I hate to sound jaded, but with age, most of us come to expect sadness, loss, and disappointment. From our newspapers to our Hollywood blockbusters, we are inundated with stories of pain and emotional scars, and if we're lucky, we will get to witness the sweet taste of retribution for all that hurt. There is definitely a societal price to be paid for our addiction to catastrophe -- and one that I believe vacillates between a callous disregard for suffering to a hyped-up endorphin-fueled rage.
Maybe that's why I'm always pleasantly surprised when I stumble upon love and forgiveness in the most unlikely of places. In my work as an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse, I have the opportunity to share my experience and strength through various talks and panels. This past week, I participated on a panel with four other survivors of sexual violence, for a lecture series at York University. Before the first speaker got up, the anxiety in the room was palpable, as those in attendance expected to be decimated by stories of lost innocence and unimaginable transgressions. But with the telling of each survivor's story, a surprising theme began to take shape -- one of resiliency borne of forgiveness.
Language is power, and the language we use not only defines what we say but also who we are. You'll notice that I've chosen not to label myself as a "victim," but as a "survivor." What many may say is only a subtle shift in vocabulary is in fact predicated on a seismic shift in thinking, one to which I believe forgiveness is the key. Before I enter into a discussion on forgiveness, I'd like to state unequivocally that I am by no means a "saint" when it comes to the art of forgiveness -- there are many times I stubbornly choose to hang on to toxic, self-destructive resentments.
When I think about what lies at the heart of forgiveness, I'm reminded of a poem I studied in undergrad by the 18th century English writer Alexander Pope.
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
There's nothing magical or ethereal about forgiveness. In fact, it's staring us directly in the face, yet so often we refuse to reach out and unveil its beauty. On those rare occasions when we do, we discover the truth of "what often was thought, but never so well expressed."
For me, truth lies in the faith of forgiveness, and when I surrender to this "faith of forgiveness," a newfound freedom enters my life. I don't believe that forgiveness is a one-time act, but rather an unfolding process. We often get hung up on the "other party" when it comes to forgiveness, as we struggle with whether or not this individual warrants our compassion. And it's at this point that I need to remind myself that forgiveness is not something I bestow on someone else -- it's a gift that is mine alone.
You may be asking yourself, "What does forgiveness look like?", and "Can we honestly expect anything from the person we forgive?" These are indeed valid questions, so I'd like to turn to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who expressed this philosophy so beautifully. When asked how he copes with pain, anger, and grief in his life, he responded: "I say to the bad times, I will not let you go until you bless me." And this to me is why I see forgiveness as a lifelong process of connection. Like it or not, we are all connected, so it is impossible to live a life in silos, in which we let the good in and keep the bad out.
When it comes to forgiveness, we are well served to let go of our anger yet hold on to the lesson. By inviting this lesson into our lives every day, we maintain that connection with those we choose to no longer have contact with. There is a general misconception that "forgiveness" is somehow tied to "reconciliation," and it is within this misconception that we often deny ourselves the permission to forgive. Forgiveness is an inside job -- a coming to terms with our own anger and hate. When I forgive, I give myself the permission, and freedom, not to expect to rewrite my past. When I forgive, it does not mean I "condone" something that happened to me, and thus -- forgiveness -- a shift in my own thinking, does not entail an apology from someone else.
Author and ethicist Lewis B. Smedes describes the process in this way: "Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future." If we are able to continue further down this path of forgiveness, one day we might reach a point of "reconciliation" -- seeking common ground and understanding to move forward with another.
In the end, the choice is ours whether or not we have faith in forgiveness. When I'm asked how I can possibly forgive the individuals who sexually abused me, I respond by saying, "How could I not?" Faced with the choice of indefinitely hanging on to the anger and fear nestled in self-pity and resentment, or the choice of releasing myself of those toxic feelings, I choose the path of freedom. Have I been released of all the hurt from my past? No, but I do have faith in the process. In the words of the immortal William Shakespeare: "How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?"
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.