When something’s not okay: pondering reconciliation & relationship.

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When something’s not okay: pondering reconciliation & relationship.

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I wrote recent­ly about one of the most empow­er­ing things I’ve learned recent­ly:  that it’s okay to not be okay.

Today, I’m going to touch on a relat­ed top­ic that has been equal­ly empow­er­ing (and very con­fus­ing): I don’t have to pre­tend that it’s okay for peo­ple to do bad things.

This most­ly comes up in small ways for me. When an apol­o­gy is uttered, it’s my instinct to reply, “Oh, it’s okay,” with a dis­mis­sive wave of my hand and smile on my face to prove Just How Okay it is, all the while my inner mono­logue mut­ters, “No, it’s not okay, but I don’t know what else to say here and I don’t want to make it even more awk­ward and it shouldn’t mat­ter so much any­way.” Then, of course, there’s the big­ger and hard­er times that it comes up, like when short­ly after my assault I was chal­lenged that I hadn’t for­giv­en my attack­er yet.

You know, the word “for­give­ness” gets thrown around a lot in Chris­t­ian cir­cles. Par­tic­u­lar­ly at women. Par­tic­u­lar­ly at women when they notice injus­tice and dare to speak up about it (or even, like in my case, just con­fid­ing hurt in a friend). Eph­esians 4:32 or the Lord’s Prayer is whipped out before any­one can do any crit­i­cal think­ing, and the mantra “for­give one anoth­er as Christ has for­giv­en you” is recit­ed as a tool to silence, to shame, to force those with no pow­er into sub­mis­sion.

There’s quite a lot prob­lem­at­ic with that approach, and I’m a bit hes­i­tant to get into the prob­lems here. Suf­fice it to say that this def­i­n­i­tion of for­give­ness that I was taught implic­it­ly and explic­it­ly over the years told me that for­give­ness meant that I had to act like the offend­ing par­ty hadn’t offend­ed, that I had to be will­ing to rec­on­cile with them, just as Christ rec­on­ciled us to God. It taught me that my emo­tion­al, men­tal, and some­times even phys­i­cal well-being were dis­pos­able for the sake of keep­ing the peace, keep­ing appear­ances.

Work­ing from that def­i­n­i­tion — that for­give­ness equals rec­on­cil­i­a­tion — I no longer believe that for­give­ness is a blan­ket man­date. I no longer believe that I have to for­give every­one. Giv­en that def­i­n­i­tion, I must agree with my friend when she says that for­give­ness is bull­shit.

For the record, I am aware that some peo­ple define for­give­ness in a dif­fer­ent way, but for me the act of for­give­ness can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from rec­on­cil­i­a­tion (or a will­ing­ness to rec­on­cile) so in this post, I will be talk­ing about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion a lot because to me, it’s pret­ty much the same thing.

Mov­ing on.

There’s so much that’s tricky in fig­ur­ing out bound­aries, rela­tion­ships, and not-okay sit­u­a­tions.  For the first time in my life, I’m faced with the ques­tion of when to be open to rec­on­cil­ing with some­one instead of oper­at­ing from the default that I’ll absorb all bad­ness with a smile. This gets even fur­ther con­vo­lut­ed when I con­sid­er that I inter­act dai­ly with a host of peo­ple that I’ve nev­er actu­al­ly met and with whom I have no sub­stan­tial rela­tion­ship. For one thing, it’s easy for an apol­o­gy to be part of the cycle of abuse or manip­u­la­tion. It’s easy for it to be the trump card pulled to make sure that the per­son who was hurt now has the oblig­a­tion to stop hurt­ing and rec­on­cile with the abuser. It can be real­ly dif­fi­cult for me to know when to say, “No, I’m not okay. This sit­u­a­tion is not okay. And our rela­tion­ship is not okay,” par­tic­u­lar­ly since I’m nat­u­ral­ly inclined to think the best of peo­ple (let alone the fact that I grew up feel­ing moral­ly oblig­at­ed to imme­di­ate­ly for­give when an apol­o­gy is issued).

As an ana­lyt­i­cal intu­itive intro­vert, I rely quite heav­i­ly on my gut feel­ings about sit­u­a­tions. This is some­thing I’ve had to learn to trust myself about recent­ly, but it has served me well. (Hän­nah has an excel­lent piece relat­ed to trust­ing your instincts. I high­ly rec­om­mend read­ing it.) I nat­u­ral­ly tend to stand back and observe my sur­round­ings and the social inter­ac­tions of those around me, both in phys­i­cal and dig­i­tal set­tings. I spend a lot of time gaug­ing atti­tudes, not­ing pat­terns, con­sid­er­ing rhetoric and whether the pat­tern of behav­iour match­es how the per­son wants to be per­ceived. I do this most­ly sub­con­scious­ly. And I’ve come to fig­ure out what my process for set­ting bound­aries and inter­act­ing with peo­ple is:

It all depends on pat­terns of behav­iour, the extent of the dam­age, and the lev­el of rela­tion­ship.

