On Forgiveness

Healing is not contingent on forgiveness but forgiveness may be a natural byproduct of true and complete healing from trauma.

I would like to share some empowering and validating passages from the book “Miss America By Day” written by Marilyn Van Derbur who was incested from age 5-18 by her father. Marilyn courageously did the work of healing and is now living in peace and in joy. She is an example of one who has moved past the victim-stage of sexual abuse. And she implies here that trying to get others to forgive prematurely can hinder the sacred process of healing.

“What was most disconcerting to me was how many survivors were coming up to me to tell me that their therapist or religious leader had repeatedly told them that they had to forgive. That, in essence, they were “bad people,” and that healing would not be possible unless they forgave.

I was very disturbed by what this demand was doing to survivors already consumed by their unworthiness. It didn’t seem to matter what the circumstances were. Whether or not the survivor wanted to forgive or whether or not the perpetrator had taken responsibility. We cannot command someone to feel love, hate, respect or forgiveness. These are emotions that come to us over time and through a process.

In the following months, I would learn that for some, there was only one right answer to the question, “Have you forgiven your father?” If I simply said, “Yes, I have forgiven my father,” I knew the audience would fervently applaud and then people would stand in line to say, “You are so wonderful.”But that was never my answer. At the meeting two weeks later, I began by relating the question my mother had asked and my gut response: “He never asked for my forgiveness.”

Two therapists wrote to me immediately saying, “The only way survivors can let go of the anger, is to forgive.” I couldn’t disagree with them more. One can let go of anger without forgiving. I know because I’ve done it. When my suppressed anger came up, it was blood-red rage. I wanted to blow up my father’s crypt and slash the oil portrait of him that hung in my mother’s bedroom. I had anger for many, many months, but I moved through it. My father no longer had power over me as he had when I was tethered to him by my rage. Even now, nine years after I learned he had never stopped violating innocent people, even now, almost twenty years after his death, I do not forgive him. I am completely peaceful about that. There is no unfinished business.

In the book, The Courage to Heal, Laura Davis and Ellen Bass wrote: “Healing depends on being able to forgive YOURSELF, not on being able to forgive your molester…You are not more moral or courageous if you forgive.”

To the person who might say, “You forgive him for yourself, not for him,” I reply, “No, it would violate my sense of honor and integrity to forgive this lifelong behavior, but if YOUR father sexually violated YOU, you may want to forgive him, for yourself, and I honor that decision. All I ask is that you not judge others because we may have different resolutions to our betrayal and pain.

Forgiveness is not a quick solution. Asking people to forgive, without allowing them to go through a process that would perhaps lead them to forgiving, is to not understand how complicated violence, violations and betrayal are and how deeply traumatized we are at our very cores.

If you are a well-intentioned religious leader, therapist, loving family member or friend, please do not judge us on whether or not we forgive our perpetrators. It is not anyone’s right to ask us to forgive. Forgiveness is a personal decision that might be made soon, in the future, or never. Please consider the further damage you inflict by telling us we must forgive in order to find peace of mind or to be a “good person.” At our most vulnerable time, when we are feeling so guilty and bad, you may exacerbate those negative feelings by asking us to do something most of us are incapable of doing, at that time. Forgiveness is a process. It is as individual and as personal a decision as we may make in our lives.” ~Marilyn Van Derbur

And another relevant quote by author Jeff Brown:

“No forgive, and forget, works too. It’s okay to not forgive in certain situations. It doesn’t mean you are not spiritual. It doesn’t mean that you are unresolved. It doesn’t mean you will come back in the next lifetime having to live it through again. The assumption that forgiving the abuser is the benchmark of a completed emotional and karmic process is the mistake. It’s another way the new cage movement insensitively vilifies the victim. The real benchmark of resolution is whether we have gone through our emotional process authentically and have arrived at a place where the negative charge around the experience has dissipated. Perhaps we learned some lesson, or perhaps we just feel liberated from the memories- the important thing is that we feel at peace again. Focusing on our responsibility to forgive a wrongdoer sidetracks the whole process. If it’s authentically there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s not. Just because you don’t choose to forgive doesn’t mean you haven’t let go yet. Maybe you just realize that its not essential to your healing and not your responsibility.”

The bottom line I think is to give others the gift of their own path. It might be more peaceful and virtuous to focus on our own path. Maybe we need to forgive those who cannot…

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