The ironic thing about forgiveness is that when we truly achieve it, we realize there’s nothing to forgive. We experience a shift of perspective, a widening of the lens we’ve been looking through. The person we needed to forgive goes from being a beetle mounted on a card and identified as faulty in various ways to a piece of our own soul – the part of us that also struggles and often fails.
Resentment works by keeping score. But we can only keep score when we have rules, agendas, and an assumed point to the game – all of which tend to be the work of ego. To bring about the outcome we would have preferred, the mounted beetle in question should have chosen to do X and Y. They should have seen and realized how important X and Y were. Why the hell didn’t they? What the hell were they thinking?! Now the outcome is all fucked up and it’s totally their fault!
Two weeks ago I brought home my boyfriend’s old iPhone and discovered that for two and a half years – ever since we got back together after a one-year break-up – he’s been leading a double life. He’s had a second girlfriend whom he saw just as much as me or even more, a chunky girl half his age who clearly worships the ground he walks on and matches him drink for drink as they get bombed together. I had trusted him completely. I believed he was still the Good Man I fell in love with while he was sober. Because of this, I gave him ample room to do his own thing (we lived 90 minutes apart) and never checked up on him – ignoring the fact that he was a relapsed alcoholic who merely didn’t drink in front of me – and that active alcoholics tend to lie.
My agenda was as follows: the relationship I thought I had with him was to flourish and endure. For this to happen, we both had to be committed and true to each other. Those were the rules of the game as I saw it, and when I first discovered their porn-style sexting and rendezvous set up around my visits (she sometimes left the same day I arrived), I did very much know the rage of betrayal. That rage has faded now, but what puzzles me is that it hasn’t morphed into resentment. Somehow, I’ve jumped straight from rage to forgiveness. Mind you, I don’t intend to see the man again – his future is god’s business and no longer mine. But anger I do not feel.
I let go my agenda. The whole thing. Clearly this relationship was not supposed to be. For a woman like me, 20 years sober, to be with a man who drinks in her absence was not a good set-up. It could not have worked. Yes – there was a lot of love over the nine years we shared, and the loss of that remains tragic to me. I’m grieving it. It hurts. Further, what my boyfriend did is clearly heinous on a number of moral levels. You don’t have to be the one cheated on to see that.
But I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Okay – I’ve never developed a sex addiction with someone young enough to be my child, but by the final stages of my drinking, I lacked moral sense to an equal degree. In the fifteen years I was drunk, I cheated on three partners in a row – the first one physically and the second two emotionally. I developed wild crushes on people while pretending to be in committed relationships and chased down the high of those infatuations regardless of their eventual impact on my partner. I didn’t care. In fact, it seemed to me at the time that I couldn’t care. I needed the fix of the person I was addicted to just as much as I needed my next drink.
In every fifth step I’ve heard, sponsees have felt failed and betrayed by important figures in their lives – often a dysfunctional parent either alcoholic or affected by alcoholism. Time and time again, the 4th column comes down to the question, “Do you think this person would not have done better if they were capable of it?” Sponsees struggle with this. Their minds wrestle with the dichotomy of who they wanted the parent or person to be, with all the power to choose wisely they as a child believed that person possessed, versus the truth of what actually happened – the fact that the parent or person simply did not have the integrity, self-awareness, or the moral resources to show up any better than they did, let alone with honor.
Who wants to be a shitty parent? Who wants to betray and abuse the partner they’ve loved? Nobody. In the case of alcoholics, prolonged alcohol abuse actually atrophies the emotional centers of the brain; we reach recklessly for whatever we think will bring relief. Compassion shrinks. We become selfish monsters. We do shameful things. It’s part of the disease.
Resentment at these facts can do nothing but harm me. Nurtured anger traps us in our heads, our stories, our righteousness about what should have been, whereas the sunlight of the spirit is cast only on what is. And it’s only once we accept what is that we can feel gratitude for all reality offers us and try to lead useful, constructive lives, granting others the freedom to seek their own path. So forgiveness, really, is just acceptance of a person exactly as they are. In my case, I also have to accept the toll of addiction. The Big Book even tells us, “More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life.” My guy was just a late stage alcoholic doing what drunks do best: dishonesty with self and others. He’s consumed in tearing down his own emotional life and perhaps career, veering obliviously toward alcoholic decline. None of this will end prettily for him. My mistake was fighting reality, closing my mind to his addiction, trying to love him as though he were sober. So much I wanted better things for him! But when I let go that agenda, it’s all just life unfolding as it should.