Today I saw the movie Philomena. A very special, funny, and moving experience. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I’ll hopefully not reveal too much of the plot. I loved this film but it raised difficult life dilemmas. One of the profound issues that emerged for me was the notion of forgiveness.
We all know people who when spurned, never entertain the possibility of having anything to do with the offending person or family again. I think of this as ‘cut off’ behaviour when a person seems to have little capacity or willingness to enter a space of understanding, let alone forgiveness. For reasons unknown some individuals can only operate in black or white, never in grey, so a stance of cutting off appears to be the only bearable option. Final and definite these simple rules are often I suspect, self protective and yet appear unforgiving. Interestingly, some people have a very low threshold for hurt and often find themselves disenfranchised from friends and families over relatively minor difficulties. Of course, it is easy to have conversations and opinions on the matters that I have raised so far.
However, there are some life events that effect and change how people’s lives are lived forever. The forced removal of children from their biological parents until well into the nineteen eighties caused young women enormous trauma and stress which was often suffered in silence. Not all adoptions were forced but many young women felt they had no options. They didn’t. It wasn’t until the 1970’s in Australia when the Whitlam Government introduced a single mothers’ benefit that there was any support available. Prior to that they were often told to ‘do the best thing for the child’, that is, ‘let the child have a proper family, a mother and a father’. Families in those times were fearful of the stigma associated with babies being born out-of-wedlock. Attempting to avoid shame and embarrassment, some families sent their daughters away to other towns until the birth and subsequent adoption took place. Some young women were sent to institutions similar to the one in the film Philomena, to ensure the pregnancy was kept secret.
Of course generalising about how people are effected by similar events in their lives is never a wise thing to do. Everyone is different and we all devise and utilise different coping skills to manage trauma. For some people and maybe some of the women I refer to, to cut off or walk away was the only tolerable way to keep their life happening. We do know however, that many relinquishing mothers felt and still feel intense anger and rage toward the systems that denied them their babies so many years ago. Would it be reasonable to ask these women to forgive? Would they want to forgive and if they did, what would it mean to them?
Is forgiving necessary for personal healing? There might be some people who have suffered incredible life events such as sexual abuse, physical and emotional violence and other violations might say yes, many would say no. Is there healing in being able to forgive someone, group or system for the wrong or wrongs perpetrated by them? It seems to me that the decision to forgive is complex and very personal.
Is there any power in forgiveness? We know that when we are on the receiving end of abuse and threatening behaviour that one of the most potent and overwhelming emotions is one of powerlessness. I wonder then, if being able to forgive actually regains the power once taken? Or does power exist in being able to rise against the wrong by never forgiving?
Philomena the film reflected two different and intersecting positions. We saw how forgiveness was depicted as a cathartic moment for the character Philomena. A poignant and personal decision to forgive an unbelievable wrong against her and her child allowed Philomena to take back or regain some of the lost power (or so it seemed). Of course nothing could change the past events but the action in this instance (in my humble opinion) stripped the Catholic Church of power in a very small but profound way for Philomena.
On the other hand we saw the character Martin demonstrate rage and anger for the system that had inflicted and carried out unspeakable and cruel acts towards the young women in the film. Speaking out and holding the outrage and anger can be the intervention that can expose and change systems and organisations from covering up or repeating the original abuses. This is how change and retribution occurs, is it not?
So it seems that forgiveness has its place and can in some circumstances provide important therapeutic value. Not forgiving also has an important role to play, exposing wrong and speaking out can also be therapeutic. Once again, I think this is a very personal decision. It seems to me, that there is no right or wrong and the only person who has the right to forgive or not forgive is the person against whom the wrong has been committed. Philomena did it her way!