At the Heart of Forgiveness

A year ago, a client told me a story I'll never forget.

Her son was driving home from his first semester at college.  The roads were wet, the air frigid.  She had warmed the fire to make sure that her son, Anthony we'll call him, would come home to a shelter from unseasonably cold air.  But instead of the familiar sound of Anthony's jovial voice as he entered his home, my client received the worst phone call of her life, the one keeps every parent awake at night.

Anthony was killed in a car accident.

Only this accident was not the result of wet roads or furious cross-winds.  Anthony was killed by a man who decided to swim in a few shots of whiskey before he headed home for the night.  Fast forward a few years.  My client has come to see me to address some concerns she has discovered in her grief. 

I want to forgive him, she exclaimed.

I was floored.  Both by her desire to forgive, but also by sudden realization that I had no idea where to begin.  I scraped the bottom of every scholarly article on forgiveness I could discover, but found the academic community bankrupt.  I spoke with colleagues, former supervisors, and friends about the topic, yet could find little support.  Why was this so hard?  I realized that despite our culture's focus on forgiveness, we know little about what forgiveness is or how to go about forgiving.  

We don't really understand how to do forgiveness.

Most of us won't be put in a position to make a grand gesture of forgiveness like my client did.  We simply need to be able to look at the person across the dinner table without that gut wrenching pain we carry around.  

I've been reading a compelling book recently, one that has challenged how I approach my work with couples and families.

Brene Brown is a researcher who has discovered that at the heart of human behavior is our desire to be completely safe with each other.  To be vulnerable.  Attachment researchers know this too.  John Bowlby discovered that children who develop into emotionally healthy adults do so because they are securely attached to their early caregivers, like parents.  As adults, our spouses, friends, and family members take on this role.  But what happens when those important people let us down?  What happens when your spouse cheats?  What do you do when your friend lies to you?  Or when your sister says things that cut you to the bone? Really, How do we forgive? Or, do we even know what forgiveness really is?

What is forgiveness?

What I've learned about forgiveness is that it is not an act we take in isolation.  You do not forgive an action, but a person.  Forgiveness is an expression of your desire to know that you are safe with someone.  It is not a decision, but a plea.  When you forgive someone, you  risk pain.  You open yourself up to someone knowing that they've hurt you in the past.  Forgiveness is not about wiping a slate clean, and it certainly is not about forgetting.  Rather, forgiveness is a desperate plea.  It is your decision to say, "I want to be close to you, but I'm afraid." If you're having trouble forgiving someone who does not feel like they need forgiveness, there's a reason. This person's failure to recognize their own part in your pain represents a continued risk.  You're asking them if you are safe with them, and they are responding with a resounding, "no."  

So what now?

I've discovered that forgiveness is our attempt to wrap language around an emotional and spiritual mystery.  In cases where someone you love has hurt you, and who does not recognize your pain, I advocate for acceptance and safe distance.  You cannot possibly force someone to see your pain.  They must be willing.  But what if you know you need to forgive someone who desperately wants your forgiveness and approval?  If you find that it is hard to forgive, usually that is a good indication that there is some unresolved pain your significant other has yet to see.  Before you are willing to risk, which is what forgiveness really is, you need to receive healing.

Acceptance comes first, healing second, and then forgiveness.

Sometimes they work together.  But it is a myth that you must forgive someone before you can heal.  If forgiveness is an expression of our desperate desire to be emotionally safe with someone, then maybe you and the person who hurt you need to spend time discussing your pain, breathing life into it, and giving it substance.  When the person who hurt you begins to recognize the depth of that pain and accepts it as their own, then their empathy becomes your avenue to forgiveness.  It is a two way street.  This can be difficult.  Its why it is sometimes easier to forgive someone for a heinous act committed against you than it is to forgive your husband for once again leaving the toilet seat up.  Which relationship is more important? 

So if you're having trouble forgiving...

Be patient with yourself.  Recognize that your relationship needs to heal before you can ultimately "let go" of whatever pain or resentment you face.  Forgiveness is about safety.  Vulnerability.  Start by sharing your pain and asking your significant other to hold it and empathize with your hurt.  That is the heart of forgiveness.

Dr. Mathis Kennington