By Randy McCall
Recently, I was contacted by a victim of crime who had some serious questions on the topic of forgiveness. They wanted to know why so many people and groups they associated with kept demanding to know if they had forgiven the offender yet... and if not, why hadn't they?
The victim wanted to know why it was so important to other people? After all, the victim was the one who had survived the offense, not these other people, many of whom were only vague acquaintances. Why were people continually questioning them on the issue?
The question made me sit down and do some serious thinking before responding to their question.
I've worked with a lot of crime victims over the years. I've seen many who came to forgive their offender, and others who never did. Some of those who chose to forgive describe the final act as one of release, of giving up a burden; some referred to it in religious terms, taken from their particular holy books.
In some cases, the person in question wanted to share their new-found sense of peace and wholeness through forgiveness with other victims. They did this by either becoming active in victim support groups, or by joining one of the many restorative justice organizations which exist to help victims.
Social scientists and psychological researchers who've explored the act of forgiveness by crime victims have found at least some evidence that those who reach the point of forgiveness experience less long-term psychological trauma, less physical illness, and may have a faster recovery period to the re-establishment of a normal life. You may find some interesting reading in the American Psychological Association's publication: Forgiveness - A Sampling of Research Results
Note I mentioned "the point of forgiveness"? Reaching a point where a person can forgive is a process, much like the grief process. Each individual is different, and each will react to the trauma of victimization in a different way. The time it will take a person to reach the stage in their emotional journey where they can choose to work towards forgiving will vary greatly.
I've heard the process likened to act of a high-diver; they have to climb to the point where they can take the plunge.
The victim must be ready to take the step... they cannot be coaxed, badgered or ordered into doing it before time; attempting to do so can easily result in a severe emotional backlash.
Unfortunately, our society tends to like simple, quick answers to problems. This is why I believe so many people asked the victim I mentioned in the first paragraph if they had forgiven the offender... because, to many people, it would mean the victim had recovered and was now "fixed".
Being presented with the evident benefits of the act of forgiveness -- social, psychological, and financial (a quicker return to a sense of normalcy means less use of victim support staff time and resources) -- there are some victim advocates who who simply add "forgive offender" to the list of things they recommend the victim do as part of the recovery process.
Now, let me be clear; I'm not saying a large percentage of service groups do this... but over the years, I've heard from a goodly number of crime victims who reported they were told they should/had to forgive the offender as part of their healing process.
A much larger number said that forgiveness was first offered as just a distant possibility, but after time they felt pressured to accept it, as they were repeatedly asked whether they had forgiven the offender yet. Some of these victims -- who were no where near forgiving their offender -- told their advocates they had, simply because they needed the emotional approval and further support of the advocate in question.
Forgiveness should be an option, a door which victims can open and explore when they feel ready. It should never be pushed at victims as a panacea, or in such a way as to make victims feel as though they are disappointing those helping them if they can't accept the concept.
Some people will never reach the point of forgiveness, and it is not for us, as victim advocates, to say this is wrong. Some of the most effective victim rights activists -- and wonderful, kind individuals -- I know are crime survivors who channeled their grief and anger into action and advocacy.
We must remember that victims have already had control taken violently away from once. We should not add to that loss of control by demanding, or applying emotional pressure on them, to accept something they are not ready and willing to fully embrace.