We forgive, if we are wise, not for the other person, but for ourselves. We forgive, not to erase a wrong, but to relieve the residue of the wrong that is alive within us. We forgive because it is less painful than holding on to resentment. We forgive because without it we condemn ourselves to repeating endlessly the very trauma or situation that hurt us so. We forgive because ultimately it is the smartest action to take on our own behalf. We forgive because it restores to us a sense of inner balance.
This is just a post reflecting upon a comment left on a recent piece of writing in which I shared an affirmation while I was struggling with feelings of guilt and responsibility towards my mother and sister. It has made me think deeply about this issue and I did second guess the affirmation after I posted it, which said we are not responsible for anyone else’s life but our own, for surely we have some duty of care to our fellow humans, and most especially our family of origin or those in need of support.
That said these relationships can be tricky and fraught with conflict if emotions tend to be repressed by those we love. I know at times my family have not really known how to deal with the way in which I respond to things and reading through several posts in therapy and crying over the mixture of feelings stirred up that I used to experience with my Mum what I recognised was a deeply insecure and ambivalent pattern. In later years it was often safe to share my feelings with my Mum but I also battled being able express feelings as well, especially over my father’s death and sometimes it was difficult to get any kind of validation, affirmation or support from her. I now understand the reasons why, not everyone’s process or way of dealing with emotions is in harmony and many people don’t have strong enough egos to overcome their powerful defences of resistance against vulnerability.
It is one of the major reasons my marriage ended. I was telling my sis yesterday at about 6 years sober I started to hit the grief I had buried over my father’s death as well as a lot of conflicting feelings over our relationship. I have been reading some excellent chapters on the process of forgiveness in Tian Dayton’s book The Quiet Voice of the Soul yesterday where she shares the four stages of forgiveness and letting go and explains how so often we internalise our trauma as self blame and suffer feelings of deep guilt and shame which can block the process of healing, forgiving and letting go.
Tian explains that learning to feel our wound and hold the pain is actually a part of stage 2 of the process of integrating abuse, trauma and forgiveness and how difficult that stage can be for many of us. Anger and rage are often not looked upon very favourably in our society either, but they too are very necessary parts of acknowledging where, when and how we got hurt, abused or injured. Tian point out how we often internalise the pain or trauma and abuse and then get involved in situations which are repetitions of unfinished business from childhood with others. Healing involves acknowledging these patterns and finding healthier ways to deal with the guilt, shame and other feelings of inadequacy we may internalise or that others may project onto us. It also involves dealing with the anxiety that arises as we dare to try to change some of these patterns and reach for a healthier more assertive style of living which allows new growth.
Tian explains how experiencing a period of feelings of deep and existential aloneness is necessary on our path of healing as we work to break the stranglehold of shame and self blame that leads us forward to psychological health from abuse, negelct or trauma. This is, I guess, where the dark night of the soul comes in.
Tian expresses it beautifully when she says :
On the path to soul, the aloneness and emptiness need to be felt and lived with, in order to make a soul connection. We need to reach out a hand from darkness and connect with the light. Though this emptiness can be disorienting and painful, experiencing it is actually very productive. It puts us in touch with a deeper pulse of life. It allows us to stand firmly on slippery rocks and maintain our footing, even though the waters around us shift constantly.
She explains how at this stage we experience the revelation that the trauma or abuse or suffering was not our fault, while we see how the past is influencing the present, we notice over reactions in response to triggers and deal with those wounds even though our initial response may be to fight, take flight or freeze. We become more aware of projections while releasing them and using them to time travel back to the original site of wounding in order to acknowledge it, through feeling, surrendering too and releasing the associated feelings and pain.
The third stage of integration involves coming to terms with what happened or what we never got but really needed. At this stage of working through we begin to see how those who hurt or victimised us were similarly hurt or victimised. Tian shares the insight that once we accept what happened (even though we don’t like it and it hurts a lot) we begin to be better placed to let go of the pain. We may actually even cease continuing to attribute blame or feel the desire for any kind of retribution, especially feelings self punishment and shame as well as the mistaken illusion that we caused what happened to us.
We also begin to see that some happiness in life is possible outside of the past pain, trauma and abuse although many of us may be tempted to sabotage this happiness due to unresolved feelings of fear things will be taken from us again. This is where a leap of faith comes in. We may take the risk to trust again and reach for new experiences that are not just painful recreations of the old. We also start to see that when we run from pain we don’t feel better, but worse.
When we accept that life has no guarantees and that change is the only constant, we can live more easily with the anxiety that life engenders. Recognition and acceptance, not acquisition of a particular person or situation, ultimately will bring inner peace and a feeling of contentment, because they enable us to let go of the fallacy that we will ever get it right once and for all: there is only now, today, the here and now. Theh house of soul is no house, it is simply the present, full of paradox, contradiction and unity through apparent disunity.
In Stage Four of forgiving and letting go we develop the ability to reverse roles with the people we have had problems with in the past, we start to see things from their perspective too. This makes us capable of connection rather than enmeshment, we don’t lose ourselves in the other person’s view just develop the capacity to enter it for a time. This is recognised more through a strong sense of ego strength that involves compassion and ‘seeing with the eyes of love’.
We also, at this stage develop the capacity to see things from a larger perspective than just our own limited personal one, we learn not to take dysfunctional behaviour personally (as all about us), seeing no one person could be the whole cause. We recognise that most people do not set out to be actively destructive but rather “are generally caught up in preserving their own defences, because they lack the necessary ego strength to let them go. They were (most) probably caught up in trying to survive using the (only) tools they had.” We also see that although this is very hurtful at times and far from ideal, it is not totally malevolent or reprehensible.
According to Tian at this stage
“we learn to spin straw into gold…. to use the traumas and trials of life to bring us closer to both our human and divine natures”
at this stage forgiveness is an outgrowth rather than goal of the process we are undergoing.
“a spontaneous outcoming of coming to understand…..When the storms of doubt, the tears of pain, the storm of anger and rage are past, forgiveness is there, like a soft breeze or a summer afternoon that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere, from above and below, from within and without.”
In the end ultimately forgiveness rests upon a deeply internal process which each of us must undertake through our own dark night experiences and journey as we tussel perhaps over years with the various painful experiences and relationships in our lives. It seems to me that failure to forgive comes out of an inability or unwillingness to truly hold and experience and perform alchemy on our wounds, as well as upon a failure to work through our pain and accept one of the hard truths of life or things we cannot change : life and other people, circumstances and conditions are not always kind and fair. We probably won’t any kind of long lasting peace until we can come to such an acceptance as a precursor towards letting go. Forgiveness never really says that what happened to us was okay but it frees us to understand that some deeper wisdom and sense of meaning can emerge from such experiences, at best they may even help us to grow and deep in compassion for ourselves, our fellow human beings and the entire complex, tragic at time highly comic plight of human nature.