Recently I received this email on the subject of forgiveness:
“Mary, I think it was you who said that she was sexually abused by her father, and you eventually, forgave him. I don’t believe I’d be able to forgive him if he did that to me. Can you please tell me how you managed to come to forgiving him? I will be very grateful if you tell me, as I have had a hard time forgiving someone who drugged me and used me for money.”
As a start I sent her this message in an email:
“Forgiveness (in my mind) is about settling the hate and rage that clog up our own body energy. Forget about the perpetrator. What matters is the victim. I don’t want to carry around the awful feelings of hate for the perpetrator. That would harm me, not the perpetrator. What do I need to do to free myself of the ugly emotions?”
She wrote back:
“The reason I sent you the email is that I have always thought – maybe wrongly – that by holding onto the anger I am giving myself some power over my abuser. I was emotionally abused by my mentally ill brother since age five. He stopped abusing after I rebelled against him, but that was after twenty-seven years of inflicting emotional pain on me. Sometimes I feel confused. I heard that if I don’t feel anger then I don’t have a sense of justice. I thought the kind of abuse you suffered is something only God can forgive.”
Here’s what I think:
Simply deciding to forgive doesn’t work. Nothing has happened to make things better for the survivor. The inner work has not been done to release the wounded person from the shame, hatred and sense of betrayal. I call this process skipping. Healing may take years. It’s not an act of willing to forgive.
In a perfect situation the perpetrator would come to understand the harm he or she has caused and feel remorse. Then the perpetrator would ask for forgiveness. This could lead to true forgiveness. Unless the perpetrator acknowledges the harm done and apologizes, the only person suffering is the victim. The victim’s anger does nothing to hurt the perpetrator.
What matters to me is the way the victim carries the traumatic memory. What really matters is attending to one’s own shame, pain and sense of betrayal. However you choose to do that –through psychotherapy, bodywork or whatever – it’s your wellbeing that matters.