I was interviewing a client who was shocked and outraged that because of her criminal history and its aftermath she would not be eligible for a certain privilege. “How can you people (note to self, being addressed in any context as ‘you people’ never ends with the offer of sweet pastries or pots de creme) -how can you people do this to me? I finally get my life turned around and you can’t give me this one thing? What am I supposed to do? (she followed this, sotto voce, with a series of curses meant for ‘us people’).”
I said, “I’m sorry that the decisions you made when you were younger are still following you around. But this is policy that was decided long before you made those decisions, by people I’ve never met, and it can’t be changed in this instant.”
She’s guilty. She knows it, knows that I know, knows there is no denying it. Can’t change the facts. But she wants to change the consequences, and her future, in the moment, when she’s ready to move away from her past. But we, Society, “Us People,” are not ready to move away from her past. We have agreed that the perpetrator does not get to dictate the term of the sentence, the depth of the consequences, the half-life of reverberation from her wrongdoing. We do that. It sucks to be her– but try telling an 18 year old her, in the moment before she shoplifts $258 worth of stuff from Walmart, that one day she will have children, and won’t have the money to pay her fines and costs, and won’t be eligible for childcare so she can go back to school. What sayeth the 18 year old, verbatim– for veracity’s sake–?: “Fuck you.”
So the consequences haunt her, as they do all of us who screw up. When you clomp on my instep with your birkenstock, your saying “sorry!” doesn’t make the pain go away. It throbs for minutes or hours to come, and that’s how long I’m mad at you and your big clompy shoe. Forgiveness isn’t automatic– it’s a process, one that I, the victim, dictate. You say “sorry” until I let you know you’re done, that I’m done needing to hear it.
A partner strays. She breaks a trust– not a contract, not anything so banal as that: worse. She breaks the promise made when she looked in your eyes and said, “I love you.” In that look, that phrase, the promise proffered is this: your well-being is mine. I am not well if you are not well.
And when you were not well, she was -not well. Off balance. Off kilter. Maybe had not realized how much she depended on you being well, being the caretaker of everything, the level, keeping things seaworthy. And she did not have the power to make you better. In this sea of unrest she sought solace elsewhere, maybe not deliberately– maybe more in the way the fourth chocolate finds its way into our bellies. “Did I really eat that fourth chocolate? Not possible.” Oh, the way we lie to ourselves.
Unlike the 18 year old Walmart pocket-shopper, if approached prior to the straying the partner would have said: “I would never do that. I would never hurt my partner.” But she did. She’s guilty, she knows it. She knows that you know, and that there’s no denying it.
The flip side is mercy, of course. That doesn’t take away her need to keep apologizing. She must apologize until she has breathed her last, if that’s what it takes until you say “enough.” You get to dictate how long the sentence, how deep the consequences, the half-life of the reverb. But this is not the faceless shoplifter who decades later faces your policy. This is your partner. Coparent. The one who knew you when.
Forgiveness may take a while, as it should. But mercy can be employed immediately. Not clemency, not off the hook, not a full pardon.
Mercy. You have this within you. You’re looking at the pond of the rest of your life: toss in the smooth stone of mercy and watch the ripples, for years to come, as they create good on every shore they touch.