To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. Lewis B. Smedes
True forgiveness is a gift that cannot be doled out like mints in the waiting room of a doctor's office. Instead forgiveness is a conscious choice to clear pain, hurt, disappointment and anger out of your heart so that love takes its place. It is a not about the recipient of such grace, but rather an act of self-love. No heart suffers more than the one unable to forgive. It is, and should be, coveted by those who understand its healing power.
Yet as much as we understand its necessity to heal, we often resist forgiving others. Why? Some people erroneously think of forgiveness as a "get out of jail free" pass to those who have caused immeasurable pain. Not true. Some people think of forgiveness as being synonymous with forgetting the damage caused by hurtful and harmful acts. Not true. Neither of these are valid for true forgiveness. To the contrary, forgiveness is the gateway to an emotional freedom from those people and experiences that have wounded us.
We cannot begin to negotiate a new normal and transform our experiences without first forgiving. Regardless of the relationship that beckons your forgiveness, it is critical in order to move on without dragging forward the hurt from your past. Trust me, I know that there are some things that may seem unforgivable. There are some things that are so egregious and so heinous that we might wonder, is forgiveness really possible? I can tell you firsthand that even the most heinous acts of betrayal can be forgiven. The best way for me to illuminate this point is through my personal experience up close and personal with forgiveness.
My personal story of forgiveness:
I grew up with parents who struggled with their own identities, including what it meant to
be married and to be parents. My mom was only 16 years old when she had me and my dad was 21. They were young and ill-equipped for the life they had thrown themselves into. They, way too often, took their frustrations and ignorance of life out on me and my brother.
My mother was angry and miserable with teenage parenthood and married life. She married my father because she was forced, but she didn't love him. She projected that misery on us with an unmatched venomous tongue. As such, she was verbally and emotionally abusive. She called me names repeatedly and consistently enough that I was traumatized and my self-esteem was gravely impacted. "Fat ass" was often at the top of her name-calling list.
Her anger was only matched by the physical fury that would rain down on us if she got mad enough. I remember being so terrified of her that when she walked passed us and simply reached for the phone we would jump in fear that she would hit us. You see, her anger often had no rhyme or reason. But the most memorable whipping was after my brother and I skipped school. We paid for that childhood stupidity with the lashes of an extension cord on our naked skin. I remember thinking that she must be trying to kill me. It seemed to go on forever. While the physical scars eventually healed, the terror left an indelible mark on my psyche and soul.
Now if the physical and emotional abuse wasn't enough, my father certainly held his own brand of insidiousness. I was sexually molested by my father until about 12 or 13 years of age. I was never clear on the exact beginning and ending because I blocked so much of this horror from my conscious mind in order to survive. What I do remember very clearly is feeling guilty and loathing my body for growing up faster than my years. It was a very confusing time for me and I turned my hatred inward for many years.
Needless to say that this history of abuse could very easily go in the category of unforgivable. And I tried that for years, which led me to an eating disorder, promiscuity, a love affair with alcohol and attempted suicide. Not forgiving them, obviously, wasn't working for me. More than that it was killing me slowly. In my mid-20s I made a different choice. I chose to search my heart for what it would take to forgive them and heal myself. That journey has taken me many places, including therapy, self confrontation, and an ultimate personal revolution!
My father had unfortunately died before I could confront him with my truth. So I wrote him a heartfelt letter that took six months to finish. I poured my heart and soul into that letter. I took out a picture of him and read the letter to his spirit, unleashing my anger, hurt, confusion and rage--without censorship. I do not believe that we die and return to spirit with the same human flaws, so I know he heard and received my message. Then I burned the letter. I had released him and it. I had forgiven him.
My mother was a whole other beautiful experience. I confronted my mother with my truth. She listened with an open heart. Then the most amazing thing happened. She said, "I don't remember everything, but I know I was angry and I believe you... I am so sorry." We have spent subsequent years falling in love with the women we had both become. We have unveiled our souls together. I began to see her as not just my mother, but as a woman just like me. A woman who made mistakes; a woman who was scared, hurt and confused. I saw her as a flawed human being worthy of forgiveness. Today, we are best friends and I love her deeply. I have forgiven her.
Forgiving my parents has helped me restore the good memories of my childhood. I was able to readily recall times with both of them that were fun, educational and joyous. I don't believe this would have happened had I not sought forgiveness first.
But the most challenging aspect of my forgiveness journey has been the road to forgiving myself. I have forgiven myself for making choices that did not serve me, but rather degraded my soul. And because I have forgiven myself, I have been able to release the shame and guilt. I am not done with that yet, but each year it has gotten easier and, most definitely, better. I have extended grace and compassion to myself for not knowing how to make better choices for myself. As they say, when we know better we can do better.
So now that you've witnessed my story, my hope is that you walk away believing that forgiveness is possible. I'd like to offer you some practical tips for forgiving the unforgivable in your life:
- You can not embrace forgiveness if you are stuffing the emotions that must precede forgiveness, such as anger, hurt, etc. Stuffing your emotions and pretending not to hurt is not the same as forgiving. This is a futile exercise in denial that will undoubtedly show up somewhere else in your life. Let it go and know that God is big enough to handle ALL of your emotions.
- Allow your pain to be witnessed by someone. This honors your heart. This validation of your pain is critical if you are to embrace forgiveness. Having your pain witnessed is also a way of releasing the shame; Shame is a barrier to forgiveness. It is an insidious dis-ease of the soul.
- Remember that forgiving does not mean forgetting. As such, you may decide that the perpetrators of your betrayal do not need to be in your life. Only you can decide what is right and healthy for you. Sometimes boundaries are actually the most loving thing you can do for your self.
- Don't rush forgiveness. It is not a race to see how quickly you can forgive. Forgiveness must be genuine and come from a place of authenticity. The only one who is fooled by a disingenuous approach to forgiveness is one who does not truly understand its purpose.
- Be sure to put your self on your list of people to forgive. Too often, as women, we extend more compassion to others than we are willing to extend to ourselves. The guilt we carry weighs us down and permeates our lives. We must let it go, plain and simple!
- Be willing to seek professional support as you seek to forgive the unforgivable. Whether it is your romantic relationship, friendships, or your family, forgiveness is worth the time and effort it requires. And sometimes the pain is so deep that we need support to navigate through it to the other side of love.
It is my deepest hope that this article, my truth, and my heart has been of some help to you as you embrace a journey to forgive and heal. I know that if it is possible for me, then it is possible for you-- for we are one heart. I wish you great success as you embark on your journey to Create more LOVE IN YOUR LIFE!
Imani Evans, MA