Monica found her way to forgiveness the hard way, the way many people do, by experiencing pain and betrayal (See Forgiveness part one). In her efforts to recover the sense of self that she lost during the years of abuse that she experienced, she found that her recovery work would not be complete until she had more fully come to terms with her past, and that would entail the need to forgive her parents and herself. Despite the fact that her analytical mind understood she was very young and unable to prevent the violation that she experienced from her father, like many other survivors of sexual assault, she felt an irrational yet powerful sense of guilt for having gone through the experience.
Difficult as giving herself forgiveness was, it proved to be easier than forgiving her parents for their participation in her abuse. They were, after all, the adults in the family. At least they were supposed to be acting as adults: providing care and protection, and taking care of their children’s other personal needs that they couldn’t fulfill on their own. How could my father have done what he did? How could my mother allowed him to do what he did? Is this how men are? Is this how women are?
Questions like these and other powerful emotions surged through Monica’s mind and body as she tried to make sense out of something that did not lend itself to rational analysis. “It wasn’t until I stopped trying to make sense out of everything that I began to see that the path to my recovery required me to go through the world of feelings and emotions, rather than thoughts and theories. I wanted to stay in my head because that was less painful than feeling the emotions that were so disturbing to me, feelings that I wanted to deny because they made me feel ashamed of myself for having them. Feelings like murderous rage, disgust, deep shame, powerlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, sorrow, grief, and the overwhelming fear that I might never feel whole and healed ever again.
I had been brought up in the Catholic Church where I was taught that just having these feelings was sinful so I also was terrified that I might have to spend eternity in hell for my spiritual crimes and my disloyalty to the church. Forgiving myself felt like I would be letting myself off the hook, going against the principles of my religion which had guided me for most of my life, and that felt like a risk that I was unwilling to take.”
Monica found herself in what seemed like an impossible position. Torn between conflicting impulses, she felt like she was on a rack being stretched between the two extremes of confessing her truth or denying it. She learned through that excruciating, but mercifully temporary crisis of conscience, that the path of forgiveness was through her heart rather than her head. Or in the words of the spiritual teacher Sri Nisargadatta, “The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.” The turning point in Monica’s recovery process came when she realized that she didn’t need to make sense of her experience and answer all of the “Why” questions that came up so relentlessly.
She just needed to experience the feelings and tell the truth to herself—and when she felt ready, to others. Not only the truth about the actual occurrences that took place, but what she felt, what she was left with as a result of those events. Telling the truth to her was a significant challenge since it meant re-experiencing all of the emotions that she had put away years ago since feeling them would have overwhelmed the young girl that she was at the time. Sharing them with others proved to be an even more daunting process.
“I’m glad that I didn’t know how hard it would be to confront my parents with my feelings. Even though I tried to do it in a non-blaming way, I think that some of my anger came out with the pain when I finally did speak with them. Fortunately, I knew enough to speak with them separately, one-on-one, rather than one-on-two, but still, it didn’t go well at the beginning. They were both very defensive. We all were.”
Jack, Monica’s husband at the time, was furious at her parents and his feelings towards them inflamed Monica’s smoldering resentment, which didn’t help. “I know that Jack’s anger was fueled by his compassion for me and his outrage that my parents had caused me so much pain. I appreciated his empathy but his anger in some ways made it harder for me to find the forgiveness that I knew I needed to experience in order to finish my unfinished business.”
Although neither of her parents ever became willing to validate the legitimacy of Monica’s feelings, she was able to free herself of a great deal of resentment that she had been feeling towards them. In the conversations that they had, both of her parents shared some of their own childhood experiences that included severe abuse, neglect, and abandonment. She learned that her father had also been sexually abused as a child. Although hearing about their suffering didn’t remove all of Monica’s pain, it was an important aspect of the process in that it helped her to appreciate that her parents were still struggling with their own inner demons.
“I felt some compassion for them in hearing that they had their own horrendous stories. That still didn’t justify their actions or make what they did okay, but it did help to soften the bitterness that I had been feeling towards them for so long. Forgiveness just came to me as I felt my heart softening towards my parents. It felt more like something that was gentle and natural and was happening to me, rather than something that I had deliberately chosen to do. I began to feel grateful for the healing support and resources that have been available to me that they didn’t have access to, and proud of myself for having the commitment and the courage to take advantage of them.”
The purpose of forgiveness is not necessarily to become a good or morally correct person, but simply to provide ourselves the gift of being relieved of the resentment that grudge holding promotes. Failing to forgive doesn’t make us a bad person any more than forgiving makes us a good person. There are consequences to forgiving and consequences to failing to forgive.
As Monica did the inner work that enabled her to restore a measure of self-trust and self-esteem to her damaged self-image, she finally began to feel deserving of a life that was not burdened by the weight of emotional incompletions, and unfinished business.
At that point her previous identity of being unworthy and shame-based no longer fit. She had literally outgrown it. It was then that forgiveness was no longer an unattainable fantasy, but became inevitability. At that point she became possessed by an overwhelming intention to free herself from the shackles of her past.
In our third and last piece in our series on forgiveness we will offer you a list of specific steps that will support you in practicing forgiveness in any relationship that you have in which you feel ready and willing to free yourself of any past hindrances that are preventing you from being more open-hearted, present, and free in your life.
Stay tuned for Part 3 to see the 16 Steps to Forgiveness
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