Monday, February 04, 2013

Forgiveness: A Guest Post By Donna Lee


I looked it up - according to Merriam-Webster it means:

a) to give up resentment of or claim to requital for  (forgive an insult)

b) to grant relief from payment of (forgive a debt)

c) to cease to feel resentment against an offender : pardon (forgive one's enemies)

But there is a different understanding of forgiveness that I grew up with and which I think is closer to the meaning assigned to the word by many people.  Forgiveness is equated with absolution.  In fact ‘absolve’ is listed as a synonym for forgive in some definitions of the word.   In church I was taught that we are absolved from our sins when we confess them to God (or to a priest), and we are to pray that God “forgive[s] us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  If we seek absolution from God we must grant it to others.  There are many instances in life when this type of forgiveness is warranted – but I question its usefulness when it comes to the deep hurts and offences that result in long lasting trauma.

We are urged to forgive as a path to healing.  We are told that we must not hold onto past injuries or we will be buried by bitterness and anger.   I disagree.

I do not ruminate on the wrongs that have been done to me and those I love – even those that left deep scars on my soul.  I do not harbour thoughts of revenge or retaliation.  I am not consumed with anger, although one of the emotions connected to the hurt, when I chose to visit that place in my soul, is anger.  I trust, I have healthy relationships, I am happy.  But I do not absolve those who caused the deepest of hurts to body and soul.  And in that sense I do not forgive.

I work with people who have intellectual disabilities.  Sadly, the bodies and souls of many of the people who are referred to me for ‘behaviour therapy’ carry the indelible scars of trauma.  One woman I worked with shared with me her story of abuse at the hands of her father and her process of healing.  She talked of being angry for years – and of how the ways that she expressed that anger were harmful to herself and others.  She was repeatedly told to calm down, leave the past in the past, let it go, and to forgive.  She told me that a turning point in her life was when someone validated her anger, telling her that she had a right to be angry about what had happened to her.  This validation of her anger, and not the giving up of it, was key to healing.  She acknowledges that the anger is still there – but it is no longer central and it no longer causes harm.

Recently another young woman, whom I was meeting for the first time, described what she hoped to get out of our time together.  She wanted to know how to forgive the man who had betrayed and hurt her when she was a child.  She had been told that this was the only way she would be able to move on.  And she had tried – really tried – to forgive him, but kept coming back to the fact that what he had done was so horrendous that it could not, must not, be pardoned.  

Can she forgive? Perhaps.  It may come down to her definition of forgiveness.   Can she learn to live without bitterness and anger? I am certain she can.  Does her path to healing depend on whether she can ultimately absolve him of his crime against her?  I don’t think so.

Forgiveness may be linked to healing for some people, I don’t dispute that.  But I think forgiveness is often misunderstood and overrated.  I think that the notion one needs to forgive in order to heal can sometimes be a barrier to, rather than a facilitator of, healing.


Anonymous said...

I don't totally agree with you. I think there is a difference between forgiveness and absolution. Forgiveness is forgiving the person, absolution is freeing them from any consequences of their actions. It is in absolution that people have problems and resentments. What happened is wrong. One does not "forgive and forget" - one remembers the wrong. Forgiving the person doesn't change what they did, it doesn't make it right, it doesn't go away, we don't forget it ever happened - but we actively choose not to let the wrong have power over us. When we don't forgive, we feel that we have the power to punish the other person. That usually has no effect at all, except on us. Forgiveness is not a weakness - it isn't laying down and letting people take advantage of us. In fact, it is one of the hardest things to do. What is the old saying - love the person, hate their sin.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first post. For me, forgiveness is about me, not the other person, it's about how I can stop letting that hurt consume me or eat away at me or cause such pain when it comes to mind, even years later. I have learned, and it doesn't always work, to focus on that pain and diminish it's power and in doing that the person who caused it becomes less relevant and less powerful. Absolution is not mine to give to anyone. That is my experience and mine only.

Anonymous said...

But even when one distinguishes more sharply between "forgiveness" (in the sense of releasing the anger) and absolution, it still isn't always necessary for every person in every case to "forgive" (release anger) in order to heal. For some people, it is necessary to validate the anger and ACCEPT their own anger before they can heal. To accept one's anger doesn't mean that you dwell about it or surrender your power over it, it can simply mean that you recognize the anger and are okay with it while ALSO thinking about many other things that are more joyous in your life. Sometimes fighting the anger in a misguided attempt to "forgive" just makes it worse. Sometimes only accepting the anger can allow a person to move on with life.

