By Rick Belden
When it is possible at all, forgiveness is an ongoing, sacred process.
Expectations of forgiveness are unreasonable when harm is ongoing
I think one of the worst double binds that abuse and trauma survivors face is the expectation that they should forgive someone, often a family member, who continues to treat them badly. Often the nature of the maltreatment has changed from childhood to adulthood. For example, someone who was physically abused as a child by a parent may instead be subjected to what often seem to be regarded as more civilized and acceptable forms of psychologically abusive behavior as an adult. But the original underlying pattern of disrespectful, abusive behavior has never stopped. It is still ongoing. How can anyone be expected to forgive hurtful behavior that is still ongoing? This is a common and very difficult problem for many adult survivors of childhood abuse. They feel forced to choose between looking after their own well-being and maintaining a relationship with one or more family members (oftentimes an entire family system) continuing to perpetuate the same sort of abusive, wounding treatment that hurt them as children.
Forgiveness requires an end to the cycle of wounding
Sometimes the only viable path to forgiveness is to remove ourselves from those who continue to cause us harm despite our best efforts to communicate our needs clearly and maintain healthy boundaries. By taking care of ourselves and ending the cycle of wounding, we can establish a safe distance from those who have injured us, allowing ourselves to move through the old hurts and toward greater understanding and forgiveness without constantly being re-injured by new hurts that feel just like the old ones.
Forgiveness is an iterative process
In my experience, forgiveness, as it relates to healing the effects of abuse and trauma, is not a one-time event. It’s an iterative, multi-layered process that, with committed awareness of oneself and one’s history, unfolds over time. For many survivors, abuse and trauma were not experienced as a one-time event either, but iteratively, in layers, over time. In that context, it seems very unreasonable to me to expect that forgiveness will come as the result of simply deciding to “move on,” “turn the page,” “get over it,” or whatever other subtly coercive euphemism might be used to put pressure on someone who’s not healing fast enough to meet someone else’s requirements.
Forgiveness is an active process
Forgiveness of the sort of deep, longstanding wounds that result from abuse, neglect, and trauma is anything but a passive “love and light,” “warm and fuzzy,” “time heals all wounds” kind of process. Every wound has its own story and its own life, and many wounds are not healed simply by waiting and thinking happy thoughts. They have to be faced, entered, lived in, listened to, understood. They have to be cleansed with tears and shouting and shaking and all the other ways that the human body expresses and discharges the stored energies of fear and pain and grief. They have to be allowed to speak, to tell their stories in their own way and their own time. They have to be met and seen, acknowledged and accepted in all their painful glory as the wild, primal things they are.
Forgiveness is a sacred process
The place within us where we meet our wounds and do the work they call us to do is holy ground. It is ancient and eternal, beyond time, expectations, and schedules. It is the place where we keep our secrets, and where our secrets keep us. It is dark, messy, vital, and beautiful. It knows what we need to know, and it will tell us, if we’re brave enough to listen and to feel our way through to the light that knowledge carries for us. Battleground and sanctuary, it is that sacred space within each of us where we encounter grief, wisdom, and hope, and where, I believe, the path to true forgiveness begins.
Some thoughts on forgiveness by Rick Belden, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Read more: Rick Belden’s “Broken Bones and the Father Wound“