Thursday, March 05, 2009

Three Forms of Forgiveness, by Wendy Strgar


On the Edge of Forgiveness

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you. -- Unknown

Forgiveness is giving up the possibility of a better past. It is the path of redemption where life can move forward from the present moment, where the past fades with memory and we have the internal space to accept the daily imperfections of life with those we love as they are. It is a true forgetting, this forgiveness that frees the victim as deeply as the perpetrator. The relationship is new, starting fresh, without the burden of selective memory. This is not a path that we command; it is one that we serve.

Forgiveness does not come easily and for many it is an unknown emotional story. It requires patience and is rarely a hasty proposition. It cannot be forced but it is a way of thinking that has to be chosen. The most arduous and sometimes insurmountable part of forgiving is that one must fully feel the injury and acknowledge it before anything can be forgiven. This is why so many families never heal. The children don't have the language and emotional maturity to express themselves. The parents, often suffering with their own unresolved childhood pains, have little insight into the damage they have done. As a parent myself now, I often and painfully bear witness to the enormity of the task and even with my best intentions I fall short. Some days there are too many unmet needs and not enough resources and it is impossible to not inflict some harm on the way to raising another human being.

I have been working toward forgiveness, which has been called the final form of love, for much of my adult life with my original family. I knew it was a real and promised place from the forgiveness that had transformed my marriage, but still at every family reunion it has eluded me. Inevitably something in me would crack, destroying the tentative approach we were all making. I haven't had the heart to love the most broken places in me that are so loudly mirrored in these interactions

Each meeting becomes more poignant and urgent as all the participants age and each time together has the potential for being the last. I long for the freedom to open my heart in these moments but mostly am faced with all of my worst and ugliest character traits that are mirrored and louder in the previous generation. As I witness the source of all my most unwanted behaviors, the ones that stick to me regardless of how much or for how long I push away the relationships they came through, I understand finally that all of this brokenness is not about them anymore, my brokenness is mine alone.

Still the crass and unforgiving language, the negative spin on whatever is happening, the fear of lack which precludes any real giving -- these traits that I know intimately bring up a deep revulsion in me. My children see me wince at my father's casual disregard for one of my own children which is at once so blatant and so comfortable for him that he is not even aware of it. They hear the tension in my voice when I try calmly to instruct him on the etiquette of sharing a meal with a family, of something so basic as limiting your portion so there is enough for everyone. They hold their breath wondering if this will be the trigger that leads to the explosion that generally accompanies our rare family reunions. My twelve year old son slides in next to me and gives me his knowing smile at yet another oblivious blunder. My eldest daughter cues me to breathe.

Then there is the glimmer of goodness as my father teaches my son about the stock exchange, a piece of my own education that has stayed with me for decades coming through direct to my kids. He starts recounting stories from his own broken childhood that I remembered fragments of, but now I get the missing details, the names and places that made him who he is. Tenderness catches me off guard around my father; it has rarely been safe to have my heart unprotected near him. I sit, waiting to serve forgiveness, to have the chance to be free of the years of not good enough that I have lived out far from his sight.

There have been no explosions on this reunion and it is thanks to my own family that I can inch closer to the edge of forgiveness. My eldest son, who knows me well and is unaffected by my father's offenses, told me the other day that he thought "it was refreshing to hang around grandpa." In response to my incredulous face he offers, "He has no idea how he affects anyone else, it's funny." I can see his point, but stubbornly remain attached to the small girl that I was at the receiving end of his lack. My son acknowledges how that would have sucked to be the kid and something softens in me.

This is perhaps how forgiveness happens; a few strands of a thick cord tying you to your wrongs are worn away through the courageous process of feeling and acknowledging until you can see that the injury holding you has less to offer you than the freedom of carrying your brokenness tenderly on and away. It is a real beginning for the New Year.

Forgiveness: The Action Verb

Love is an act of endless forgiveness. -- Peter Ustinov

If love is a verb, than forgiveness is the action verb. It is the highest form of love and the single behavior that most distinguishes our human potential. In an ancient tale from the Kaballah, God told some angels in training that the capacity to forgive is the most excellent gift in the human experience, more essential to the continuity of life than the courage to sacrifice your own life for someone else or enduring the pain of giving life. God explained to the angel, "Forgiveness is the only reason my creation continues. Without forgiveness, all would disappear in an instantaneous flash."

Certainly some might suspect this to be true with a quick glance to the Middle East. What would it look like if the rule of power and force was replaced with a mandate for the strength and courage of forgiveness? The comment by Desmond Tutu that "Forgiveness and reconciliation are not just ethereal, spiritual, other-worldly activities. They have to do with the real world. They are realpolitik, because in a very real sense, without forgiveness, there is no future," speaks volumes about the state of things.

