Some Thoughts on Forgiveness

When it is possible at all, forgiveness is an ongoing, sacred process.

A recent post at Kellevision entitled “To ‘Heal’ or not to ‘Heal’…” (excellent and well worth a read) has prompted me to share a few of my own thoughts on the subject of forgiveness.

Expectations of forgiveness are unreasonable when harm is ongoing
I think one of the worst double binds that abuse and trauma survivors face is the expectation that they should forgive someone, often a family member, who continues to treat them badly. Often the nature of the maltreatment has changed from childhood to adulthood. For example, someone who was physically abused as a child by a parent may instead be subjected to what often seem to be regarded as more civilized and acceptable forms of psychologically abusive behavior as an adult. But the original underlying pattern of disrespectful, abusive behavior has never stopped. It is still ongoing. How can anyone be expected to forgive hurtful behavior that is still ongoing? This is a common and very difficult problem for many adult survivors of childhood abuse. They feel forced to choose between looking after their own well-being and maintaining a relationship with one or more family members (oftentimes an entire family system) continuing to perpetuate the same sort of abusive, wounding treatment that hurt them as children.

[I]it seems very unreasonable to me to expect that forgiveness will come as the result of simply deciding to “move on,” “turn the page,” “get over it,” or whatever other subtly coercive euphemism might be used to put pressure on someone who’s not healing fast enough to meet someone else’s requirements.

Forgiveness requires an end to the cycle of wounding
Sometimes the only viable path to forgiveness is to remove ourselves from those who continue to cause us harm despite our best efforts to communicate our needs clearly and maintain healthy boundaries. By taking care of ourselves and ending the cycle of wounding, we can establish a safe distance from those who have injured us, allowing ourselves to move through the old hurts and toward greater understanding and forgiveness without constantly being re-injured by new hurts that feel just like the old ones.

Forgiveness is an iterative process
In my experience, forgiveness, as it relates to healing the effects of abuse and trauma, is not a one-time event. It’s an iterative, multi-layered process that, with committed awareness of oneself and one’s history, unfolds over time. For many survivors, abuse and trauma were not experienced as a one-time event either, but iteratively, in layers, over time. In that context, it seems very unreasonable to me to expect that forgiveness will come as the result of simply deciding to “move on,” “turn the page,” “get over it,” or whatever other subtly coercive euphemism might be used to put pressure on someone who’s not healing fast enough to meet someone else’s requirements.

Forgiveness is an active process
Forgiveness of the sort of deep, longstanding wounds that result from abuse, neglect, and trauma is anything but a passive “love and light,” “warm and fuzzy,” “time heals all wounds” kind of process. Every wound has its own story and its own life, and many wounds are not healed simply by waiting and thinking happy thoughts. They have to be faced, entered, lived in, listened to, understood. They have to be cleansed with tears and shouting and shaking and all the other ways that the human body expresses and discharges the stored energies of fear and pain and grief. They have to be allowed to speak, to tell their stories in their own way and their own time. They have to be met and seen, acknowledged and accepted in all their painful glory as the wild, primal things they are.

Forgiveness is a sacred process
The place within us where we meet our wounds and do the work they call us to do is holy ground. It is ancient and eternal, beyond time, expectations, and schedules. It is the place where we keep our secrets, and where our secrets keep us. It is dark, messy, vital, and beautiful. It knows what we need to know, and it will tell us, if we’re brave enough to listen and to feel our way through to the light that knowledge carries for us. Battleground and sanctuary, it is that sacred space within each of us where we encounter grief, wisdom, and hope, and where, I believe, the path to true forgiveness begins.

 

Some thoughts on forgiveness by Rick Belden, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Read more: Rick Belden’s “Broken Bones and the Father Wound

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About Rick Belden

Rick Belden is the author of Iron Man Family Outing: Poems about Transition into a More Conscious Manhood. His book is widely used in the United States and internationally by therapists, counselors, and men’s groups as an aid in the exploration of masculine psychology and men’s issues, and as a resource for men who grew up in dysfunctional, abusive, or neglectful family systems. His second book, Scapegoat’s Cross: Poems about Finding and Reclaiming the Lost Man Within, is currently awaiting publication. He lives in Austin, Texas.

More information, including excerpts from Rick’s books, is available at his website. His first book, "Iron Man Family Outing," is available here. You can follow Rick Belden on Facebook.

Comments

  1. We’ve talked before, Mr. Belden and you know I both admire you and respect your wisdom. I can say that this article makes a point I do agree with: the idea that forgiveness of abusers is impossible while they are still actively harming the victim, often from childhood into adulthood without ceasing. I agree we must often sever ties and contact to preserve our own safety and healthy boundaries.

