My Process of Not Quite Forgiving

After two years of working on forgiveness, this is what I've figured out

Photograph by Getty Images/Flickr RF

Forgiveness may be good for you, but it’s not easy. As a trauma therapist, I help others work through pain. When it comes to my own pain, however, I’m as raw and messy as anyone else. I’ve been working on forgiveness for two years and this is how it has gone:

First 24 hours: Shock, disbelief! Then… A GIANT ANXIETY BALL gobbles me up.

Next three days: There is no sleep inside a giant anxiety ball. There are no words. There are plenty of tears.

Next two weeks: Rage! Obsession! I talk to people who will validate me. I want to get all the facts! There is still no sleep.

Next two months: I’ve totally regressed. I’m primitive! I’m four years old! You are bad, bad people. I am good.

Six months out: I need to reframe. If I try very hard and squint my eyes, I can think of ways in which this was a good thing. What a relief! I tell people about this with great pride. Meanwhile, the question consumes me: Which of you do I hate the most?

Ten months out: I’m writing a lot of letters. It takes me a week to write each one. I spend pages telling my side of the story, how destructive you were, how ignorant you are and how much pain you inflicted. Each time I finish, I call my sister, who tells me not to send it.

Fourteen months out: I’m still writing letters but there are larger periods of non-letter writing. I’ve fixated my rage on certain people, which is good because that lets some people off the hook. But then I suddenly switch my perspective and get mad at those people, too.

Sixteen months out: I’ve narrowed down the people I discuss this with to a lucky few. This list does NOT include my husband, my children or anyone who can really be honest about how tiresome I’ve become. (Exception: my sister, who has a crucial job telling me not to send letters.) My lucky few somehow remain loyal and compassionate. I am grateful for this.

Nineteen months out: Something happens that re-inflames my anger. More letters. But they are so much shorter now.

Twenty-one months out: I think I’m starting to heal. I have some positive dreams about folks who were peripherally involved. I write a letter inviting one of these people to get together over wine and talk. I send it. I have nightmares of hell. Fire. Destruction.

Twenty-two months out: I finally decide to do what I could have done 20 months earlier: I do trauma therapy on myself. I get out my pulsars, which buzz in my hands, alternating between left and right. I pull up a visual memory of the most painful moments and recall my most devastating thoughts and feelings. I let myself associate freely to these memories, while the pulsars buzz back and forth. Soon I am back in my giant anxiety ball. But it isn’t just anxiety. It is pain. It is hatred. It is grief. It is powerlessness. It is hopelessness. It is fear. It is very old fear, mixed with the new. I force myself to allow the worst of me to emerge. I push nothing down. I try to sit back and give non-judgmental attention to whatever comes, even if it shocks me (and it does). I stay with it until I am calmer. And then I do it again the next day. And the next.

A few days after that: A new thought ­— or rather an old thought that seems new again. I’m thinking about the illusions I have about myself — especially the illusion that I am a certain type of person who will act in a certain honorable way. My rational side warns me I am capable of all sorts of bad behaviors in certain circumstances. I am both good (the part I notice) and not so good (in my shadow). And if this is true about me …

A few days after that: I am feeling lighter. I can think about my worst-of list and feel surprisingly neutral. I can examine the injury from various angles without unearthing a new layer of rage. I’m intrigued, even uplifted, by the notion that the offenders are no worse (and no better) than I. And yet, I also recognize that there were some truly toxic people involved, and that I don’t need to deal with them. I notice I’m not thinking about it terribly much.

Today: I am thinking that forgiveness has become trendy and dumbed-down. I don’t like that it is presented as a decision, not as a long and difficult path. Forgiveness, unless it is just lip-service, requires genuine suffering. So why do it? Because I was already suffering. Rage hurts. Negative preoccupations push out happiness. Feelings of victimization find their cozy nest and multiply. And because I want reconciliation. I plan to address the injustices done, but I’ll blow it if my angry, emotional brain is in charge. And I want to fairly assess damaged relationships. I’d like to repair some friendships. But I also feel peaceful with the realization that some relationships aren’t fixable and, more to the point, are not worth the effort even if they were.

And then there is this: My father ran into the doctor whose mistake cost my mother her life. At the time, the doctor had expressed grand indifference to this outcome. I asked my father how he handled his anger.

“I saw him at a gas station once,” he said, “and I asked myself if I should just kill him now. But I realized I’d spend the rest of my life in prison. So I didn’t.”

No matter how deep the pain, moving on is often the only practical thing to do.


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