It All Started When…
One beautiful sunny morning, with fall hanging crisp in the air, I was cruising down a tree framed street when an uninvited memory came crashing through my mind.
A glaring yellow sign alerted me that school was back in session. Groups of backpacked kids were scrambling across the street. An everyday sight on an everyday fall morning. No one in my sights was being bullied. No one looked left out. But seeing the gaggles of children was all my mind needed to escort me back to a humiliating scene from my own Grade 7 year.
Although I could easily stop my car, I couldn’t find the brakes for my memory as it crashed down on me, reaching into my guts to twist and torment my recently ingested breakfast.
I used to ignore those flashes but I’ve learned if you ignore your body long enough, it will get louder and louder, eventually speaking in ways it can no longer be ignored. Ask anyone who’s had a heart attack. Ask my chiropractor, my massage therapist and yes…my surgeon.
The picture playing out in my mind was blurry from 35 years in the archives but the cramping down below and the burning in my face was such that it felt like it was happening all over again. How can one stupid event in Jr. Hi still haunt me? How is it one day has the potential to ruin so many others?
The story isn’t a new one. It is a version of a very old script. A bully. An insecure girl. Insults and verbal mud. An arm twisted in unnatural ways. A head slammed into a bookshelf. Tears. Humiliation. Shame.
Let me be clear that this was no horrific #metoo movement moment. The scenario played out for no more than 5 mins. There were no external scars. No trips to the Emergency Centre or Crisis Centre. I can easily dismiss this cognitively as a moment that doesn’t matter in the scheme of life. “Really it was nothing.” she says with a fake smile, her eyes roaming the room for a shred of chocolate. And yet…
Here I am a mom, whose own kids have graduated, and I’m having physical symptoms when I drive past a shockingly mundane scene by a playground. Crazy right? Well…it might be crazy if it wasn’t so stinking common and we weren’t so adept at avoiding, numbing and distracting ourselves.
When I think back to that memory making day, the most painful part is not the physical piece. Instead the pain rises from an awareness that there were eyes in that room that either watched and didn’t jump to my defence or looked away and pretended not to see. Words and actions have a great capacity to hurt but silence and inaction are what etched a deep wound in my heart. Sometimes silence and inaction are what hurt us most. I’ve grown up, moved on, but those flash moments of burning memories make it obvious those events have never been eradicated from heart. How old will I be before I get over this? When will I forgive and forget?
When will I be able to forgive and forget?
On one level I feel like I have forgiven. I’ve grown enough to realize we were both kids finding our own way. I recognize those who bully others have their own issues and are just trying to survive in their own worlds. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing” is a prayer I can align myself with. I honestly believe that. He wasn’t intending to destroy me or scar me so bad that my middle aged self would trip over it. The others in the room were simply bowing to a pre-written group dynamic. I am confident I could run into him and not smash his head into the nearest wall. (Okay…the fact that that just came out of my brain may mean I need work on a whole other level!)
I will admit that under the guise of perhaps wanting to extend forgiveness, I’ve played the part of internet sleuth. I’ve checked to see what Google, Facebook and LinkedIn have to say about this guy. In contrast to my pristine motive, I’ve hoped I’d find him fat, going bald in an absurd pattern and not being able to find a job due to his malicious character. Just being honest. (Can you forgive me?).
If life were like a tv program, he would end up in my counselling office seeking help for being bullied at work, presenting somewhat like Dwight Shrute from “The Office.” He, of course, wouldn’t recognize me and I’d show way too much curiosity in all the ways his fellow employees and management has made his life miserable. “Tell me more about that”, she says leaning forward with abnormally raised eyebrows!
Forgiveness is Not a Magic Pill. It is a Process, a Choice, a Commitment and a Tool on the Path to Reconciliation
Forgiveness is a hot topic in my counselling office. I admit to sometimes referring to it as the “f word.” I’ve come to believe, for each of us, forgiveness looks a little different. There is no magic formula or perfect time. Often if you are serious about it, it gets revisited over and over as the years go by. Rinse and Repeat. Rinse and Repeat.
It is complicated and I believe multi-faceted. I’ve seen it used as a weapon, unfortunately most often by mental health professionals and clergy. The message that is often sent is that if you would just forgive, something magical will then happen in your relationship. Everything will be better. It is in your hands to do. Unfortunately, it is often sold as a miracle pill that cures all. Forgiveness doesn’t change engrained patterns of behaviour. Forgiveness doesn’t alter personality. Forgiveness isn’t plastic surgery that removes scars. It can be a step in healing hurt in relationship but there are many more steps to follow. It is a process. It is a choice. It is a commitment.
I’ve heard many grown children reach out in forgiveness of their parents only to be disappointed by more blame, more deflection, more dismissing, and more hurtful words. Forgiveness can definitely change you, but it may have no effect on the other person. They get to wrestle with their own issues. They may not offer an apology in return. I see forgiveness as a tool used on the path of reconciliation. It is not the path itself.
I don’t want to dismiss it though. Forgiveness is an extremely important tool as we all know people that have held grudges and bitterness for years only hurting themselves. There is truth in St. Augustine’s quote “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” But there’s also truth in knowing if you swallow the magic pill of forgiveness, everyone will not necessarily live happily ever after.
