Dear Father Tony,
Do you think it is possible to forgive and forget?
You ask a timeless question.
I am reminded of a story about Raphael Cardinal Merry del Val (gay) who was a Vatican power-queen in the first half of the 20th century.
His politics earned him many enemies, including another cardinal whose career he persistently tried to kill. When that cardinal got elected pope, all the other cardinals lined up, as is customary, to kneel before him, kiss the ring and receive the new pope's blessing. When Cardinal
Mary Merry del Val knelt before him, the new pope whispered "We can forgive, but we cannot forget."
I am guessing that you are in a relationship with someone who did you wrong. You are hurting and angry. You are casting about for a course of action that will allow for self-respect. You want to lash back. You want some vindication. Some justice. But, in your calm moments, you still love the one who hurt you, and you want to find a way to get the relationship back on track. You are afraid that such a track no longer exists because the wound is too deep and the scar too obvious and permanent. Am I close?
There are few (if any) of us who have not felt betrayal and/or have not been guilty of betrayal and in need of forgiveness. These feelings are very much within the scope of common gay (and straight) human behavior. They are not extraordinary. I would venture a guess that a large percentage of gay relationships dissolve because of betrayal and the partners' unwillingness to incorporate that experience into a coupled future. Almost none of us are trained to deal well with betrayal although there are millions of He/She done me wrong songs that ought to have taught us something. We are quick to ditch the imperfect lover and move onto the next one.
The ability to betray the ones we love is part of human nature. Having said that, I am reminded of what Katherine Hepburn said to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen as she emptied his gin overboard:
"Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put into this world to rise above."
I believe that what she said is true. We are called to better behavior. We should do the work needed to honor those whom we love, and when we or they fall short of perfection, we ought to find a way into forgiveness. We cannot, however, forget. Cruel words ring in our ears forever. Deceptive actions are replayed before our mind's eye with unfortunate regularity. It is indeed hard to overcome them. It is hard to embrace someone who has hurt you, but if you don't learn to do exactly that, you may find your self-respect intact but your arms empty.
I think that one of the most vivid and complex examples of betrayal is the experience of a spouse whose partner discloses his/her homosexuality after years of marriage and the production of children. The shock and anger of such a one are almost unimaginable, and make the more common source of betrayal, the "he/she cheated on me with that slut down the street" variety seem trivial. If a spouse in that situation can forgive and can learn to accept the memory of a marriage turned inside out, certainly any of us can do so.
So to recap. You can forgive. You cannot forget. You should forgive. And finally, you should seek out the tools needed to incorporate that which you cannot forget into the relationship you want to save, or, into your future relationship(s). Here are some of them:
a) Express your hurt completely and clearly.
b) Give the betrayer ample opportunity to explain why he/she did it. This will probably not justify the bad behavior but it may give you some insight into your own behavior that will help you avoid a repeat of the incident.
c) Make a list of what you both have learned from the experience of betrayal. Seriously. Make and share a list. Do not assume that the guilty party sees things as you do. The list making helps clear up the "You never told me that's how you feel" thingy.
d) By mutual consent, bury the betrayal together, having discussed it and hashed it out. And, do not dig it up again, especially when you are angry with each other. If you toss a betrayal into the face of a lover who has already apologized and done penance, you are not really moving forward.
e) Repeated betrayals are a different matter. If a persistent hurtful behavior is unacceptable to you, the relationship may have to be terminated.
f) Being betrayed does not give you license to betray the guilty party in order to even the score.
Finally, I can't tell you how significant your letter is to me as Christmas approaches. The holidays have a way of becoming a hit parade of old betrayals. We are all grabbed by the undertow of sentimentality and relive not just the pretty moments but the sad ones as well. For me, that means the gruesome memories of having grown up in a loveless home with quarreling parents who decorated the tree with their disappointment, grief and animosity. My brothers and I spent many a Christmas opening presents under the tree while our parents sat in cold silence on opposite sides of the room. Jesus Christ, how I hate Christmas, but I have done the work of forgiving them, and I am still trying to live with those memories without letting them own me. I don't always succeed.
Here's what you need to remember. When you burn the house that contains the bad memory of betrayal, you can build a more stately mansion in its place, but be sure the one you love is not in that old house when you strike the match.