Pat­tern of wrong behav­iour with dis­re­gard to crit­i­cism + wide­spread or deep offense = no rec­on­cil­i­a­tion for me. No for­give­ness. We are not okay. It’s the rela­tion­ship aspect that often throws a wrench in this for­mu­la for me.

A year ago, when there was an online upris­ing about Hugo Schwyz­er and what his place with­in the fem­i­nist com­mu­ni­ty should be, I was a bit tak­en aback. I had read a cou­ple of his arti­cles and been encour­aged by them, so when I heard var­i­ous sur­vivors speak up about their great dis­com­fort with his involve­ment and advo­ca­cy, I sat and watched qui­et­ly to see what would take place. Grace from Are Women Human? wrote a fan­tas­tic overview of the sit­u­a­tion that high­lights clear pat­terns of abu­sive behav­iour result­ing in exten­sive dam­age. This pat­tern of abu­sive behav­iour and his dis­re­gard and even some­times delight in the pain he has caused (and thus con­tin­ues to cause) made me feel secure in my deci­sion to not be okay with him. How­ev­er, I have no rela­tion­ship with the man beyond read­ing his work. There­fore, my course of action has been to steer clear from spheres in which he is present.

That’s my usu­al pat­tern with var­i­ous media in sit­u­a­tions where I have no rela­tion­ship with the per­son. It’s easy, real­ly. If I have no rela­tion­ship to a pub­lic fig­ure, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion isn’t an option and it’s not hard to set and enforce a bound­ary in my life in which I will not encounter them or have to pre­tend to be okay with them.

It gets trick­i­er once a sit­u­a­tion occurs with­in rela­tion­ship.* (Please see update at the bot­tom of this piece.)

Last week, there was quite an uproar among my peer group on Twit­ter. A woman that I admire used a slur casu­al­ly in a tweet. When con­front­ed, she react­ed extreme­ly defen­sive­ly in a way that said to me that she was no longer a safe per­son for me to fol­low. Frankly, I was shocked. This seemed extreme­ly out of char­ac­ter. The occur­rence prompt­ed some dis­cus­sion about priv­i­lege and the lan­guage of oppres­sion in sit­u­a­tions where there is still a pow­er play, but I end­ed up qui­et­ly unfol­low­ing her on all of my social media and went about my day. While it didn’t appear to me to be in pat­tern with behav­iour that I had observed in our acquain­tance­ship, the deeply felt dam­age of both the slur and her reac­tion to cri­tique tipped the scale for me into non-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion ter­ri­to­ry.

Until she post­ed an apol­o­gy and made sure that the peo­ple she offend­ed the most saw it.

I’ll be hon­est — I real­ly don’t know Stephanie at all. I know her bet­ter than I know Hugo Schwyz­er, but not as well as I know my best friends, or even as well as I know some of my oth­er blog friends. I hon­est­ly wres­tled with whether or not to respond, and if I did, how I would respond. I couldn’t help but think of how kind she has been to me specif­i­cal­ly in the past, despite the fact that we are strangers on the inter­net. And in the end, I opt­ed to give her anoth­er chance — because I’m not con­vinced that she is habit­u­al­ly abu­sive, because the rela­tion­ship I’ve had with her in the past has been pos­i­tive, and because I know what it’s like to say some­thing deeply offen­sive with­out know­ing. I know how hard it is to swal­low my pride and say, “I was so wrong, there is no excuse for this, and I’m sor­ry.”

I want to be clear here: I don’t think my deci­sion is for every­one. I think we are each indi­vid­u­al­ly the experts on what we are com­fort­able with in our lives, and I don’t share this as a way to pres­sure any­one into agree­ing with me or even as a way to show off what a won­der­ful lov­ing per­son I am. I share it to demon­strate how rela­tion­ship affect­ed my usu­al for­mu­la for cre­at­ing bound­aries in rela­tion­ships and media.

I’m still pro­cess­ing how to inter­act with peo­ple. I’m still fig­ur­ing out that it’s actu­al­ly healthy for me to be able to tell peo­ple, “What you did isn’t okay, but I appre­ci­ate that you see that and we are okay.” I’m still pars­ing my sur­round­ings and inter­ac­tions and learn­ing to dis­cern a person’s char­ac­ter before I make con­clu­sions about their behav­iour. This is still a work in progress for me. But I’m mak­ing progress, I think. And I think it’s worth it to learn both when to say, “No more of this” and “let’s move on togeth­er.”


What do you think? What sorts of bound­aries and guide­lines help you when media or social inter­ac­tions get messy?


Updat­ed Decem­ber 2013: I just want to say that while I still stand behind the spir­it of this post and the for­mu­la I out­lined, I now wish I had used a dif­fer­ent exam­ple than I did. The deci­sion I made to give Stephanie anoth­er chance and con­tin­ue to fol­low Stuff Chris­t­ian Cul­ture Likes is a deci­sion I came to bit­ter­ly regret, and this is def­i­nite­ly an instance where I wish I had trust­ed my gut. Live and learn.

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