The Gift of Forgiveness
How 22 stories helped me see forgiveness in a new light.
Posted Mar 10, 2020
At some point in your lifetime, you are likely to be presented with the opportunity to practice and seek forgiveness. You realize you said something unkind, and you find yourself taking responsibility for causing the hurt. You extend an apology and ask for forgiveness.
However, when suffering involves injustice (i.e, murder, torture, abuse) or witnessing tragedy or reliving trauma on a daily basis, there isn't a mathematical formula for forgiveness. And as a clinical social worker, author, and life coach, I'm always curious about how someone practices forgiveness when they've experienced this kind of unspeakable pain.
So, I was eager to read this new book, The Gift of Forgiveness" by Katherine Schwarzenegger-Pratt, which contains 22 narratives and in-depth interviews from people who have endured the unthinkable because I wanted to learn how they integrated forgiveness into their healing. Some of the people in the book include: Elizabeth Smart (who was kidnapped and raped daily for nine months), Scarlett Lewis (her young son was killed at Sandy Hook), Lewis Howes (endured childhood sexual abuse), Chris Williams (his pregnant wife and two of his children died in a car crash caused by a drunk driver), and Talinda Bennington (her ex-husband, Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington completed suicide). There are a total of 22 people who bravely share their forgiveness stories.
When I spoke with the book's author, Schwarzenegger-Pratt, she was quick to point out that she is not an "expert on forgiveness," but rather "a student" of it. And I too consider myself a student of forgiveness. In reading this book, I learned some valuable lessons (in no particular order) that I thought I'd share here:
Forgiveness enhances your relationship with yourself. Elizabeth Smart believes that forgiving her captors meant an act of self-love. In the book, she says, "Just loving yourself and giving yourself the freedom to live fully" helped her to move on. She recalls, "I felt like I had this sort of epiphany of what I felt true forgiveness was, and I remember feeling like, 'Yeah, I have moved on. I have let go. I have forgiven.'"
Forgiveness doesn't mean you forget. For producer, preacher, and best- selling author DeVon Franklin, whose alcoholic father died when DeVon was only 9 years old, forgiveness put his father's alcoholism in a new perspective. He says, "I think the power of forgiveness can be found in not forgetting what has happened, but not allowing it to have a negative, long-term impact in our life, as much as we can control that."
Forgiveness is a process. One of the people that endured sexual abuse by Larry Nassar was Sarah Klein. As a gymnast, she spent an inordinate amount of time with Nassar and endured years of sexual abuse. It wasn't until after she spoke at his court hearing that she felt her forgiveness process begin. "I think the forgiveness process did not start for me until after sentencing. Someone gave me the advice to walk my 8-year-old self up to that podium and speak for her—give her back the voice that had been taken from her. My heart was so broken, and it still is broken, for that little girl. I walked up there the troubled, scared, and fearful little girl. I walked away a grown woman. I got to take myself back, take my power back," she explains.
Forgiveness can include nurturing, healing, and love. Scarlett Lewis tells the heartbreaking story of losing her son, Jesse, in the Sandy Hook tragedy. Unbeknownst to this single mother, Jesse wrote these three words: nurturing, healing, love on the kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died. After Jessie's death, Scarlett reached out to a professor, Dr. Chris Kukk, who researched compassion. The three words Jesse wrote define compassion across cultures. And this triple spirit of compassion—nurturing, healing, and love—is how Scarlett was able to forgive Adam Lanza, the person who killed her child.
Forgiveness can include telling your narrative in a way that heals. As a young adult, Nadia Bolz-Weber attended her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. And as part of the 12-step program, Nadia encourages those in recovery to step away from resentment and move towards forgiveness. She emphasizes that telling your story in a way that honors the truth and your feelings but doesn't harness you to a place of pain is important. Nadia says, "We get so attached to the story we're telling that we just think, 'It's true, and it's the only one that can be true.' But, oh my gosh, no; you can actually tell the story in different ways—ways that are still true and that still honor who you are and your hurt, but that don't keep you in that place."
Forgiveness is a mechanism to release pain. Professional football player Lewis Howes intimately knows what it is like to let go of difficult feelings. He endured childhood sexual abuse and decided to forgive his abuser. In the book, Howes says of forgiveness, "It's holding them accountable still, but allowing yourself off the hook of feeling anger, rage, and pain."
Forgiveness helps restore life. February 9, 2007, turned out to be a horrific night for Chris Williams. He and his pregnant wife and their three youngest children went out for dessert when their car was struck by a drunk driver. His pregnant wife and two of their children were instantly killed. Chris remembers forgiving the drunk driver, Cameron, as soon as the crash occurred. Chris explains, "The one thing that nobody can take away is our ability to decide how we react to those situations. Was I going to go down the path that I knew wouldn't give me justice, wouldn't give me closure, wouldn't bring my family back? If anything, that path could actually poison the remaining family that I had with anger and vengeance. Or could I make a choice to let all of that go and chose to be healed in another way?"
Chris actually helped Cameron forgive himself for causing the accident because Chris didn't want Cameron to be consumed by the tragedy.
Forgiveness can be a paradox—loving the person despite enduring the suffering their actions caused. When a lament is interwoven with mental illness and/or substance abuse, it can be hard to discern what you're grieving. You may be grieving the loss of health, trust, and the hope the person would get better. Sometimes it is several days, weeks, or even years before you're able to process all that has been lost.
Talinda Bennington's grief was amplified by the media when her musician husband, and father of their three children and her three step-children, Chester Bennington completed suicide. He also struggled with sobriety. Deprived of the ability to know what Chester was thinking before that horrific night, Talinda takes time on a daily basis to forgive. In the forgiveness book, she explains, "I try to remember that it was that broken part of him that took that action that night. And I can't help but forgive him, because he truly loved us. He truly loved me. He was such a great dad. He was just not well, and he was so good at hiding it that it makes me almost have even more compassion for him because that's a lot of work. It's a lot of work to feel that bad and to not let anybody know."
When speaking about mental health issues, Schwarzenegger-Pratt said, "Mental illness is something a lot of people experience." And for the people who are in relationships with those who struggle with mental health issues, she added: "There is devastation, anger, and rage. It is a complicated topic, and it is important that we speak about mental health in an open, honest, and compassionate way."
I believe forgiveness enhances your relationship with yourself and is the ultimate form of self-care. While you don't dismiss what happened, you don't let it consume you either. And these stories are a testament to the fact that it is possible to emerge from unspeakable trauma with hope, love, compassion.
Schwarzenegger- Pratt, Katherine, "The Gift of Forgiveness" (2019). Viking; New York, New York.