The fact that "forgiveness is about me, not the other person" still doesn't always make forgiveness possible much less necessary for the process of healing. It is possible to accept one's own anger without letting the hurt "consume" them. The myth that forgiveness is a prerequisite for healing for many people STOPS the healing process. I have known many people who only were able to truly begin the healing process when they LET GO of the myth that they had to force themselves to forgive (release anger). And, no, these aren't angry bitter people, these are simply people who experience a very wide and healthy range of emotions, which does happen to occasionally include anger as just one among many others. "Anger" is not a sign of poor emotional health.

Liz Miller said...

I think that there are some things that are unforgivable, but holding on to them increases the power of the person who wrong us.
"If they're not paying you rent, don't let them live in your head."

Don't forgive the unforgivable. But don't let them continue to have power over you either.

Belinda said...

Such an interesting conversation here--as usual.Thank you Donna Lee for the great post.

One thing I really agree with is that fighting an emotion only makes it grow.

Acceptance of emotions is the first step in the journey to healing and forgiveness, which I believe are intertwined because as other commenters have said, unforgiveness binds you to the offender while forgiveness frees you at last. The process has its own pace and can't be rushed.

And there is a vast difference between forgiving and forgetting.

Unknown said...

I feel that 'forgiveness' can be objective or subjective based on how each person wants to use it for the healing process or not. "forgiveness" can allow a person to move on, but it can also cause a person to go back into situations that will cause hurt. I too was brought up with church's doctrine, that taught me to 'forgive as i would want God to forgive me'. Naturally, i am a very forgiving person. When when i look at the past - i wonder if being forgiving has really helped me?.I have found that being a forgiving person - my friends came to expect more from me, i also feel that people didn't seem to care to hurt me or misuse my trust, because "Desmond would forgive". I agree with "Anonymous' who said 'forgiveness is about me and not the other person'.I have never looked at it that way before, but i couldn't agree more.

A few years back i was very deeply hurt by someone i love and trusted. This individual know that i was forgiving, and each time i forgave, i was hurt again, and again. My forgiving ways was seen as a weakness even though i saw it as my strength. Well, its been over two years since the last time i was hurt by this person. That was the time i decided not to forgive. I have no anger, hate or resentment in my heart for this individual, however, there is no forgiveness either, and i am not sure if there will be. I am happier, i feel stronger and i feel free.

un-forgiveness has been my source of strength and freedom. It is my shield, my wall, my protection. It could be that i don't trust myself...who knows?, but one thing i am certain of; is that i have not felt more free, liberated and complete since i stop forgiving the one who hurt me the most.

my decision is; i will forgive not because i am asked to; not because i was indoctrinated to; and not because i am told to. Forgiveness is a good thing for the soul, but its about me. I will forgive but when i am ready.

Karen said...

Everyone keeps saying that unforgiveness ties a person to the abuser. This sounds like a platitude that's become an accepted truth but with no evidence to say that it's true. Couldn't it be said that forgiveness ties you closer to the victimizer because it's something that has to be given over and over and over every day. I don't like truisms. I don't like the idea that there is only one path to healing and all must trod the same steps. Me? Unforgiveness, as a decision, is an ending. Forgiveness is an ongoing process. So sue me for choosing ending.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Again, a great discussion. I want to thank Donna for writing this blog post. I don't give over to guest posts often but I wanted another voice on the blog about the topic of forgiveness. I'd like readers to know that I didn't give Donna any direction regarding the blog and it was published exactly as written - without editorial input. I wanted this to be uniquely Donna's voice. And, I thought she did a brilliant job. I also was reminded, again, about what remarkable readers I have here at Rolling Around In My Head - discussion and disagreement that is illuminating is rare. So thanks Donna, thanks all who commented. I appreciated reading both post and comments.

Rachel in Idaho said...

The concept of forgiveness can almost be a weapon sometimes - you were hurt by someone's behavior, but the only way to stop being hurt by said behavior is to do something yourself or you are STILL to blame for being hurt, as you were in the first place for "letting them get to you." I'm not saying it always is but it can verge on blaming the victim.

There are people I'm not able to forgive. The farthest I can to is to say that they were young and stupid. But so was I, and you didn't see me mistreating the others the way they treated me.

wendy said...

I'm with Karen, here. I see this as one of things that has come to be seen as true just because it keeps being repeated. Sort of like "feed a fever, starve a cold"...what the hell does that mean anyway? And, as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I find the idea repulsive that I am to forgive my abuser, a predator who dated a series of women for the purpose of abusing their children. Even worse, I'm supposed to this because it's good for me.
I assure you that I don't spend my days and nights angry, bitter and obsessed with my past. I consider myself "healed". I didn't need to forgive him...I needed to forgive myself. Forgiving him is God's's certainly too much to ask of me, a mere mortal!