    Where I veer away is on two points:

    I avoid religious aspects, so putting any healing work within terms of “sacred” makes me nervous. But I think perhaps you aren’t invoking a religious image with the term; more of a personal sacred, sacred to self?

    Secondly, I find I cannot seem to avoid a feeling of visceral rejection for the idea of forgiving abusers, especially child sex abusers, traffickers, incestuous abusers, rapists… Most are only sorry they got caught, they aren’t sorry they did it (or worse, see it as “no big deal”). To me, they don’t deserve to be forgiven. The idea of forgiving them is repugnant. They did a crime against the victim, often an egregious one, over and over, and have no remorse (also remorse can be faked to lure a lenient judge).

    I’ve come across two excellent articles that support the idea that forgiving abusers is not needed and can actually harm the victim/survivor if they feel pressured to forgive unwillingly or if they are willing, too soon. I’ll link them at the bottom.

    I know you are not advocating for pushing anyone before they are ready, you’ve made that clear. But often others do push, and the result can bring harm to the victim. Some regularly suggest that “If you don’t forgive your rapist, God won’t forgive you.” For people of faith, this could be devastating. For people who avoid religion, it just sounds like another guilt trip, and for both, it sounds like textbook victim-blaming language. These pushy “you must forgive because I say so” types need to be quelled (as you also indicated). I just happen to believe that I personally don’t need to forgive my abusers. Not to help me heal, or discharge self-harming anger, or for any other reason. They were the criminals, I was the victim. They should beg for my forgiveness, but they never will; they don’t care. They took pleasure in harming me and felt they had a right to do so because I was property, a sex toy for them to use. That is not a creature that can ever deserve forgiveness.

    Many say to forgive doesn’t mean to condone or absolve, etc. The problem is, many if not most people do believe forgive means condone/absolve.

    For any victim to even consider forgiveness of abusers, I believe the child sexual abuser would first have to be remorseful and sorry deep down and realize they committed a horrid crime on a defenseless child. Then they would have to willingly seek out their punishment. But the sad fact is, almost none of them would, and no prison term can be enough because it can’t give that victim back their undamaged wholeness. The damage of that abuse is a life sentence, yet few abusers will ever suffer as much. So how could the abusers ever deserve to be forgiven? Especially when they gloat and reminisce and count the days until they can get their next victim?

    I’m not even sure I agree with forgiveness of self as a victim, but then my past abuse has me rather tangled and mixed up. The idea “Forgive yourself to release shame and guilt because you had no control, you were a child” sounds logical… until the nightmares start again and shame and guilt try to crush me. I wrestle with that one in therapy. But to forgive abusers? I never will. They don’t deserve it. I just want to heal as best I can and develop coping skills to continue to survive the rest of the damage I live with every day.

    This isn’t really so much a direct reply to you, per se. Mostly it’s my attempt to explain to myself and others why even the word “forgive” has become a trigger to me, after all those pushy people tried to push me too often.

    Thank you for posting this, though. I still learn something from reading it. And I thank you for the times you’ve taken the time to talk with me; and for not minding that I call you “sir” a lot. I respect you very highly.

    • Thank you for commenting, W.R.R. You’re raised some valid points that will probably resonate with lots of folks.

      First, as I hope I made clear in what I wrote, I am absolutely opposed to forced “forgiveness” in any form or fashion.

      Second, I completely agree that the decision of whether or not to explore forgiveness in a given situation is always a personal choice. No one can make that decision for anyone else. Perhaps it would have been wise for me to state this point more explicitly in the article to avoid any misunderstanding.

      I understand your discomfort with my use of the word “sacred” in this context. I’m not an adherent of any religion, have no interest in religion, and intended no religious implications. Words like “sacred” and “holy” have a much broader meaning for me as invocations of the timeless, transcendent, and very personal mysteries of life and the human experience, independent of any specific religious or cultural attempts at encapsulation or interpretation.

      It is that timeless, transcendent, mysterious aspect within the self to which I am referring when I use the words “sacred” and “holy” in this article. Unfortunately, religion and culture frequently block our access to that very essential core element of ourselves and our experience. Part of what I’m suggesting in this article is that folks interested in exploring a more holistic approach to forgiveness seek out and reconnect with this fundamental aspect of ourselves that religion and society have all too often conditioned us to forget and avoid.

