FORGIVENESS. A concept that is profound, potentially powerful, and yet so often misunderstood.
As I meet with clients in my counseling practice, there are few things that arise more often in a therapy process than the idea of wanting/needing/being unable to forgive someone who has hurt them. I struggle with this concept both personally and professionally. What does it mean to forgive someone? Are we mandated to do so? Who really benefits from a forgiveness exercise… the offended or the offender? There are so many complex things to consider…. and so many conflicting thoughts on the topic. While I certainly do not have all of the answers to all of these complex questions, I have formulated a few thoughts on the issue that I would like to share, for your consideration.
First, I have come to believe that forgiveness is a lot about making a choice… like many things in our lives. When we choose to forgive another person, we are willfully choosing to extend grace… usually undeserved grace. But this is not an easy task. It requires that we delve deep within ourselves and our hurt. It requires that we examine our sustained wounds, and that we come to a place of acceptance… not acceptance that the pain caused was okay but instead acceptance that it cannot be changed… acceptance that the only way forward is through resolution. And, I have come to believe that the only lasting resolution to pain is the brand that comes through an authentic grief/ healing/forgiveness process (usually in that order).
I also believe that the willful choosing process requires that we reflect honestly about the hurt we ourselves have caused others… that we accept that as flawed human beings no one has lived a perfect life and no one is innocent of this charge. When we find this place of acceptance with the pain caused by our offender(s) and our own offenses to others, we can start to choose the path that leads to healing. We can then choose to consciously resolve the pain (as we understand it) in the here and now and attempt to move forward with our lives… as best we can with the wounds we have sustained… and without hate in our hearts.
Pause: I do want to take a moment here to acknowledge something… I know that there are different brands of pain that someone can cause in our lives. There are “scratches” sustained by a friend’s careless words or unfounded rumors or the isolated lie of a loved one; there are deep “cuts” we get from a divorce or a financial betrayal or a parent’s unbridled anger; and there are excruciatingly painful, potentially emotionally lethal “flesh wounds” that are caused by an affair, or a rape, or a parent’s addictions. Different brands of pain require different brands of care. And the more painful the offense, the longer the necessary healing process. While I believe forgiveness is the right answer for all of us, I do not believe that anyone should be forced into a process before they are ready. And, I strongly believe that anger and depression and bargaining (i.e. a healthy grief process) almost always precede a healthy, helpful forgiveness process.
Additionally, I have come to earnestly believe that to forgive is not to forget. I am more and more clear that we are not a forgetting people. Forgiveness requires that we offer grace while fully knowing that we will carry the scars of the offense with us even after the process has been complete. Forgiving someone does not mean that the memories of the offense are magically erased. Hurts that we sustain become part of our story. They stay with us… probably forever (though they do — thankfully — seem to get fainter with time). So, if we choose the forgiveness route, we must do it with this information in mind.
I have also come to believe that forgiveness does not ask of us that we reengage in unhealthy relationships. To forgive is not to accept a relationship dynamic that is toxic or to pretend that someone is capable of meeting our needs (if they are not). Forgiveness requires an extension of grace, a genuine effort to relinquish our “rights” to revenge, and a conscious decision to move forward without hate in our hearts. It does not require that we continue on a path that leads to further hurt or that we live our lives pretending. We will have choices to make about whether or not we continue in relationships with those who have hurt us. I do certainly believe that restoration of relationships is possible, but I do not believe that the forgiveness process requires that all relationships be restored or continued.
Finally, I want to give us all permission to be in a lifelong process of healing. What I mean is that hurts we sustain can resurface… even when we’ve done all of the “right” steps. Other circumstances in our lives can cause seemingly resolved pain to rear its head once again. This is not a failure on your part. Nor does it render a forgiveness process void. It just means that it is a good idea to always keep ourselves surrounded by a healthy support system… and to have the number of a good therapist near-by J
*Please stay tuned for further thoughts on forgiveness, self-image, female friendships, authenticity, etc. And, please email me if you have thoughts/questions about this piece at firstname.lastname@example.org.