A Time and Place for Forgiveness

beach-2010507_640If you want to cross the English Channel, and have your name officially ratified and posted in the short list of successful Channel-crossers, you are allowed only a swimming cap, goggles, and a swimsuit. (Wet suits are only allowed in a special swim category, and are not otherwise recorded as a qualifying swim.) You will, however, be accompanied by a support boat. While you can’t touch the boat without forfeiting, the boat will carry your supporters to cheer you on and provide moral support, food, and drink.  In a very real sense, you are the only competitor, but you aren’t forced to make the swim alone.

In the healing-from-traumatic-events endurance effort, you are the only competitor, but you may have any number of supporters. Therapists, friends, magazine and book authors, a healing community…the list is endless. Unfortunately, you are bound to meet up with people who don’t understand the nature of the event, and seem oblivious to what you really need, and when. Some people, in their rush to help, can do you serious harm.

Imagine you’re a hopeful swimmer, and have just leapt into the rather chilly waters of the English Channel, ready to begin your journey. The supporters in your boat aren’t all on the same page as you are. Some came prepared to offer useful assistance, but one person either doesn’t know how to help, or wants to save you a grueling ordeal, so she tries to cut to the finish. She tosses you a huge, fluffy towel, cozy and warm from the dryer.

Of course, it is soaked immediately, and hampers your movements, and if you aren’t quick and don’t toss it away fast enough, it may even pull you under and drown you. If you protest, she will insist she meant it for the best, and she will be horribly confused at your lack of gratitude, and oblivious to the danger she’s placed you in. She may even act like there’s something wrong with you, and insist it worked for her, and everyone else she’s ever known. She may be persuasive enough, and may shame you enough, to trick you into retrieving the towel. She’ll then proceed to blame you if you drown.

That fluffy towel would be appropriate at the end of the swim; it would be welcome, and wonderful, and the recipient might even feel inclined to give the generous supporter a big hug.  But in the beginning, well, the most charitable thing you can say is that the person offering the towel is ignorant and misguided. Other less charitable labels may also come to mind, but of course you would never say them.

No sooner had I started my journey, and begun to heal from the abuse I survived as a child, than unenlightened people urged me to cut to the finish. “What you have to do,” they’d say, sounding wise in their dangerous ignorance, “is forgive him.”

Forgive him? I didn’t even know how badly I was hurt! I hadn’t worked through any of the pain, fear, anger, or imposed shame. It was the worst possible advice, but it was also the most popular. Forgiveness, some people thought, was a short-cut everyone should take.  Many of these people had endured similar experiences, and claimed they had “forgiven” their abusers, but the not-so-surprising part was, none of them were healed. They were still carrying all the shame and pain and anger and fear, and it leaked out in inappropriate ways at awkward times, as their minds tried to force them to feel the buried emotions and take action to get rid of them (minds have a powerful desire to heal, even when their owners do not). Substance abuse, domestic violence, abusive patterns that repeated themselves in their own families; they were still embroiled in those challenges. Their “forgiveness” was denial in disguise.

Truth is, forgiveness isn’t even possible in the very beginning, especially when you haven’t yet processed everything the person has done that needs to be forgiven. Trying to force forgiveness can nip your journey in the bud. It will quickly soak up the freezing water, and bind itself around your limbs, and leave you gasping.

But what about at the end of your journey, when all the work is done and the feelings have been felt and the memories recovered and drained of any pain or emotion? At that point, you can truly forgive the sinner without condoning, accepting or denying the sin, and it feels wonderful.