretend that nothing happened, and embrace the person who injured us.”

You have my attention. Go on.

She then goes on to list seven “questionable assumptions” that Western society has taken as gospel, and proceeds to debunk them. They are:

  1. Forgiving is good for you. When you refuse to forgive, you get sick and suffer.
  2. Forgiving is the only spiritually and morally sound response to violation.
  3. You have only two choices – forgiving and not forgiving.
  4. It is up to you, the person who was violated, to forgive.
  5. Forgiveness is an unconditional gift. It does not need to be earned.
  6. We all know how to forgive. If only we open our hearts, forgiveness will flow.
  7. Self-forgiveness doesn’t require you, the offender, to make amends to the person you harmed. It’s a gift to yourself.

Spring has a PhD in clinical psychology and is considered a nationally acclaimed expert on issues of trust, intimacy and forgiveness, so believe me when I say that her arguments for why the previous seven assertions are not only false, but harmful for those working through forgiveness issues, are credible and intelligent.

I read the introduction murmuring “Amen” and “Preach!” (okay, not out loud, but internally I was all fist bump, blow it up).

The book is then divided into 4 parts, organized by what Spring argues are the facets of the subject of forgiveness: Cheap Forgiveness, Refusing to Forgive, Acceptance, and Genuine Forgiveness.

Cheap Forgiveness and Refusing to Forgive are really flip sides of the same coin, and since neither were particularly applicable to me, I will only briefly summarize the chapters. Cheap Forgiveness is defined as letting go of the anger, without asking anything in return. While this may sound healthy and holy, Spring argues that “Cheap Forgiveness is dysfunctional because it creates an illusion of closeness when nothing has been faced and resolved” (15), and that the most common individuals who engage in this practice are conflict avoidant, passive-aggressive, and self-sacrificial (martyr). In other words, people who engage in Cheap Forgiveness really aren’t confronting, acknowledging, or authentically even experiencing the situation at all. Likewise, those who Refuse to Forgive also refuse to engage in healing, only by holding onto the anger at all costs, instead of denying it. The most common personality types who refuse to forgive are narcissist and the type A personality, due to their tendencies towards control, retaliation and vengeance.

I found these first two parts interesting and informative, but not personally relevant. I’ve been treading the forgiveness path for a few years now; I have no interest in (and seem incapable of) Cheap Forgiveness, but my ongoing quest and desire for forgiveness, by definition, does not reflect Refusal to Forgive.

Acceptance. The chapter begins:

“Acceptance is a gusty, life-affirming response to violation when the person who hurt you is unavailable or unrepentant. It asks nothing of anyone but you. Unlike Cheap Forgiveness or Refusing to Forgive, it is based on a personal decision to take control of your pain, make sense of your injury, and carve out a relationship with the offender that works for you” (53).

The rest of the chapter read like a cross between Viktor Frankl and Dr. Phil. Like Tutu’s book, it provides steps to follow to come to terms with the transgression, regardless of the offender’s stance or presence, including honoring your story and emotional journey, seeking justice if the situation is not resolved, protecting yourself from further abuse and creating boundaries, and owning your own role in the situation.  The critical difference? Unlike most other forgiveness literature, which focuses on not only letting go of the anger and pain, but absolution for the sinner (if not the sin), Spring acknowledges that forgiveness is both impossible, and inappropriate, in many circumstances.  She writes:

“Acceptance is not a failure to forgive but an equally powerful way of healing an injury when the person who hurt you fails to participate in the process. Acceptance is not an inferior, immature or morally deficient reaction. It is a wise and proactive alternative. You can’t draw blood from a stone, but you can accept an unrepentant offender. … Acceptance is not only a good enough response; in my view, it is the only honest and healthy response when the offender can’t or won’t apologize” (114).

For all the reading and research  I have done over the past 5 years, that one chapter was perhaps the most validating, most healing, most encouraging piece of text I have encountered.

The last part of the book is on Genuine Forgiveness, where Spring gives helpful and concrete advice on how to genuinely forgive. It is divided into two parts – one for the hurt party, and one for the offender. Why is there an entire section for the offender? According to Spring, “Genuine Forgiveness must be earned. It comes with a price that the offender must be willing to pay. In exchange, the hurt party must allow him to settle his debt. As he works hard to earn forgiveness through genuine, generous acts of repentance and restitution, the hurt party works to let go of her resentment and need for retribution” (123).

In other words, according to Spring (PhD. Expert in the field), there can be no forgiveness without a mutual effort by both parties. As long as the offender refuses to take ownership of his or her behavior, making no attempt at restitution or resolution, the hurt party can not, and should not, forgive, rather work on accepting the situation for what it is, and taking all steps necessary to move on with firm boundaries to prevent further harm.

Ultimately, some may argue that the difference between acceptance and forgiveness is more semantics than anything else; after all, for the offended party, many of the goals are the same for both paths.  Let go of the anger. Refuse (as much as possible) to allow further harm. Do not seek vengeance or retribution, no matter how egregious the offense. Focus on building a happy, healthy life beyond the scope of the injury.

But for someone like me, who has been struggling for years with trying, wanting, desperately seeking, to forgive, the difference, semantic or not, cannot be underestimated. This book gave me the permission, heck the blessing, to move on with my life without staying mired in guilt and feelings of inadequacy for not obtaining what I considered the ultimate closure.

Perhaps acceptance is enough.

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4 responses to “Book Review: How Can I Forgive You? by Janis Abrahms Spring

  1. I’ve said it before, and i’ll say it again. you, my friend, are my hero. xo

  2. THANK you for sharing! My therapist and I have been having similar discussions- working through a situation with my (ex) best friend. Acceptance. The description is spot on what my doctor has been telling me. It’s so hard to do though when I want the other party to acknowledge what they did and it’s not nearly on the level you have dealt with. When trust has been broken in a big way however, it is so hard to heal.
    You are amazing! Keep writing! I’m so glad to see you back.

  3. This really resonates!

  4. Pingback: New Year’s Goals 2015: Retrospective | I Used to Drive a Minivan

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