Cat’s Spiritual Journey, Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

Cat’s Spiritual Journey, Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff July 10, 2008

All posts in this series:

Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool’s Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

In some ways, what I have written on how my community, my family and I reacted to the divisions in our household seems grandiose to me. In truth, I’m a really lucky woman. In a world where domestic violence, child abuse, warfare and the violence that pits neighbor against neighbor are all commonplace, what, really have I got to forgive? What do I know of betrayal or suffering on any large scale?

Not much, honestly.

I know that my insights on hurt and forgiveness are small ones compared with the insights of a Nelson Mandela, a Gandhi, or many of the survivors of abuse and violence I’ve known over the years. But it seems to me that honoring my own small learning curve is one way to try to live up to their legacies.

Rather than putting the peace-makers of the world on a pedestal as noble but essentially Other, I have wanted to share with you the story of how a basically very ordinary, sometimes arrogant, rageful, self-absorbed piece of humanity –me– responded to a very ordinary human conflict.

I know that one of the most maddening things in dealing with the conflicts that tore our community apart was the feeling that no one quite understood what I was trying to say–including myself. Just exactly why did what was happening hurt so much?

I’ve felt the need to write about this chapter in my life partly for the same reasons I used to compulsively talk and talk and talk about the it at the time with anyone who seemed remotely willing to hear me out. I’ve needed, myself, to find the answer to that question, why does this make me so angry and afraid?

I’m grateful to all the people who helped me to find language to express why the conflicts in our home and coven were so bitter.

I’m grateful to Maureen, for instance, who put our experiences into the Hellenic context of the ancient duty of hospitality–the sacred relationship between guest and host without which the ancient world could not have functioned. (Sacred, in part, because connections between communities would have been impossible without the mutual care and respect of hosts and guests, given the total absence of Ramada Inns, freeways, and ATM machines.) There was something in that idea that did reflect our experience: there is an intimacy in any relationship between you and any person you receive into your own home that does make both host and guest vulnerable.

This was just one of the ways community members who listened deeply, and reflected back the ways they saw our story, helped us to see it, too, and helped us begin to heal.

Likewise, I’m grateful to those who have lovingly shared with us their perceptions of how difficult it was to be close to us at that time. Brightshadow, for instance, has reflected on how unsafe our anger made him feel. “I kept waiting for that anger to be turned on me,” he once told me, “though it never was.” Watching us react with such emotional violence pained others, who did not often know how to respond. And when friends reached out to offer their best wisdom–your anger hurts: hurts you and hurts us–we felt judged and rejected.

Sometimes, those who genuinely felt for us and wanted to help refused to listen to us, for fear that hearing us try to describe why we were angry and what we were feeling would just act as fuel for the fire, and make matters worse. Many of our friends felt lost, and wanted us to move into forgiveness (or at least amnesia) without ever finding words for what went wrong.

I see others caught up in this same kind of pain, and I want to offer my experiences as a lifeline, to other Felicias as well as other Cats, Peters, and Two Bears in the world. We need to better understand how individuals find peace with one another, and how communities can help them with it.

Not listening, not helping others find words, is not helpful. Insisting that there are no victims is not helpful. Helping people who feel betrayed to find truthful, clear ways to frame what happened to them, and why it was wrong… that is helpful.

I have written that I don’t know what forgiveness really is, and that’s true. But I do have a sense of what it isn’t.

For instance, in my work as a therapist, I have come across a number of stories like this one: an adult woman, sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood, is invited each year to the family Thanksgiving, where she is seated next to the father who abused her, and who has never acknowledged the abuse, nor sought help for his behavior in any way. She is required to do this as a condition of her family accepting her, and as a token of her “forgiveness” of actions no one has ever publicly discussed.

That is not forgiveness. That is tyranny.

And maybe the woman can find it within herself to find whatever it is forgiveness might mean in such a context–but if she does, it will be no thanks to her family.

One of the things I learned, as a therapist, was the importance of discussing the perpetrator with their victim.

This went totally against the grain of what most psychotherapy is about. In most psychotherapy, the therapist is trained to turn discussion relentlessly back to the client’s own feelings and thoughts. After all, those are the only part of any social equation we have direct control over. There’s logic to that.