      Again, the choice to explore the possibility of forgiveness, whatever the nature of the transgression, is a deeply personal one. Every healing path is individual and unique to the person who travels it. Like many people, I once associated forgiveness with the requirement that I accept, and therefore implicitly approve of, grave injustices done to me by others. As you said, I could not imagine how forgiveness could be properly and authentically rendered without prior acknowledgment of wrongdoing and an appropriate expression of remorse from the party who’d injured me.

      I don’t look at forgiveness that way anymore, not because of any external pressure or dogma that’s been applied to me, but because ongoing examination of my own life experience has expanded my perspective and caused me, in an entirely organic and unplanned way, to redefine what forgiveness means to me, in both concept and practice. Perhaps what I’ve learned about forgiveness, about all else, is that when it is timely, authentic, and natural, it frees the wounded parts of me from the traps and the trances into which they fell at the moment of deepest injury. It brings them back into present time with me so I can reclaim and reintegrate them, which is precisely what I need to do.

      I’m not “done” with forgiveness yet; not by any means. I’m at various stages in the process with various people about various things. I’d like to forgive everybody for every hurt I’ve ever been given, for my own sake if not for theirs, but I doubt I’ll ever get there and I’m not going to force myself to try. It comes as it comes. There are good reasons why we all need to forgive at our own speed, if we choose to do it at all. But I continue along this track because, as I said, I’ve learned that forgiveness, when it comes authentically and naturally, gives me greater freedom, wholeness, and autonomy in my life, and those are qualities I value highly.

      Again, thank you for reading and commenting. I hope this response addresses some of your concerns in a helpful way. This article was my attempt to share what I’ve learned, but as with anything else, I would encourage you to take what you find useful and leave the rest.

      Forgiveness is a difficult topic and there’s a massive amount of bad information about it everywhere that only serves to injure people further and drive them deeper into their wounds. I think an ongoing dialogue, such as the one you’ve initiated here, that explores how forgiveness is used and misused, understood and misunderstood, would all benefit us all.

  2. Forgot the links to those articles, my apologies: http://m.psychologytoday.com/articles/199907/must-you-forgive

    http://diannaeanderson.net/?p=1713

    I hope those work as links, here; I don’t know how to code them to be…

    Thank you, sir, for listening to me ramble for days above…

    • Thank you for these references. I’ll check them out.

      In addition to my earlier response to you above, I’d like to acknowledge the fact that there are many different degrees and levels of wounding and/or violation to which a person can be subjected, and that this is also an important factor in how one person might see the issue of forgiveness differently than another. All violations and transgressions are not equal in terms of depth and severity of impact, which is another reason why blanket exhortations to forgive without regard for the specific needs of each person, and the history and intricacies of the source of injury, are misguided and harmful.

  3. Mr Supertypo says:

    W.R.R, im not sure if I follow you 100% but as I see it forgivenes is not a favor you do to somebody else but its a favor you do to yourself. Because forgiving a villain, it doesn’t mean what that person did is ok and we let it behind us. That’s reconciliation, witch is a different matter.

    Forgiveness, is something you do to yourself to give yourself peace. And gaining strength to keep fighting your battles, rather than let your mind burn with hate. But what was done against you it is still a open matter till you get justice.

    Thats my take.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on this issue, Mr S. I’m glad you brought up the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. The two are widely assumed to be basically one and the same, or at the very least conjoined, but as you correctly said they are separate and distinct from one another, and one does not mandate or imply the other. It’s essential that we unlink and characterize them properly so we can be clear in our thinking and approach to each.

  4. Thank you for this timely essay….I realize that it is futile to expect anyone to change….so true that it is best to cut off contact and move ahead with your own life….I have distanced myself from a few people and it has been a much more peaceful holiday….

    W.R.R.: I think what Rick is saying is not that you are negating the crimes of the past or giving a free pass to abusers when you give forgiveness….It can mean that you recognize that there is something wrong with your abuser and not with you…and you walk away from it to keep it from eating you from the inside…or to allow it to continue to dwell in your psyche to the point where it interferes with your enjoyment with your life and the good people in your life now….

    Peace

  5. W.R.R.’s perspective that many, including religious groups teach/model/believe, that “forgiveness” is the same as “condoning/absolving” is unfortunately all too real. It is so damaging when “forgiving” is made synonymous with “forgetting” – as if by simply saying “I forgive…” that the wickedness done by another’s actions is somehow swept away and everyone lives happily ever after. Not.

