by Linda E. Katz, Ph.D., MFT
Much has been written on the topic of forgiveness. From psychologists to spiritual figures, people have offered a range of opinions about the ultimate question connected to the concept of forgiveness: are there some things which cannot — or should not — be forgiven?
There are those who believe the answer is yes — positing that forgiveness is dependent on the external event or situation. For example, one recovery author writes, there are “abuses so heinous they should not and could never be forgiven” (Recovering, issue 35, 1991). For people who believe this, forgiveness is dependent on the external event or situation. To them, there are events that “cross a line” — that are, in and of themselves, not forgivable.
To others, forgiveness is entirely an “inside job”. They recognize it as an internal experience independent of the person who has wounded them or committed the offense, independent of the offense itself. For these people, forgiveness is more akin to the awareness or sensation of their own heart being open or closed. The cognitive assessment of the “wrongness” of the words or deeds — or the amount of pain experienced — does not preclude forgiveness. Instead, it makes the wounded person undertake a conscious and mindful journey through their pain. They surrender to a grief process guided, as it were, by a value they hold — of not holding onto resentment — of finding their way to forgiveness.
A wise teacher once responded this way to a woman who asked how she could forgive her husband for his emotionally abusive ways. The spiritual teacher immediately responded: “The thorn of resentment is in your heart, dear. Pluck it out”.
This leads to another question connected to forgiveness: does the offender need to apologize, take responsibility for their actions, even make amends, in order for the wounded person to forgive? Do parents and others who abused or harmed us in our childhood need to apologize before we can find peace in our own hearts? It certainly can help to receive a sincere apology of accountability — owning what was done and asking for forgiveness. That doesn’t mean we have to forgive, however.
Nor does their apology create the forgiveness. The forgiveness is our work — if we choose to take up the task. Choosing to enter into a forgiveness process, we can reach our own state of forgiving others when it’s authentic for us, over whatever time period it takes us to do our grief work and experience our own internal shift.
There is another element connected to the issue of forgiveness. That is, forgiveness as a spiritual value. For people who believe in this perspective on forgiveness, the work of forgiving a particular act of offense has to do with their relationship with their Higher Power and values they derive from that relationship. Non-forgiving is not who they want to be.
There is a beautiful parable called “The Little Soul and the Sun” by N. D. Walsh that captures this principle. A little being wishes to know who they really are. Learning they are Light, the little soul wishes to know itself as a certain aspect of the Light. It chooses forgiveness, but doesn’t know how to experience that. Another being of Light quickly offers this: “I can come into your next lifetime and do something for you to forgive”.
Baffled, the Little Soul asks why this being of Light would do that. “‘Simple,’ the Friendly Soul said. ‘I would do it because I love you….Thus have we come together, you and I, many times before; each bringing to the other the exact and perfect opportunity to express and to experience Who We Really Are…I will come into your next lifetime and be the ‘bad one’ this time. I will do something really terrible, and then you can experience yourself as the One Who Forgives’.”
Forgiving an offense opens the heart; it removes judgment and blame. It does not change the doer of the offense or condone the action. It simply accepts what is and releases the offender from any judgment but their own. Coupled with authentic grief work, striving for the spiritual value of forgiveness can produce authentic forgiveness. Without the grief work — operating from the spiritual value alone — we can do a spiritual bypass and not experience true forgiveness at all.
Furthermore, not forgiving is a form of holding on — holding onto the pain and the resentment for that which we suffered. It is also energetically a form of holding onto the parent or one who offended us. Our energies are still bound to that person as long as we are in reaction to them. This is why a 12-step program like ACA speaks of “detaching with compassion” — the energy of releasing the person, no longer binding our internal peace and serenity in the chains of thralldom to the parents of our childhood. Fear, resentment, blame, and hurt — each its own chain.
In addition, forgiveness is not permanent in the sense that it isn’t a state we attain to. We may forgive our parents — if we choose — in layers and over time. As we heal, grow, and recover, Life may continue to unfold in ways that produce deeper layers of forgiveness, different releases, increased compassion, even gratitude. Gratitude for the gifts we cull from the experience and for who we have become because of the healing work we choose to do with and for our pain. Our parents might come to look like instruments for our growth and development, rather than just as instruments of pain.
As long as we are alive, there will most likely be experiences where we feel hurt, wounded, or offended. Each incident will be another opportunity to go through a forgiveness process — beginning with the mindful practice of being aware of our closed or protected heart, and then walking through each step needed — grieving, expressing or not expressing to the offender, finding safe people to share our pain with, taking our pain to our Higher Power, looking for the gift.
Of course, individual incidents can be completely forgiven, and a person can be forgiven. In intimate relationships we will have the opportunity to repeat this over and over because of the nature of an intimate relationship. We are each human and our wounds, our humanness, can hurt another. Courage to Change, an Al-Anon daily reader, expresses it this way: “Forgiving is not forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt” (p. 178).
Which form of forgiveness, if any, that a person chooses is a very personal matter. One cannot force forgiveness to manifest. One can only choose it as a goal if they wish to and then consciously work to achieve that inner release, or they can make no choice and see where their healing and recovery work takes them. Whichever path, whatever outcome, it is a deeply personal journey — some feel it is a journey to self and a journey closer to the Higher Power of their own choosing and their own understanding.
Copyright 2022, Center for Creative Growth