But in the case of those who have been battered or emotionally abused or raped–especially by someone they knew–there really is a need to discuss the perpetrator. Because, no matter how clear it may be in the abstract that what was done was wrong, it so often doesn’t seem clear when it happens to us. I once knew a woman who had been raped at the age of five, for example, who blamed herself for the incident because the perpetrator took her out and bought her a treat immediately afterward. She accepted the treat–ergo, she had been paid for and had consented to the assault. Such is the logic of the human heart, and we need compassionate help, often, to confirm what another part of us knows: that we have been harmed, that we have been wronged. And, so often, only looking at and discussing the perpetrator and his actions allows the victim to see what another person could see clearly.

But if we won’t discuss a perpetrator, for fear of encouraging vengefulness, we’re not helping that person work toward a clear vision of their experience.

And I don’t think we can “forgive” what we have not yet seen, fully and clearly. I think that’s as true with the small things–like overcoming a breach between housemates–as it is with the large ones, like child rape and genocide. First we see and try to understand. Then, and only then, can we hope to move beyond.

Of course, it’s possible to speak about our wounds in ways that encourage deepened anger and vindictiveness, and it’s possible for listeners, especially those with unhealed wounds similar to those of the speaker, to encourage deepening the spite. That’s especially true among those who suspect that, actually, they have done something wrong or even unforgivable–something some of us feel irrationally, and others because we really have committed grave and terrible acts.

I think of this, and I think of the dream of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, sent to a concentration camp for their role in hiding Jews from the Nazis. The ten Booms dreamed of, after the war, opening a different kind of camp, for reconciliation between the survivors and the prison guards. This dream ultimately failed, and I find it easy to understand why. Not only would it have demanded extraordinary heroism for survivors of the camps to participate fully and honestly in such work, but it would have required a moral courage and self-knowledge almost beyond human capacity for the guards to have done so.

Knowledge must come before forgiveness, let alone reconciliation. Knowing how hard and long a process it has been for me to come to terms with my minor little pains, I have greater respect than ever for the survivors of childhood abuse I worked with for so many years. It truly can take a lifetime to take in what has been done to us. There is no shortcut to forgiveness, and just knowing takes years, even with the most empathic and sensitive support.

As for those who have done terrible things to others, like the camp guards… well, that is knowledge that only the bravest will ever acquire. It is asking so much, this self-knowledge. I understand why so many fail even to begin.

What this means to me, as a member of two spiritual communities, is that I want to urge us all to remember how hard the process is.

It’s not that I do not value it–it’s that, I think, having fought so hard and so long in what Quakers call “the Lamb’s war” to know my own anger, and to open up even a willingness to forgive, I am utterly unwilling to accept forgiveness’s counterfeit. False forgiveness, the willingness to pretend to a love and an openness we don’t really feel, is an act of violence against truth. It is ugly and it does not lead to healing, to knowledge, or to compassion.

In fact, only the real thing will do, and the real thing does not come cheap. Communities need to hold those of us struggling with forgiveness tenderly, and be willing to suffer with us in spirit as they do so, rather than fortifying themselves behind platitudes.

We need to accept that the road to forgiveness is long and sometimes confusing, and be willing to be patient and confused right along with those who are suffering from hurt and betrayals. We need to be willing to hear painful truths, and not to dismiss what we think is trivial; at the same time, we need not to enshrine a sufferer’s current understandings as holy writ, incapable of changing or growing in wisdom with time.

The mission is the same wherever we are. It differs in difficulty, certainly. My task has been easier than the task of a homeless Untouchable in New Delhi, or the survivor of genocide in Bosnia. It’s a long hard job, forgiving. And it’s a long hard job, supporting one another through betrayal, anger, and fear. It only looks easy from a distance. Up close–I gotta warn ya–it’s gonna be harsh, painful, and rough.

But it’s our job.

As a Friend, I have come to understand that forgiving one another–seeing each other and ourselves clear and whole, in order to love one another properly–is our work. We are all called to it, without exception, though it will not be easy. I am no kind of master of it–my story makes that clear.

But this is my notice to the world: I will try. Even knowing I have little talent for it, even knowing how much I flat out suck at living rightly and acting in love, I will trust in the Spirit of Peace to lead me. And I will try.

(You try, too.)

Afterward: It should be obvious by now, but just in case it isn’t, let me repeat myself. The fact that I make connections between my small experience of hurt and forgiveness and the process of forgiveness for victims of criminal or global acts of violence is not in any way a comparison of Felicia’s very ordinary human failings with acts of violence or abuse. That is not the quality I am comparing, and any implication otherwise reflects my failings as a writer. (I sure hope that’s clear!)

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