    In short, ‘forgive’ is to forego my demand for emotional &/or psychological compensation for the offences committed against me. This is separate from a legal process for illegal or indictable offences, and is not intended to remove or set aside the consequences of the offender’s actions. It is an intrapersonal process, NOT an interpersonal one as people believe. I am able to work through the pain of another’s actions and give up my need to be “paid back” without the other person ever being involved. And I need to work my way to this place for my OWN sake. Not the other’s. As long as I am looking for emotional/psychological compensation for the wrongs committed against me, I will always be tied internally to the offender. This causes more pain, bitterness, and an inability to put the wounding into perspective and into the past where it belongs. Forgiveness is solely and only in MY hands, no one else’s. This is not condoning or absolving. This is acknowledging the reality that the offender cannot in any significant way make up for the pain his/her actions have caused me, and I choose to stop looking for this compensation, thus freeing myself from the emotional tie to the offence and the offender.

    This is not to say that the offender cannot be held accountible for those actions. It is never my responsibility to absolve another of the responsibility for the consequences of his/her actions. Where there are legal or civil ramifications, they may be pursued without any regard to whether or not I’ve forgiven the offender.

    The second part to forgiveness is reconciliation. I may choose to work through the pain and angst of forgiving another’s actions for the sake of my own mental and emotional health, but whether or not I restore that relationship is entirely dependent on first, my personal choice, and secondly on the actions of the other. If there is no sorrow, no contrition, no observable, measurable, consistent effort to address the issues which caused the wounding in the first place, the other is not SAFE, and it would be foolish of me to place myself in a position to be re-wounded again by the other’s thoughtless, cruel, or malicious behaviour.

    Too many teach that forgiving and reconciliation are symbiotic – as if the one cannot exist without the other. Balderdash. Coming to a place of forgiving those who have wounded me does not ever then require me to restore/continue/perpetuate the same circumstances which caused the damage in the first place.

    This is such an excellent article, Rick, and the comments indicate the pain that comes with society/culture/religion not understanding the true nature of forgiveness, and the incredible hard work it is to count the cost of living in a flawed and chaotic world where relationship with our fellow humans is the source of our greatest pleasure …and our greatest pain.

  6. Thank you, Susannah. You cover some very important areas that my article did not, specifically this:

    This is not to say that the offender cannot be held accountable for those actions. It is never my responsibility to absolve another of the responsibility for the consequences of his/her actions. Where there are legal or civil ramifications, they may be pursued without any regard to whether or not I’ve forgiven the offender.

    And this:

    Too many teach that forgiving and reconciliation are symbiotic – as if the one cannot exist without the other. Balderdash. Coming to a place of forgiving those who have wounded me does not ever then require me to restore/continue/perpetuate the same circumstances which caused the damage in the first place.

    This is such a rich topic and I’m glad to see folks sharing their thoughts and perspectives.

  7. Thank you Mr. Belden for the clarifications and added comments. The most important thing that most articles on forgiveness neglect to address is that forgiving abusers is a choice a person can avoid if it isn’t the right choice for them. Worse, many articles deny that it is a choice at all, attempting to force, cajole, intimidate or guilt a victim into forgiving abusers solely because we all must conform to their (usually religious) views of “what is right”. To me, “what is right” is to not rent your five year old son’s body to pedophiles for money. I feel that anybody who leaps over the facts of what was done to a person and pushes them to forgive is just another form of abuser. Your added comment that there are many degrees of wounding is correct, and while I can forgive a man for stealing my money or bumping into me on the street, I cannot forgive the people who raped me as a child.

    Dr. Susannah, you are right that so many people misunderstand or misinform the concept of forgiveness and their doing so causes harm. I believe people (in my experience especially the religious) need to be educated on how their pushing of their dogma can harm others. There have been survivors pushed into thoughts of suicide over some fool telling them they “have to” forgive their rapist. Then again, in the wait for religious zealots to be reasonable and see other viewpoints or understand a victim’s pain, I don’t plan to hold my breath. But I thank you for adding to this discussion with some very good points.

    To Leia and Mr. SuperTypo, I appreciate the sentiment of trying to help. I did understand perfectly what Mr. Belden is saying. Sometimes others who really believe in the concept of “forgiving abusers is for your own peace, not for them, doesn’t absolve them” are the quickest to not hear it when somebody says they don’t agree and see no value in that concept. I reject “forgive abusers” on all levels, for any reasons. I ask that others please respect my choice.

