I think about forgiveness a lot. I even took a class in graduate school about it. “Violence and Forgiveness” was one of the most compelling and challenging courses of my life. It wasn’t the texts, or the papers. Or listening to how one Rwandan took it upon himself to try and forgive the Hutu militia who murdered his entire family.
Forgiveness. What is it?
That was the question that led every class – twice a week for 13 weeks – down a twisting, controversial path of exploration and examination.
Is it the same as letting go? Turning the other cheek, even offering the other cheek? Is forgiveness when you forget? Does it happen with time? Is it always necessary? Is it divine grace? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do you ask for it? How/When/If do you give it to those who seek it from you?
Within the field of sexual violence, it’s often the word “forgive” is associated with the survivor contemplating forgiving the perpetrator. Some have claimed it’s a healthy part of the process. Others have adamantly stated it’s purely optional and not a mandate for moving on with one’s life post-trauma.
About half the time, though, that I see survivors struggling, it’s often not over whether or not to forgive the perpetrator (if that’s even possible or necessary is always in question), it’s more that the survivor needs to find a pathway to forgive oneself. For whatever reason, survivors – with two hands – take a large chunk of responsibility for their trauma, as if somehow they were in control of the violators’ actions. It’s probably one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking elements of healing: self-forgiveness and acceptance.
When survivors accept that what happened was not their fault (this is especially difficult of adult survivors of child abuse), they are free to rightfully channel that anger and energy toward the person who committed the act: the perpetrator, and thus begin a two footed walk toward healing. It’s awfully scary to accept that we are only in control of so much and we have minimal control (if any) over the universe, people, and other people’s actions.
When we do self-forgive, it opens up a wonderful door to a greater depth of freedom and understanding of what true power is. We have ultimate and pure power over who and what we are in response to the experiences life hands us. Nothing more, nothing less. What we ingest might be sewage, but what agree to internalize is entirely up to us. Choosing to forgive or choosing to stay in the grey of the unknown is a radical act of self-actualization, one that most dare not confront. To own up to our power, we must first face ourselves. To do that we must, paradoxically, see that we actually have very little control, but what we do have control over is quite monumental: ourselves.