March 10th marks ten years since my stepfather packed his things and left on a Thursday while I was at school.
“And on a school night?” my mother screamed into her cell phone, just one of many voicemails she’d leave him.
It was a different kind of hurt. I remember describing it to my friends as: “Better than last time.” But in some ways it was worse than the poignant nightmare of my mother’s divorce from my drunken, meth-addicted biological father. It was a unique, quiet pain. Understated, like rubbing aloe over a sunburn. Where I couldn’t recall ever feeling love for my father, I had loved my stepfather.
It’s not your fault. I’ll see you in a few days. I don’t recall what the rest of my stepfather’s note said; I barely had time to read it before my mother snatched it from my hand all those years ago. But I remember that I immediately decided to give up all hope that he’d stick to his word, that he’d come home in a few days. I cried briefly, then went outside to shoot hoops and dissociate.
He texted me off and on over the next few years to beg forgiveness, give reasons, and tell me he missed me. My resolve to maintain my silence was stronger than the urge to send a cutting response. Not to mention, it was too late. He’d first met me when my mother was in the throes of a custody battle, and he’d witnessed firsthand its impact on me. By leaving, by potentially resetting history into motion—it was too late for him to ask forgiveness the moment we realized he was gone.
Each corner of the internet and all the self-help books spout the same holier than thou sentiment: forgive those who have hurt you. And when that’s too selfless a task: forgive them for your own sake.
My immediate response to this advice is always the same: a curled lip, a silent no thanks, and thumbs flicking upward to scroll away from such utter bullshit.
Never have I felt that offering forgiveness to someone was really a gift to myself. People demand forgiveness to clear their own conscience. No apology is more insincere than, “I’m sorry, please forgive me.”
The closest I can come to forgiving these people is taking the time—my limited and priceless time—to understand them. An abundance of traumatic experiences are packed into this young body, and understanding people during their moments of extremes is rarely difficult for me. The hard part is straining through the agony, swimming through mud, to reach a clearheaded place. Because in the instant, when the hurt happens, there is nothing else. There is only the pain and its best friend: why. Why and why and why. I find myself asking this when my mother guilt trips me about not visiting my grandparents. I found myself asking this when my ex-boyfriend proposed to his fiancé two weeks after we ended our relationship. I found myself asking this when my father chose his mistress and drugs over me. I found myself asking this when I learned my family had protected and supported my uncle, a convicted rapist. And I found myself asking this when I read the note my stepfather left on my bed ten years ago.
In the instances of childhood pain, the emotions were too big and scary and nonsensical to work through at the time; I didn’t know there was a quiet space waiting for me, years down the road. In more recent cases, it’s taken months, days, sometimes mere moments to reach that clearheaded place. That sharp and sudden clarity: Ah, I understand you’re hurting. I understand that how you feel about yourself and your pain has caused you to hurt me. I understand I’m not responsible for your actions; I understand they do not reflect on me.
Yet, while I’ve found that understanding warrants forgiveness in less extreme situations, I’ve never felt that way about those who have damaged me beyond recognition, especially when I was a child.
And what would that forgiveness look like? Is it screamed to the sky for the Universe to take into consideration? Is it meditated upon until inner peace is achieved? I suppose, in asking these questions, I’m seeking to understand what is to be gained from granting forgiveness to people who will never know what they’ve received. I know it wouldn’t bring me any comfort.
I think that’s reason enough not to.
My stepfather’s final text message arrived the evening of my high school graduation. He noted his surprise at my valedictorian status and congratulated me on my speech. My silly first thought was: Well, duh, you know Mom won’t accept anything less than straight-A’s, followed by the realization that, no, he might not know that anymore. I didn’t reply.
Tomorrow is March 10th, and I will take my dog to the vet for a checkup, come home to leftover dumplings for lunch, add Oxford commas to my coworkers’ sentences for the nth time, and enjoy the evening with my partner until it’s time for bed; what I will not do is forgive people who put on a façade of remorse to make themselves feel better.