Past Forgiveness: Part II

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The following is an excerpt from my book manuscript titled Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (under review). I’m sharing it here—and now—because I know of at least one young woman and several older women out there in the world who probably need to hear these words. (“Past Forgiveness: Part I” was posted on August 3, 2016 and linked here.)

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I have spent my entire life—or at least my entire life from when I first became fully aware of myself—trying to find a way to forgive my dysfunctional family. Mainly my father, the charismatic narcissist minister who liked to grope my budding breasts and then pretend he had only been trying to show me fatherly affection. Or, that he was only sponging my chest when I was ill in bed with a high fever from Red Measles when I was fourteen. “What kind of Freudian psychological hang-ups do you have about your father?” he asked, when I grew old enough to confront him on his groping behavior. As if.

And my mother, my strikingly artistically gifted and intelligent mother who preferred to live in a surrealistic, made-up world of her own, trying to be my friend instead of my mother. She chose to believe my father and not me. As if. She told me that my panic attacks, which developed in the immediate aftermath of my father’s first groping episode, were really sent by God as a dark night of the soul, and meant I just needed to pray harder. As if.

And even my three older siblings, and especially my oldest sister who had been like a second mother to me, who believed my father even after his death as he partially disinherited me. My siblings who continue to admonish me to get over my anger, to forgive and forget, to leave it all in the past. As if.

As if anger is a bad thing. As if anger isn’t protective, propelling, and proper in unjust situations.

As if I was right all along: I had been adopted. I firmly believed this as a child. I was born long after my siblings. My two childhood best friends were both adopted and their parents didn’t tell them this fact until they were older. I held a deep conviction that I was not of this family.

As if I was right all along: in order to survive, to heal, to thrive, I needed to sever ties, become un-homed, move far away to the Western frontier of Wallace Stegner’s “native home of hope” and make my own way, my own family, my own home. What does it mean to be homeless when home was never a safe place? In such cases, it is not possible for young people to runaway from home; they can only run towards home.

As if family secrets were legitimate heirlooms to pass down to future generations, squirreled away in cedar chests along with crocheted bedspreads and starched baby clothes.

My father never acknowledged his wrongdoing, never confessed his sins of groping me, of groping my maternal aunt when she was young, of groping at least one of his granddaughters. How can I begin to forgive him?

As if.

I spent many years of my adult life swinging wildly between minimizing the trauma, “it could have been worse,” to full-body catastrophizing, drowning in the role of victim, “I am scarred and damaged beyond repair,” before realizing that is how our psyches cope with such trauma, and that the window of opportunity—of strength and hope and healing—lies in the space between those two extremes. It requires embracing the white-hot contradiction of the two truths. As if that were possible.

Until it is possible. Through a combination of fatigue, fortitude, and sheer inexplicable grace, it becomes possible.

Past Forgiveness: Part 1

DSC02140The following is an excerpt from my book manuscript titled Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (under review). I’m sharing it here—and now—because I know of at least one young woman out there in the world who probably needs to hear these words. I’ll post a a “Part II” soon.

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In Regarding the Pain of Others Susan Sontag writes of the meaning of images depicting tragedies and traumas. Towards the end of the book she contends, “There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”

But I wonder if reconciling, if forgiving, is always predicated on forgetting. And, is forgiving always a good thing?

As I began writing this essay, a young white supremacist shot and killed nine black people during a prayer service in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The day after this hate crime atrocity, the relatives of those murdered came together and gave a public declaration in which they called on the shooter to confess his crime and repent. He was not admitting to any wrongdoing or crime, yet they forgave him for murdering their loved ones. They said that they called on their deeply held Christian convictions to guide them in this matter.

Was their quick and very public forgiveness a form of Christian witnessing, a rebuke to the Devil, to evil in the world? Or was it something else? I realize I am treading on difficult ground here, that being within my white privilege I can never know what the family members of those victims experienced. Of course, there is something admirable and noble in turning anger and vengeance into love and forgiveness. But then that becomes the standard and what if there are relatives of victims who can’t or do not want to forgive the white supremacist murderer?

Forgiveness is a peculiarly Christian thing to do.  Having been raised within an exclusively Christian worldview—with its turn the other cheek, forgive a person seventy times seven, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors—I hadn’t realized that other major world religions like Judaism have different views on forgiveness. In Judaism, forgiveness can only be granted by the aggrieved person, and only after the perpetrator has asked for forgiveness and has made both atonement and restitution.

Forgiveness is also a peculiarly female thing to do; it is emphasized in traditional gender roles in Eastern and Western societies. Women are conditioned to be the family and community peacemakers, and forgiving is viewed as an essential part of that role. People who forgive are supposed to “soften their hearts,” release their anger and sense of revenge in nonviolent, nonliteral ways.

Robert Enright, a Catholic psychologist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, has developed a 60-item Forgiveness Inventory to measure forgiveness, and an 8-step program leading to forgiveness. He has been dubbed “Dr. Forgiveness.” Through his research, he contends that people who forgive lead healthier and longer lives than those who “stay stuck” or “hold on to” resentment and a lack of forgiveness. He advocates the use of the “two chair technique” in counseling someone to forgive. The person sits in one chair facing an empty chair representing the person who wronged them. They tell that person—that chair—how they feel. Then they sit in the second chair, try to see things from the other person’s perspective, and talk things through with the imaginary person until they achieve forgiveness.

There is even an International Forgiveness Day, the first Sunday of August, established by the World Wide Forgiveness Alliance. (It has been changed to October 7th for 2016 for some reason.) The 2015 Forgiveness Day was on August 2nd, and at 2pm on that day people were called “to take two minutes to forgive someone and join over 2 million people in the Wave of Forgiveness.” On their website, they featured photographs and testimonials of the 2015 Heroes and Champions of Forgiveness. Most were women and it seems that most were women of color, a fact I find ironic given the power dynamics inherent in forgiveness.  I took the online 33-item Forgiveness Quiz with questions such as “Forgiveness is a sign of weakness,” and “I believe that revenge is devilish and forgiveness is saintly”—an echo of Alexander Pope’s famous line of poetry “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

Most of my answers to the quiz questions using their Likert scale were neutral because my real answers to these questions were “it depends.” Nevertheless, my composite score told me I tend towards being a more forgiving person. Even though I think it is a rather silly and oversimplified test—and I question our society’s insistence on forgiveness, especially gendered forgiveness—I find my test result to be comforting. I also find that comfort disquieting.