In sixth form, I never knew what to say. Having been plucked unwillingly from a school and a close circle of friends that I loved, I found myself in a mixed gender school for the first time. Out of school uniform and around boys, I opted for A-line skirts (I hated my thighs) and blouses that were too tight and too sheer because I knew what reaction they would elicit. This is how I communicated with boys, and when I did speak, I thought about what the pretty, desirable girls would say, the kind who would snap pink bubbles of gum in American movies.
It worked for a little while. I ticked off my first serious boyfriend and a cluster of friends that I could discuss him with. Then, as things tend to go when you’re 17, he left me, and my best friend quickly followed suit. It’s a rite of passage.
I was devastated, but quickly found an unhealthy coping mechanism. By forgiving them, I was able to keep them in my life, and each day I prodded at the hurt like a tender bruise, watching it bloom under my skin, knowing full well I was prolonging its stay.
Until a few months ago, I was very close to a man who I won’t name. We knew about each other’s respective histories, and wherever I made an anecdote out of a bad date or a boy’s transgressions, he stressed that he had my best interests in mind before offering advice. Each time I went to meetings with my colleagues, he was there, and the knowledge we had of each other’s inner life was akin to winking at someone across the room at a party, the silent acknowledgement of, “no matter how it goes, I’ve got you.”
I believed him for four years, as we continually blurred the lines between being friends and something more. Without going into too much detail, there was no small amount of emotional manipulation. As well as the empty promises that stacked up over the years, his feelings always took precedence over my gripes. There were the comments about my breasts to colleagues, there was a girlfriend whom he kept very quiet about, and amidst it all — several declarations of love. It was never going to end well.
“Ultimately, what people don’t tell you about forgiveness is that doing it for yourself, and not to save a relationship, is painful.”
Forgiveness is easier to achieve when accompanied by the right ingredients. Acknowledgement, at the very least. An apology, but ideally, the correct kind. Regret. Grovelling. A promise to change. It’s hard to do when you get none of those, it’s hard to do when you can’t reconcile what they did with the person you thought they were, and it’s hard to do when they’re no longer around.
I never received an apology for what he did, not until I pushed for it six months later. This was recurring; he would do something terrible and then shrink away, until I made the effort to amend his wrongs for the sake of the friendship. This time, though, it wasn’t enough and despite desperately wanting to keep him in my life, I couldn’t.
Ultimately, what people don’t tell you about forgiveness is that doing it for yourself, and not to save a relationship, is painful. There’s nothing to gain, just an acceptance of loss.
Another person I never thought I’d have to broach the idea of forgiveness with was my grandmother, who died earlier this year.
We were born two days and five decades apart, but if there is such a thing as past lives, we must have met before. She was very glamorous, and this is important to know. She made everything around her beautiful. Years before I hung myself out to dry before the male gaze, she taught me that it was divinely feminine to make oneself beautiful every day, and that celebrating it was not soft. No, when used correctly unbridled femininity is something to be reckoned with.
Even towards the end, she was perfectly done up. For her, these weren’t vanities, but a testament to a life well-lived, against all odds. When she died, people called from all over the world for days.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of her rubbing sweet, scented oil into my hair, as I would trail my fingers across her perfume bottles, and over the many ornaments she had collected on her travels. Each item had a story, and she took care to tell me them with the dramatic flair she was known for. After I returned home, I’d dream up visions of my future based upon her past.
For someone who apparently loved me, and things, so much — I wasn’t left anything in her will. Of course, this was the last thing on my mind when she died, but now, it weighs on me. Not because she promised me specific items, or that they were highly sentimental, but because I’ve had to re-examine our relationship. The memories I recounted above are not recent.
In her last few years, she wasn’t very lucid, save a few moments of sharpness that surprised us all. And I was selfish; selfish with the life I was building for myself in the city, selfish with work, selfish with my friends, selfishly protective of the bubble I had created, which had no time for difficult feelings. The last time I went to stay with her, two weeks before she died, she cried before I left because she didn’t want me to leave. I promised I’d return the following week. I didn’t.
Did she leave me out because she was angry, or did she simply not think to update it? I will never know, but I’ve had to work out ways to ease my guilt and forgive us both. Forgive her for even making me question our bond — our relationship was a safe space for me in the way that only unconditional things are. Perhaps I put her on such a pedestal that I didn’t even consider her right to frustration and the resentment that can come with loneliness. She deserves that forgiveness. I’ve learned that not everybody does.
The man I spoke about earlier never offered his condolences when my grandma died. Instead, he sat across from me day after day, and ignored me. Another, whom I dated for a year, didn’t even know to check-in, because he’d disappeared earlier, after months of bad behaviour and lies, which I repeatedly forgave in order to keep a redundant dream alive.
When speaking about forgiveness, popular rhetoric always centres the self. To forgive and move on is empowering. To remain bitter, they tell us, limits our capacity for ascension; like Gatsby, who sought to recreate the past, we will forever be looking out for our own green light, instead of turning the lonely mansion of our making into a home.
“People don’t always deserve forgiveness, and occasionally, refusing to give someone a pass for making you feel small is the best thing you can do to validate your own feelings.”
As someone who has continually proffered the branch of forgiveness, I have had to reckon with the fact that it wasn’t working for anyone involved. I was using people to shore up a sense of self, and to project that I was loveable to the world.
What changed? A year and a half of therapy, sure, but ultimately, it was having my trust broken terribly, by people I assumed would have been incapable of doing such a thing. What transpired made me see them in a completely new light. No matter which way I arranged the pieces, they just wouldn’t fold back into the version I had known.
I must admit that in a way, I enjoy holding onto the hurt. After having neglected my needs and whims for so long, it feels satisfying to be assured of my righteousness. People don’t always deserve forgiveness, and occasionally, refusing to give someone a pass for making you feel small is the best thing you can do to validate your own feelings.
I always thought of forgiveness as a gift, something that you bestow upon the other person. As it turns out, acceptance of reality is an even greater gift — one you can give to yourself.
Nessa is a London-based journalist, currently serving as the editor for Jungle Creations’ women’s interest publications. Her work focuses on everything from pop culture to identity politics. @nessahumayun