The SPIRITUAL TONIC Part 1
by Richard B. Patterson
Perhaps, during the course of your own journey, you have crossed paths
in some way with a person who seemed capable of forgiveness at a truly
impressive level. For me, Terry Anderson is such a person. Terry Anderson was
kidnapped by Shiite extremists in Lebanon and remained in captivity for close
to seven years. His story, retold in his book Den of Lions, is one of many
horrors. Yet Mr. Anderson has worked actively on forgiving his captors!
Would I be so forgiving? Or would I instead allow myself to become bitter,
resentful, dwelling on the status of victim?
That resentments are harmful to our health was discussed in an earlier
article. Forgiveness is the solution to resentments. But the process of
forgiveness is no simple matter. It is more helpful to think of forgiveness
as an on-going process rather than an isolated incident, particularly when
what we are trying to forgive is part of a pattern rather than an isolated
relationship. Many of us struggle, for example, with forgiving our parents
for various omissions or even for patterns of abuse and neglect. Such a task
for forgiveness will likely be an ongoing process.
The first step on the forgiveness road is to decide if we even want to
forgive. Resentments, after all, give us a sense of protection from those
who hurt us. They serve as a type of armor. When considering dropping our
resentments, we may feel vulnerable. But forgiving does not automatically
mean that we remain in or renew a relationship. If the patterns that we are
trying to forgive are still
there, it may in fact be better for us to forgive while at the same time
removing ourselves from the relationship.
We also hesitate at the doorway to forgiveness because we may
believe that, if we forgive, we are saying that the offense is no longer a
big deal. In other words, we may assume that forgiveness includes condoning.
But it is possible, even important, to forgive while at the same time
continuing to hold the person accountable. This is a variation on the old
adage "Hate the sin, love the sinner."
Sometimes, too, we get caught on the folk saying "Forgive and forget."
Again, this may not be a good idea, particularly when dealing with a person
who remains at risk to hurt us again. I can forget something in that I allow
it to become part of history, something which is in the past and no longer
has any power over me. But I remember it as a reference point if the
offending person continues the pattern which hurt me.
Power is a key to understanding forgiveness. If I still resent someone,
then that person still has some power over me. For example, if, when I think
of a bully who beat me up when I was twelve and can still feel a knot of
anger in the pit of my stomach, then that bully is still in charge. But when
I forgive, I reclaim the power which was stolen from me by that bully. Thus,
forgiveness benefits first and foremost the person doing the forgiving!
We cannot forgive something without acknowledging what was done to us.
For example, if I was badly abused as a child, I cannot reach a point of
forgiveness unless I reach a point where I can acknowledge the abuse. This
may seem straight forward but many adults who were abused as children remain
protective of their parents, minimizing what was done to them or blaming
themselves ("I was bad and deserved what I got.") To forgive, I must face
the reality of what was done to me.
This facing of reality also includes facing feelings about what happened.
This may include accepting anger or beginning a process of grieving. If I
face my parent's abuse of me, then I may need to grieve over the parent I
did not have.
The path of forgiveness will be explored further in a future article. At
this point, you may have a sense that it is a difficult path. I tend to be
wary of persons who claim to have forgiving a terrible affront within
minutes of it
happening. Such flippancy minimizes the offense and, most likely, is part of
a pattern of denial. Because the path is so treacherous, it is one that
sometimes should not be traveled alone. It is a path that may benefit from
the companionship of a pastor or rabbi, a good friend, or even a counselor.
Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist
in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology