Recently, Melinda wrote a post about the role of forgiveness in her recovery and the difficulty she has had in forgiving her unrepentant father for abusing her in childhood. Reading this made me aware that I wasn’t very clear in my own mind about the meaning of forgiveness. It is always mentioned as an obligatory part of recovery, and yet there has always been something elusive about the idea for me. How was it different from understanding past trauma, dealing thoroughly with its impact and letting go of the feelings of anger or hate? For I did learn to stop the constant blaming of present problems on those who harmed me when I was so young and unable to stand up for myself. Is that forgiveness, or is there something more.
I started thinking and reading to stop the confusion about the ideas and feelings I have about forgiveness. I quickly found that I was not the only one who had a hard time getting at the deeper meaning of this concept. It has different meanings in different religions and cultures, but there are a few major approaches I’ve found that helped me grasp more deeply the connection between what I had experienced and forgiveness.
- I’ve read one view that forgiveness requires an exchange between victim and offender and that this needs to take place face to face. The one who caused the harm needs to acknowledge what he or she has done (confession), express regret, sorrow or remorse (repentance) and offer to compensate in some way (restitution), if that is even possible. It is then up to the victim to decide whether or not to accept this genuine offer, put aside blame, anger, hurt, even feel compassion for the personal struggle and change the offending person has gone through. Then the victim needs to express this to the offender, to say that they can put this harm behind, no longer feel anger or the need for revenge and can move on. The sum of those acts and feelings is forgiveness.
- Religious views in some traditions do not require this reciprocity. Forgiveness is part of the process of moving toward enlightenment or salvation or union with God. Violent feelings of anger, blame and vengeance tie one to the illusions and distractions of this life. A mindful or a spiritually contemplative approach will lead one to compassion for those who act violently and who have harmed you in the past. Letting go of hurtful feelings must happen for one’s own good and for spiritual advancement.
- One contemporary psychological view is also focused on helping an individual move on, if not to spiritual enlightenment, to emotional healing and inner peace. The focus is on the inner strain and destructiveness of anger, blame, hate, vengeance, and seeing oneself constantly as a victim, controlled by the intensity of roiling emotions that block recovery. So the act of forgiving others, whether or not there is a reciprocal repentance and restitution, becomes essential for one’s own well-being.
Many of these descriptions have struck me in the past as prescribed pathways too full of “shoulds” to correspond to immediate experience. I saw them as obligatory scripts, scenarios that could be learned and performed without the achievement of real change.
Mostly, I wondered what could forgiveness be for those of us with depression that is both chronic and severe. The years seemed endless when I obsessed about every failure, every act of malice, betrayal, manipulation, anger or violence I had ever committed or secretly longed to carry out. For decades I read this catalogue of crimes and thumbed its pages each day for fresh evidence of guilt, shame and justification for self-punishment. There seemed no end to my inventivenss in finding ways to defeat or undermine myself, even perversely to act out destructive roles that I did not want to perform. Often I watched myself, under a compulsion I could not begin to master, hurt someone deliberately, even as I hated myself for doing it.
Trying to forgive my own real and imagined trespasses has been the hardest task. No New Age verbal formula of affirmation ever made a dent. I was able after many years to look closely into the lives of my family, write about them, explore their histories, motives, struggles. And somewhere along the way, without a conscious effort, the anger, blame, grudges disappeared. I felt the compassion and love that had been there from the earliest days of childhood. That instinctive love had been thwarted, contained, suppressed, channeled into a child’s assumption of responsibility for everything gone so terribly wrong.
So I have come to believe in forgiveness as spontaneous and unwilled. It is not something I can discipline myself to feel or consciously adopt as another step in a prescribed procedure. I had to decide first to face every pain brought upon me by others or by myself and deal with all of it. But having come through that struggle, I couldn’t force what followed.
What was that, finally, after so many years? It arrived as a sudden awareness that a fundamental shift had occurred, that the obsession with every moment of emotional abuse from the past and with my own hateful acts throughout life was no longer there. I had done all the conscious work I could, then grief came to the surface to make its long suppressed debut. And at last came this inner shift not as a decision of mine but as a spontaneous change of belief about myself, a deep reconciliation and peacefulness. I think I can call that forgiveness. It felt like a pure gift, like grace from God, that may come to a soul that has opened and dropped its violent disguise.