When I was a child, I used to think forgiveness was a peaceful, magical process. I was taught how important it was to forgive, but not how it worked. In my lifetime, I have received tons of advice about forgiveness, most of which I now count as totally useless. It was something I had to learn for myself.
One of the most important things I have learned about forgiving is that it is a very loud and messy process. It starts by talking about it and quite often, forgiveness involves getting angry. Have you ever been told that if you’re angry, then you haven’t forgiven? I will tell you that if you’re angry enough to talk about it, then you are working toward and through forgiveness. Don’t stop. Keep going. The very act of verbalizing your anger is actually taking the pain that is inside you and letting go of it through words. Letting go is a big part of forgiving. People who keep it bottled up through denial and bitterness aren’t forgiving. Don’t seeth. Don’t stay there. Let anger be a path to forgiving and moving on.
One of my counselors who knows a lot about the brain physiology of trauma helped me understand that when trauma happens to us, our brain is physically affected. It creates a “knot” of thought around the trauma memory, often causing us to get stuck there. My counselor was on a team of therapists who went to New York September, 2001 for a month, to lead group therapy sessions where they encouraged people to tell what happened to them Sept. 11th. The victims were encouraged to tell their stories over and over again, but each time to tell it a different way. They shared stories by categorizing parts of the day, then by major characters involved, next by lessons learned. They told it chronologically, even backwards. Telling their stories in all these different ways, she said, helped the victims untie the knots. It allowed their minds and souls to move through the memory and let it go…to forgive.
Telling your story of abuse is important on so many levels. Jackie and I have talked about this several times. We created LearningHope.org in part to give people a place to tell their stories. There’s still too much stigma around telling our stories of abuse. It sometimes makes other people in our lives uncomfortable. Like Marie Fortune often says, “They want us to forgive so they can forget.” It often makes me uncomfortable to tell my own story, and at times it has been very hard for me to hear others’ stories. But that’s not a reason to stop. We need to forgive out loud. We need to tell and we need to listen. And, we need to be gentle with each other and ourselves. Not every telling goes well. If you know a survivor that you feel is stuck in their story, instead of suggesting that they “move on,” try setting aside time and a place and ask him/her to tell you his/her full story in one or two different ways . Be patient and kind. And realize that when s/he is done the story still needs to be told again.