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Forgiveness as radical generosity?

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My lived experience, my meandering on life’s road, encountering and accompanying others on their life journeys has brought me uncomfortably close with the need to offer and receive forgiveness.

Life has also offered me the opportunity to experience the undeniable value of forgiveness.

Years ago, I had a profound and unexpected experience of anger towards someone that I loved. It crept up on me unexpected at the strangest of times. I needed to find a path to forgiveness. What I discover was compassion. It helped me profoundly. I didn’t start out looking for a path to forgiveness. I started out looking for an escape route from anger.

Eventually (why does it always seem to take me so long?!), confused and disappointed by my tireless anger, I brought my attention to my resentment of some of what had happened to me in my life.

I did this with a rare kind and warm curiosity about my experiences. Compassion opened my heart and made it possible for me to turn toward my difficult experiences. Compassion brought forward a higher degree of tolerance for the uncomfortable because in compassion I could sit with what was, and not try to change it. For me, it feels like the way compassion is with suffering is precisely how it changes the experience of suffering. It is as if a wiser kinder version of myself sat alongside me and said, yeah – that was tough and it hurt.

Using compassion saw me conducting a heart-led experiment where I spent time acknowledging my lived experience where I had felt alone in my distress. After that, I spent time imagining what it was like for the other actors that were part of my drama. I spent time imagining walking in my father’s shoes. I reached back into his difficult youth and saw what he had lived through in terms of violence and addiction in his family of origin and how he had coped as a young boy. I looked at all he had lost in terms of love and loved ones. I could see the strong man that stood before me carried also the small and traumatised boy he had been. This softened my heart. It helped me make sense of his ‘flight’ response when he was unable to face similar confrontational challenges in our family in a healthy way. Inter-generational trauma and a meta perspective / wider context has helped me understand these oft repeating patterns. It didn’t make it fine. But it helped me make sense of it in a less personal way. It wasn’t just about me. Dad and I have been able to talk about our experiences in recent years and both benefitted from enormous healing here.

Some forgiveness projects endure for decades. Our desire to be free and to forgive is long incubated. Sometimes, the other person involved in the story is no longer alive. We walk around carrying our side of the story, unable to put it down because we fear that it will topple over and be discarded like a stool missing its balancing leg.

I am comforted by Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ work and her idea that forgiveness has may layers and many seasons. Clarissa suggests that there are four stages of forgiveness. Firstly, we forgo, we leave it alone. Secondly, we forbear and abstain from punishing. Thirdly we forget, choosing to aver from memory and refuse to dwell on it. Lastly, we forgive and abandon the debt. If all we can do is leave it alone, at least we are on the path, right? In time, other options become available to us.

Clarissa talks about forgiveness being a creative act. She reminds us that we can choose to forgive for now, or in part, or till next time. This creativity asks us to look for how (not if) and what (not why) we might do. It challenges us to imaginatively bring forward all kinds of options.

It was also Clarissa that drew my attention to how we can hold onto hurts to keep alive rage or anger, because we use these energetic emotions as a source of power. Where would our righteousness be without that energetic fuel? We can also use the hurts to justify our defensiveness – a relic from a time when we needed protection. These insights bring forward important challenges to our reasoning and beliefs in the forgiveness game. At some point, being hurt consumes us. It also costs lots of precious life-energy to maintain. Beliefs are not facts. Beliefs that limit solution finding are worth challenging.

For me, I think that when hurts run deep, forgiveness must address them layer by layer. These layers could also be the many stages, seasons, and creative facets of forgiveness. We forgive enough to show up at a family function, while still protecting our hearts by not engaging with the poisons. We learn about boundaries and how we might use them to incubate our healing. We discover wider contexts or perspectives about what our fellow humans were dealing with in their own stories or lives that helps explain a behaviour, and not take things so personally.

Sometimes we think that the forgiveness work is done. Done-full-stop-kind-of-done. And seasons pass. We forget and yet we remember. The story hovers in the background of our lives and echoes still.

On my roundabout journey, I eventually came to a place where I no longer wanted to carry around the imprint of the hurt. I no longer wanted to leave parts of my being playing old painful stories on repeat. I didn’t want to live from woundedness but rather from healing. By this time, I was emotionally stronger. I had better informed context. I had new tools. I had ways to re-frame my experiences. I found myself scratching at deeper layers of hurt, not so much as to worry the old wound, but to once-and-for-all be free. I wanted to taste freedom promised in the mad heartland out there, somewhere beyond reason. Somewhere in the land of forgiveness.

