Saturday, January 5, 2013

Thoughts on Fences

Over the past few months, I've done a lot of thinking about forgiveness - what it is, what it isn't, how it happens, what that looks like in practical terms.

I've done a lot of things I have needed forgiveness for - and I've needed to forgive people for many things. Some have been minor annoyances, misunderstandings, questions of boundaries of which I or the other person was unaware. Such things are usually relatively easy to forgive and to apologize for, especially if the relationship itself is fairly solid. 

It is harder - sometimes much harder - when the offenses are habitual in nature, when the relationship is either damaged or no longer salvageable, and where one (or both) of the parties refuses to admit wrongdoing. A situation like that requires a good understanding of the boundaries between forgiveness and foolishness, between magnanimity and masochism. 

A paddock fence keeps the horses inside
and safe from wandering off. It also reminds people
to stay out from underfoot...
The old adage, "Good fences make good neighbors" comes to my mind because unless everyone involved knows the boundaries, they will keep getting crossed, over and over again. A fence is a great way to protect what's on the other side from being trampled; it can also protect the person from entering a potentially dangerous situation, such as in the case of a fence around a pasture where there's a bull.

Neighbors can interact over the fence, and I've had quite a few of these interactions over our own back fence. I've also had issues with some other neighbors coming onto our property without our permission and taking things that didn't belong to them - usually young thieves who helped themselves to something we left in our unlocked vehicle.  Remembering to lock the car has kept these incidents to a minimum. Other (former) neighbors have - in the past - behaved in such a way as to hurt my kids; these infractions have not been as easy to forgive. 

However, it's the invisible fences that are the most difficult to erect ... and to detect. These are relationship boundaries - something that I never knew existed up until just a few years ago. 

There was always a lot of friction in my home growing up - and nobody really knew why, because nobody realized that there needed to be boundaries and that there are some things where you just need to put up a big "Do Not Trespass" sign. And when natural boundaries between siblings caused problems, the parents (who - quite frankly - saw their children as their property) would intervene and try to use shame as a weapon to "keep the peace." We were therefore not allowed to "fight" ... over anything. As a result, we never learned how to stick up for ourselves. We never learned how to identify when someone had crossed a boundary because those emotional and psychological boundaries were not allowed.  And we never learned how to forgive. Forgiveness meant making excuses for the other person's behavior. And apologies were never voiced - the offender merely tried to "make it up to" the person who had been hurt. There was never any admission of wrongdoing. Nobody dealt with the elephant in the room. They just made it lie down. Each of us walked on eggshells around the other, afraid to incur his or her wrath.

That's no way to live.

What I've learned in the last few years is that without permission to have boundaries, there can be no forgiveness because there is no acknowledgement that someone has done anything wrong. The phrase, "There's nothing to forgive," is not forgiveness. If there was no offense, then any forgiveness offered is meaningless. 

When I first realized, early in my recovery, that I had been wronged as a child, that my unseen boundaries had been crossed in so many ways and by so many people, and that my pain was a natural response to being hurt - this was the first step in becoming free of it. I had always blamed myself for feeling bad; it was a big deal for me to realize that the bad feelings were natural and healthy for what I had been through. I began to see that in a lot of cases, I played absolutely no part in the wrongs that had been done to me, and I had spent decades feeling guilty for being angry and fearful, for wanting to protect myself, for wanting to get away from my abusers. 

With God's help, I was able to work through each of those hurts and come to a place of healing from them and to real, true forgiveness, even to the point of feeling compassion for those who had - in their ignorance and dysfunction - hurt me in ways they could not begin to fathom. 

Eventually of course, after I'd been healed of those things, I was able to admit to myself the wrongs I had, in turn, done to others out of my own dysfunction - and to go to them, admit my wrongdoing, and apologize from my heart. I was amazed at the graciousness of those I had hurt, their willingness to forgive me. Relationships were restored. I gained more than I lost. 

Yet there was still more to do. With respect to the ones who had beaten me or abused me in other ways (verbal, emotional, or sexual), even though I had built some bridges, I needed to build some fences, too. Just because I had forgiven them didn't mean that I could go back into an abusive situation; I needed to let them know where the boundaries were. 

This is one of the most shame-producing aspects of moving on, in the life of someone who has been systematically abused and whose abusers have not and will not change their behavior. The words "FORGIVE AND FORGET" - emblazoned in shame across the psyche of the abuse survivor - are not only an impossible directive, they are also unwise in situations like that. 

Building those fences was hard work, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I took too much ground back - then gave in and let myself be abused again - and finally I worked out a way to come to terms with it. I gave people a chance to get used to the new me; I had changed so very much! When it became clear that this new me was unacceptable to them, when they took advantage of my forgiveness and started to abuse me (and my children) all over again  - and in most cases they did - that's when I needed to fortify the fences. That's when I had to say goodbye. 

It was sad, but there was no other way.

The bridges are still there. Forgiveness is still in effect. I no longer wish for these people to be punished for what they did, and I no longer expect them to give back what they took from me. In that sense, I am more free than I have ever been. 

Nevertheless, I need to be realistic. Just because I've forgiven doesn't mean I have to be stupid. If relationship with them harms me or my husband or my kids, then it's best if I stay away. These are natural consequences for their behavior, another thing I am learning to allow people to experience - even if it's painful for me. 

Someday, I hope and pray that they will understand and accept that it's not okay to treat people like property. Until that time, I can busy myself with trusting those who are trustworthy, and building relationships with equals instead of with those who believe themselves to be superior. 

I used to think - because I never knew any different - that people who would accept me and be in relationship with me as an equal were few and far between. 

I'm delighted to be so wrong about that. 

No comments:

Post a Comment