    The main thing for me is that the degrees of wounding needs to be taken into account, as Mr. Belden stated. There is a scale, so to speak. Somebody taking your parking space is clearly far away on that scale from a pedophile (or many of them) raping you as a toddler. It isn’t about playing some foolish game of “my wound is deeper/worse than yours” either. The scale would be for personal reflection, and for others to respect that forgiving the parking space thief is not the same process/choice as the prospect (rejected or explored) of forgiving the child rapists. No person should ever tell another “I had it worse than you, so I have more right to be hurt/angry/depressed etc.”. I don’t think that way. Fact is, a child groped once can be just as scarred and in need of healing for years (if not their whole life) as a child who was raped. It’s not a comparison game. But when I have years of child rape in my past, it is offensive and makes me defensive to have a stranger blinded by their religion insist to me that I “have to” forgive pedophiles or I’m in violation of some personal code of theirs. (This has happened to me often).

    What right does any soul have, for any reason, to tell another how to heal? We want to help, it comes naturally to many. We bring our viewpoints, convictions and beliefs with us when we try to help; but if helping is really the goal, then hearing the other person is vital. Avoiding insisting that your way is best (or the only way) is more often harmful.

    Mr. Belden’s article is about an interior work based on the choice to do that work having already been made. He says nothing about pushing others to do that work. I feel a need exists (quite often) to remind well-meaning and kind folks who want to help, that no matter how kind and helpful their words seem to be, if the person they are trying to help feels unheard or pushed, their efforts may well be met with either defensiveness or despair. Child rape isn’t a stolen parking space, and one person’s beliefs on how to heal may not be what a victim of rape needs to hear. Mostly, victims/survivors just need to be heard. General advice to all: Don’t talk more than you are willing to listen. Don’t spend the time while they trust enough to bare their pain to you, figuring out what you plan to say next. Just listen; that’s what really helps. And gently suggesting they consider seeking professional help to assist them in healing is a great thing to say next.

  8. As someone who has worked through a lot of these issues, here is my perspective.

    For a long time I was very angry with my abuser. This was incredibly important, and I quite rightly got very angry when people told me to forgive. I was settled in the view that my anger would gradually fade, but in no way would I forgive. Then spontaneously forgiveness started to happen.

    To be clear when I say forgiveness, I mean letting go of the anger, and moving on. Not letting the perpetrator back into my life, or absolving her of responsibility for her crimes. So rather than fantasising about murdering her, I took real steps to getting her prosecuted. Not out of a desire for her to be raped in prison, but out of a desire to protect other kids, and a desire for her to get the treatment that she needs. It is forgiveness with her hopefully behind bars, and definitely not working with children. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

    Survivors will be angry for as long as is necessary. Telling them to forgive is pointless at best, and can be extremely harmful because some survivors will bury their pain and anger in an attempt to seem nice and forgiving. It might take years, but if it is right for the survivor then they will forgive on their own. Some survivors never forgive and that is OK too.

    If you know an angry survivor then support the anger as a necessary part of healing. If the survivor makes realistic plans to rape or murder the abuser then point out that this puts the wrong person in prison. If you are fed up with their anger then you can ask them to try and control their anger around you. Don’t tell them to forgive the un-forgiveable.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Couple of additions: There are some who will tell you that forgiveness isn’t complete until you turn around and bend over, again. And that promoting prosecution or other legal action means you haven’t forgiven.
    The Nazi Hunter in Vienna, Simon Wiesenthal, was asked if he would forgive the Nazis. He said that only the injured could choose to forgive.

  10. Luvxtravagantly says:

    This is an awesome article! Thank you for writing it!

    As Christians we are taught that we must forgive, and this is true, however if the abuse is ongoing. You can forgive them from a distance and not put yourself in a situation to be hurt again. I believe that this is self love and the first part of healing from a series of traumatic events. It’s not noble, humble, nor wise to stay in a situation where you are being abused. In this particular situation it was emotional abuse and you are right forgiveness is a sacred space and you must protect it from further injury.

    • Lux, thank you for reading and sharing your perspective. There are lots of angles to explore and express with the forgiveness issue and I’m glad to see the discussion continuing.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Some Thoughts on Forgiveness — A recent post at Kellevision entitled “To ‘Heal’ or not to ‘Heal’…” (excellent and well worth a read) has prompted me to share a few of my own thoughts on the subject of forgiveness. I think one of the worst double binds that abuse and trauma survivors face is the expectation that they should forgive someone, often a family member, who continues to treat them badly. Often the nature of the maltreatment has changed from childhood to adulthood. [...]

  2. [...] “Some Thoughts on Forgiveness” – a moving and touching piece on GMP on December 28, 2012 – Rick Belden wrote: “Every [...]

  3. [...] A respectful response to Rick Belden’s article, “Some Thoughts on Forgiveness”. [...]

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