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K. writes: “My question has to do with the concept of forgiveness as it pertains to Stoicism. My husband and I were married for over 20 years, but during the final few years, his behavior became abusive. This behavior coincided with his inheritance of a hefty trust fund. I filed for divorce after an incident that resulted in his arrest and my hospitalization. I immediately began seeing a psychologist for both myself and my children to deal with the trauma and move forward in the healthiest way possible. Little did I know I was receiving an introductory course in Stoicism. From the psychologist, I came to understand I had no control over my husband’s behavior (I was not to blame and didn’t ‘ask for it,’ he was responsible for his own actions), to value my self-respect over money or material possessions (my divorce settlement was peanuts, his inheritance was considered non-marital), and to focus on my own relationship with the children and the example I set for them.”
“Now, five years later, here is my question: what does ‘forgiveness’ mean to a practicing Stoic? My former husband has told people (including our kids) he’d like to be friends, but I am ‘bitter and refuse to forgive.’ This makes no sense to me. When the issue comes up, I’ve explained that if he were to ask for my forgiveness, I’d certainly give it, but it wouldn’t really change anything for me. Forgiveness is not a magical eraser that wipes away fact. To me, forgiveness is a kindness shown to someone who recognizes they did wrong, not an agreement to pretend it never happened. On the rare occasions I see him, I afford my ex-husband the same courtesy as any other stranger. I practice indifference and focus on my inner tranquility. We both have loving relationships with our children, but they are completely separate. Yes, we had three children and many good years together, but do the good years negate the bad? Does the bad negate the good? In my opinion, it really doesn’t matter. Were we to meet today, we would not have anything in common. I am a public school teacher, live simply, and hold my friends dear. He does not work, lives a life of indulgence, and clings to his money.
I have no interest in ‘being friends for the sake of the children’ because he and I have differing values. All the Stoic philosophers caution us to choose our friends wisely, lest we fall under poor influence. You tell me… am I a ‘bitter’ woman who ‘refuses to forgive,’ or a woman who stands by her principles, with the understanding that others may judge me poorly? My practice of Stoicism comes with the understanding that if I wish to improve, then I must be content to be thought foolish and stupid (or bitter and unforgiving!). Is it virtuous to compromise my own values, just to try to make others feel more comfortable or change their opinion of me? No. Why would I associate with someone who has proven they do not share my core values and beliefs?”
It seems to me that you have already a pretty clear idea of what a Stoic would do in your situation, and you are doing it. But let’s expand a bit on the general topic of forgiveness from a Stoic perspective.
To begin with, yes, you are correct that a proper way to think of forgiveness is as a kindness shown to someone who recognizes they did wrong, not an agreement to pretend it never happened. Accordingly, you then say that if he were to ask for your forgiveness, you’d certainly give it. I suggest that the Stoic thing to do is to go even further and to grant forgiveness to him regardless of whether he asks for it or not, on the general principle that people don’t do bad things because they want to be evil, but out of amathia, or lack of wisdom. As Marcus reminds us:
“Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. … I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him.” (Meditations II.1)
In a sense, I think, the Stoic position is that forgiveness is the automatic mode of operation of the wise person:
“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion 5)
This passage by Epictetus seems to set a progression of moral self-improvement: from blaming others to blaming only oneself, to the pinnacle of not actually putting blame on anyone. If there is no blame to throw around, then there is no forgiveness to be handed out either.
This, I hasten to say, does absolutely not mean that your ex-husband’s actions were not wrong, or that you should not have resisted them. It simply means that once the thing is over, the legal aspect is settled, and you live your separate lives, there is no point in indulging into further thoughts about what happened. They simply get in the way of your pursuit of apatheia, which — let’s remember — means the development of a sense of equanimity leading to ataraxia (tranquillity of mind) — not a sense of apathy or a suppression of emotions in general.
You are also absolutely right in refusing to “be friends” with him, even for the sake of your children. As you say, not only the two of you have nothing in common, but he doesn’t seem like the sort of person that it would be good to hang around with:
“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers [i.e., people that don’t care about wisdom]. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” (Enchiridion 33.6)
At the same time, though, try to rephrase your thoughts about your ex-husband’s behavior, shifting from a tone of (justified, no doubt) moral condemnation to a more neutral, matter-of-fact one:
“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious? This will save you from perceiving one thing clearly, but then assenting to something different.” (Enchiridion 45)
Let’s try it out. Instead of saying, as you did: “He does not work, lives a life of indulgence, and clings to his money,” rephrase your thoughts in descriptive terms: “He does not work, seeks pleasures, and is preoccupied with his source of funds.” This exercise should help you to let go of negative emotions, a goal that is for your sake just as well as for your children’s, not to benefit him. In your case, this will, again, help you develop and maintain a sense of serenity; in the case of your children, it will hopefully strike them as magnanimous of you to talk of their father in non judgmental ways, giving you the high moral ground.
You are also correct that neither the good years somehow erase the bad ones nor vice versa. Twenty years is a large chunk of anyone’s life, and it would be highly unusual if they were full of just positives or just negatives. Since the relationship ended with abuse, it is natural that the negatives have a tendency to outweigh the positives in your recollection. But, again, practice distancing yourself from the whole affair, good and bad alike. Focus instead on your three children, something very good that came out of the relationship, and that is going to be an important part of your future yet to come.
As Seneca tells us to do every night, so we can do also with events in our distant past: ask ourselves where we went wrong, what we did well, and what we could have done differently. As a result:
“Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. … How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals?” (On Anger, III.36)
In your case, it sounds like you have actually done good by deciding to seek the help of a therapist for your own and your children’s sake. And you have probably learned quite a bit from the experience so not to repeat it in the future. Your position on how to deal with him now is, then, exactly right: afford him the courtesy of a stranger, because that’s who he is to you. His opinions about your behavior and recalcitrance to engage with him are his, and not under your control. And you don’t even need to forgive him, you can just think of him as an unwise person who deserves your pity, not your anger or resentment.
Categories: Stoic Advice