Wrestling with forgiveness is a necessary act that needs to be revisited with regularity and honesty. If you are in the process of working through forgiving someone, I have some suggestions that I hope may be a suggested starting place.
The Most Important Person You Need to Forgive is You
My internet searches for the person that caused me the most angst in my teenage years have turned up fruitless. <Insert sigh of relief>. I am, at present, completely off the hook for any reconciliatory exchange. But, let’s be honest, the matter is not over as it’s still me whose stomach rolls and stumbles when I drive by groups of kids in playgrounds.
The fact that decades later I’m still affected by those events are worth looking into. In the words of Brene Brown. “Forgiveness is not forgetting or walking away from accountability or condoning a hurtful act; it’s the process of taking back and healing our lives so we can truly live.” She references an excellent book by Desmond Tutu that outlines a path to forgiveness and her comments about their work is significant: “What the Tutus found in their work on forgiveness validates not just the importance of naming our experiences and owning our stories but also how rumbling with a process can lead to clarity, wisdom and self-love.” (Rising Strong. Brene Brown. 2015)
So how do I deal with this? How do you rumble with forgiveness? For the full version visit Brene Brown’s and Desmond Tutu’s work. I’d like to focus on that last word – ‘self-love’ as a significant part of the process of forgiveness.
I’m the Victim here, Why Do I Need to Forgive?
In the Grade 7 scenario mentioned above, what do I have to forgive myself for? I was clearly an innocent victim. Yet as the years as rolled on I’ve come to realize that this offending person hurt me only once in a 5 minute block of time…and I in turn have hurt myself a million times by going over the painful details. He may have had a particularly bad day that he has regretted but I have let it ruin countless days since.
I was the one who internalized the messages:
“You have no value.”
“You are laughable”
“You are pathetic”
“No one really cares.”.
I was the one who hung on to those messages and pulled them up at other hurtful moments in my life to compound other problems.
I was the one who allowed the voice of the bully to live inside my head and beat me up over and over again. He had nothing to do with the ways I continued to hurt my own self from that one event.
The same is true of so many of my clients. Criticism by a superior has ruined and sometimes immobilized many an employee. Harsh words by a parent have caused issues in many a marriage. Our internal stuff that we are medicating, numbing, distracting from and avoiding comes back to hurt us over and over.
See With New Eyes
I found this statue while shopping one day. It may have been originally designed to signify a mother and daughter, but I stood there with a different message being pulled from the graceful lines. The older, wiser women is looking back at the younger one with grace and love. She doesn’t have eyes but her entire body speaks of encouragement and warmth.
Standing in Home Sense, staring at this piece as if I was in an art museum, I realized this posture is exactly what I needed for the next step of forgiveness. These two figures are identical and perhaps, instead of mother and daughter, it could signify an older me and a younger me. An older you and a younger you.
Can I look back at what I had come to see as a pathetic, insecure, ugly teenager who not only didn’t know how to dress but didn’t have the money to dress any different and offer grace and love. Can I offer empathy to my own self and let the shame melt away?
Can I forgive myself for not being fully put together?
Can I forgive myself for not knowing how to reach out and tell someone what I was going through?
Can I stop beating myself up when those old insecurities rise to the surface?
Can I squelch the voice of the bully that tempts me to mould myself into something I’m not so no one will make fun of me?
Can I forgive myself for being immature, incomplete and in process?
Offer Yourself First What You Want to Offer to Others
Whenever you serve a meal, chances are good you’ve tried the recipe before you offer it to your guests. It gets tested ahead of time and perfected. Tasting, testing and adjusting as you go along. It’s the same with forgiveness. It’s a process, that is sometimes messy and needs adjusting and tweaking as life in relationship rolls out. Testing your own ability to offer grace and love by trying it out on yourself will improve the flavour of it as you serve it to the people around you.
Forgiving yourself releases a flow within you. It allows you to grow. It puts the brakes on relentless criticizing and frees your mind to create and engage in warm relationships. Richard Rohr states, “In the end, the face we turn toward ourself is the face we will turn toward the outer world.” When you can learn to offer it to yourself, it naturally can flow out of yourself to others.
If you are struggling to forgive, perhaps the place you need to start is to forgive yourself.
Can you look back at your younger self and forgive yourself for not being fully mature?
Can you forgive yourself for not knowing what you’d never been taught?
Can you forgive yourself for not having the tools passed down to you that you needed to build healthy relationships?
Can you look back at your younger self with grace and love?
Can you stop re-wounding yourself for not being perfect?
Can you forgive yourself?
It may seem self-centred to turn the forgiveness inward but we all know wounded people wound other people. I also know when I’m busy trying to ignore the pain that rises from past situations I’m not at my best with the people in my world. My energies are already turned inward but not in a positive way. When your self-talk is berating and negative and cricizing, you can not be fully free and present in your work or your relationships.
What do you need to do to forgive yourself? Remember, this is a process, not a one-time event. It’s a daily choosing to not beat ourselves up for past events.
In the next post, we’ll continue this theme and look at what will be helpful to forget in this process.
Trish White is a counsellor in Saskatoon grateful to be able to witness the resilience of people as they forge new chapters.
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