And yet we don't have to look that far, for most of us, right in our own homes we struggle with hurts, real and imagined that separate us from the ones we say we love. The smallest of details in sharing a life with someone can easily and often without notice turn into a story line about the person you love. For years, my disregard of my husband's need for order and his disgust at my laissez-faire approach to house cleaning came to mean everything. We weren't talking about behaviors where we dramatically differed, instead each housekeeping incident was a personal insult that with just a small push inflamed to fury about the other weak points in our relationship.

Before Christ was born, Marcus Aurelius said "our anger and annoyance are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger or annoy us." The petty arguments of life are the cracks in the foundation of the relationships we are building and left unresolved often fall into the established patterns of retreat and attack which impact both partners' ability to be emotional available and vulnerable. It is not that big a stretch to see how these behaviors adapt into the extremely common, no-win situation of the sexual initiation complex. The questions of who asks and who says no are salt in the wound and all the small disagreements come to mean everything about being both loveable and loving.

And what of all the broken hearts in the Middle East? Anyone you would ask, on any street on either side, would tell you that they want the shooting, the bombing, the killing to end, and yet probably each and every one would also tell you why it must continue... for the cousin, the brother, the lover, the parent or the child who was maimed, killed, forever injured. Every person living in that region has a story to be forgiven and a heart so heavy with grief that the courage to open to the pain and loss is often more than they can bear.

I have only experienced the deep, life-changing balm of forgiveness in my life one time. Right at the moment when my marriage hung on the precipice of its end, we decided instead to forgive. I can't say who initiated it or even exactly how it happened, all I can say of that moment is that I couldn't remember any longer what it was to not be wanted, that all the years of fighting over who we weren't for each other evaporated and what was left was a space to love someone for who they were. My intimate life, very much at the core of my marriage, reinvigorated itself with a curiosity and genuine interest that had always cowered behind our relentless arguments. I was blessed and have since that time tried to understand just how that could have happened and how I can do it again.

I think that forgiveness is an act of the imagination. It embraces the child's heart which is always ready to risk for a better moment and give up the hurt of the last one. Forgiveness is an innocent place where your hurt and pain does not have the final word. Yet there is little wisdom or strength that has more power to transform the world than the courage to bear witness to your pain and let go of it.

Sexual Forgiveness

Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.-- Peter Ustinov

Sexual healing is only possible through forgiveness. The injuries and betrayals that we sustain as we negotiate this most mysterious human interaction of sexuality are as diverse as life itself. How these injuries imbed in our identities defines our sexual relationships, sometimes for life. While this is also true for other emotional injuries we sustain, the pain associated with sexual encounters is deeper by definition and encodes itself on us viscerally. Because sexual education is almost non-existent and sexual topics mostly taboo, most of us have very limited language to express our sexual experiences, good and bad.

The hidden scars and unhealed injuries from our intimate past often don't even show themselves until a new lover has breached a body memory that we didn't even know we had. The transformation of grief that occurs when a hidden injury is met with the light of expression and the warmth of a loving ear is life changing. The courage to expose events and self deprecating thoughts that attach to sexual betrayals of all kinds is both heart wrenching and heart opening. Deeply loving someone through this process can feel almost as hard for the partner. The feelings of powerlessness and empathy that sharing sexual injuries provokes can be almost equally intense. Yet, like all storms, after the raging emotions are vented, there is a calm space of refuge. Something is made new in the process. The emptying leaves room to begin again.

There are times when talking about it provides nothing. The words are all inadequate to the experience and it is actually only through the tenderness of touch that injuries can be felt and released. This is human alchemy, impossible to describe even after you have experienced it and even more impossible to instruct someone else in finding this path.

The ancient quote by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, "The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer," provides a hint into this process. Among its profound mystery is the power of intimacy to heal and often it is enough to move forward with the right intention and an open heart.

These are the most fragile and tender of exchanges that we humans are capable of sharing and so it is easy even with the best of intentions to hold too strongly, to let go too soon, to not feel the other person's response in a timely and sensitive way. To err is human and oh, how human we are. Yet to forgive in this process is divine and the only way to stay together. Feel the pain with someone who loves you, even imperfectly, because that is the only way to feel the love. One of my all time favorite singers and heartthrobs, Bono of U2 sings, "Of science and the human heart, there is no limit. There is no failure here sweetheart, just when you quit...."

We are not trained well in love or sex or forgiveness and they are the trinity of a life well lived, each impossible to understand or live without the others. Here is to a truly new year of release and rebirth.

Image by batega, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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