This eventual release happened to me in a recent encounter. I experienced a spontaneous arising / uprising of forgiveness. And the key thing was that in offering forgiveness, I had offered it unconditionally. I was swimming across a wild and cold loch of all places. The desire to let go, to be free of the old story simply presented itself in my psyche, on an empty stage within my being. I went from wanting to forgive to saying, ‘I forgive you,’ to feeling full body waves of goosebumps in a matter of seconds. I no longer needed their apology or them to recognise my pain. This was important because they are no longer here. They cannot offer me it. And let’s remember, I had to keep swimming, goosebumps, freedom and all. I can tell you, I felt ridiculously lighter. I recognised this phenomenon of lightness that I’d seen reported in the texts and tomes on forgiveness. I felt it’s truth.

I think that what had helped soften the hard ground of my being (apart from decades of time!) was Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s ‘Prayer for Forgiveness’ that I came across in their beautiful Book of Forgiving. This prayer is described as being a prayer you might pray when you are walking in that space before being ready to forgive. Desmond Tutu chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu’s credentials as a towering giant of compassion informed by the depth of his lived experience offers such authority and authenticity to the body of work on forgiveness. (Learn more on his and Leah Tutu’s legacy foundation here.) A copy of the prayer is included at the end of this blog for any of you that find yourselves in want of resources in the before-space.

Acknowledging that aspirational and invitational space had an enormous opening and softening effect on me. It connected me with the desire to work on those deeper layers of forgiveness.

In the book, Tutu reminds us that many people find they don’t escape their story, that it hasn’t ended, even after ‘justice’ has been served. He says even after ‘justice’ no-one has found a route to a new beginning. We stay there, hurting, and perhaps like I said earlier, holding onto our burden for there’s nowhere safe to lie it down. When Tutu said that forgiveness was the ‘only way out of the trap that injury creates’ he challenged my thinking.  

Interestingly, I read the Tutus’ book because of work I was doing recently, in addiction recovery settings. There we had encountered the difficult-to-articulate reality that self-forgiveness can be the hardest task of all. In the time before self-forgiveness, we are the jailor and prisoner both. I started thinking that Tutu may be onto something!

In the realm of addictive behaviour where we harm ourselves, I wonder what self-forgiveness could contribute to breaking the cycle of self-harm. Is self-forgiveness a radical act of self-care and generosity? Is this one of the keys?

When Tutu says self-forgiveness is true self-acceptance, this feels like one of those liberating truths. The challenge to live a life that is different and more than the sum of all the ways we have been hurt is a view that places the responsibility to seek and offer freedom back into our own hearts. Forgiveness may present a path to this essential freedom.

In looking for more resources for the course participants who were struggling with self-forgiveness, I had stumbled upon resources that helped me touch deeper layers of hurt and attend to them with unconditional forgiveness. More is the gift.

Hurts, harms and forgiveness are difficult to write about because they name people we care about, who care about us, and who we have hurt felt hurt by. Even after the healing, they present the most uncomfortable parts of our lived experience. Sometimes, in confronting what’s gets in the way of self-forgiveness, we find ourselves named as both perpetrator and victim. This sense of feeling hurt, and the family of emotions that live there – like resentment, anger, shame, loneliness, and inadequacy all relate to a disconnection. Self-alienation as much as disconnection from others or social isolation.

There are other resources out there, some anonymous and some that share other stories which may be the ones that resonate with you and wake up your own hearts. Stories of forgiveness and reconciliation can be so helpful because story is often how we learn and the script in which we live. Acts of creation in the forgiveness space can be supportive of our healing. Forgiveness resources that might be useful are: www.tutu.org.za  or www.humanjourney.com/forgiveness. Anonymous apology websites are www.perfectapology.com or www.imsorry.com or www.joeapology.com.

Without real life stories and examples writing and talking about forgiveness can feel like something theoretical and abstract, righteous even. So that’s why I’ve shared in short form parts of my story. My experience has educated my heart on what forgiveness offers.

Prayer before the prayer taken from “The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World” by Desmond & Mpho Tutu.

I want to be willing to forgive

But I dare not ask for the will to forgive

In case you give it to me

And I am not yet ready

I am not yet ready for my heart to soften

I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again

Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes

Or that the one who hurt me may also have cried

I am not yet ready for the journey

I am not yet interested in the path

I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness

Grant me the will to want to forgive

Grant it to me not yet but soon

Can I even form the words

Forgive me?

Dare I even look?

Do I dare to see the hurt I have caused?

I can glimpse all the shattered pieces of that fragile thing

The soul trying to rise on the broken wings of hope

But only out of the corner of my eye

I am afraid of it

And if I am afraid to see

How can I not be afraid to say

Forgive me?

Is there a place where we can meet?

You and me

The place in the middle

The no mans land

Where we straddle the lines

Where you are right

And I am right too

And both of us are wrong and wronged

Can we meet there?

And look for the place where the path begins

The path that ends when we forgive

#forgiveness #generosity #forgive #compassion #resources #apology

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