Forgiving the Unforgivable - Part I
Forgiving the Unforgivable
Excerpts from the book “Forgiving the Unforgivable” by Beverly Flanigan, M.S.S.W.
Women and men who have been deeply hurt by someone they love often experience a pain that spirals out of control to undermine their lives, their work, their relationships, and even their sense of reality.
In “Forgiving the Unforgivable”, author Beverly Flaningan defines such unforgivable injuries, explains their poisonous effects, and offers methods to guide readers out of the paralyzing anger, and resentment.
For many of us, it is comforting to know that what we are feeling and the sense of loss we have is not only “normal”, but that there are rational explanations for it, and that there are mechanisms we can follow to help ourselves. In many ways, just understanding what we are feeling, and seeing that there are others who came before us, and that they have overcome this, is the first step towards our own healing.
In particular, it has been important to see that forgiveness, a subject many of us consider “arcane” or “too spiritual”, or somehow tied to “religion”, is a necessity of life, and understanding it, especially as it relates to our modern mobile and fast-paced society, is an important revelation which enriches our life, adds value, and makes us reach into our own selves.
Many people, whether healing professionals understand it or not, seem to need to make things right with each other when things have gone wrong between them. In many cases, even when they have been terribly harmed by someone close to them. Forgiveness is one mechanism for righting wrongs. In reviewing our lives it is often forgiveness that we wish we had given or received, but it is elusive; and remaining unforgiven or unforgiving is often the fate of many individuals; unfortunately, most of us have no idea how to forgive each other even if we should attempt to do so.
The singular characteristic that distinguishes human beings from all other species is that we knowingly and often without legitimate reason cause each other to suffer. We lie to each other, cheat each other, rape each other, pummel and abandon each other, humiliate and betray each other. Even more peculiar, we most often do these things not to our enemies but to the people closest to us.
Unforgivable injuries are the injuries of intimate people. When they happen, hearts are broken, and the essence of intimacy is destroyed. So, the worst kind of human wounds occur not on battlefields but in our homes. The worst injurers are not enemies or strangers in a foxhole but our husbands and wives, children, parents, and friends. Where love has been a part of the relationship, the shrapnel of human destruction is strewn in our living rooms and bedrooms in the form of aborted dreams and wounded hopes. Wars may terminate with the signing of peace treaties, but intimate injuries have no such formal mechanism for ending them. The most intimate of injuries are often left festering and unresolved-either unforgiven or unforgivable.
Forgiveness is also not accomplished through pronouncement. The words “I forgive you” may be appropriate to minor everyday accidents or social indiscretions, but if real damage has resulted between two people, no mere words can effect significant repair.
Forgiving is said to occur in a transaction. This transaction takes place between two parties-the offended person and the offender. It is supposedly an orderly series of exchanges that results in the repair of the ruptured relationship. The “Transaction Model” of forgiving occurs in the following sequence: First, the injured accuses his injurer. Next, the injurer steps forward and admits that he caused another person harm; then he not only helps but encourages the wounded person to express his own feelings-even if they are rage. The injurer then accepts the wrongness of his actions and takes punishment if need be. He promises never to repeat his offense. The forgiver trusts the forgiven will keep his word, and the forgiven trusts that forgiveness is permanent. There is an outpouring of emotion on the part of both individuals-guilt, sorrow, anger, and finally love. The end result is a renewal of commitment to each other and a restoration of what had been a nearly ruptured relationship. The relationship is repaired, and the individuals are ready to take on new commitments and burdens.
The following figure describes the “transactional model” of forgiveness:
If forgiving occurs in an orderly manner for some people, a larger question becomes, how often does it actually take place? How applicable is the model to 21st century life in the civilized world? The answer is, not very often.
For a transaction to occur, two essential elements are needed: Both people must be present to participate; and both must be willing to do so. For many people who have been hurt by those they have loved, this is simply not the situation. Most people must forgive alone, with little or no help from others. The reasons for “solitary forgiving” are several and profoundly reflective of modern life. Changes in the twentieth century have created extraordinary circumstances where human relationships are concerned. Put simply, people-at least, most Americans-do not need each other to assure their survival. Children can leave parents, husbands can abandon wives, and friends need never speak to one another again. American life has made it possible for people to quickly sever their most intimate relationships and to leave behind those closest to them after one has hurt the other. We are a mobile society. We are prideful and competitive. We dislike losers. Many of us believe that forgivers are wimps or that people who stick around to help someone they hurt pick up the pieces are fools. The transaction of forgiving is impossible when one party is unwilling or unavailable to talk to the other.
Modern society mitigates the necessity for reconciliation between warring factions or ruptured relations. This has not always been the case.
In primitive societies and in centuries past people had to rely on each other. Members of tribes or clans depended on one another to meet their most basic needs. Procurement of food, clothing, shelter, and safety was impossible without the cooperative efforts of each member. Each individual member played a role essential to the survival of the whole. The loss of one person threatened the survival of all.
In hunting-and-gathering cultures, for example, each person-the hunter, gatherer, cook, caretaker of children, wise elder, and even tribal historian-was essential to the well-being of the community. Fortunately or unfortunately, in contemporary Western culture, the mutual dependence of individuals has broken down. Today it is conceivable, perhaps even common, for an individual adult to exist entirely alone. He could go to the store for food and clothing, rely on his TV and VCR for entertainment, and do his work at a computer in his condo. Interdependence at an impersonal level has ceased to exist. Conceivably, a man or woman could work, sleep, eat, and die alone-cut off from all but the social and business institutions that meet his basic needs of food and shelter.
In primitive times, when one member offended another, it was essential that some mechanism for reconciling the injury was present. An errant member had to be allowed to return to the clan to ensure its survival, independent of the survival of the individual. No one could survive totally alone, and the group could not afford to lose any member.
Forgiveness, apart from being a mechanism for mending ruptured relationships between two individuals, was a method of restoring peace to the human groups to which individuals belong. It was a stop-gap measure that prevented injuries between individuals from becoming hostilities between their families and prevented family hostilities from becoming wars between their clans. In that way, forgiveness was a method of survival not only for those who depended on each other for their personal needs but also for those who were at odds with each other to begin with. In order for forgiveness to take place, rituals and practices were established whereby the perpetrator and injured would reach peace. These varied in style and format but all permitted the return of the perpetrator to the group in order to fulfill his responsibilities upon which the group depends for its survival.
Today we are less mutually dependent as individuals, couples, neighbors, or communities. People can do without each other and move in and out of any or all of these human groups as often as they like. The wounded individual grapples alone, and the injurer can move on to other partnerships, friendships, neighborhoods, and communities, carrying with him only the baggage of past relationships. But this does not mean that people do not need to feel the peace that forgiveness brings. It means it has gotten much harder to forgive.
Agents of Forgiveness
In the past as well as the present, churches and synagogues have been thought of as institutions of mercy, reparation, and expiation. People who seek to forgive or to be forgiven might turn to their pastor, priest, or rabbi for help. But the clergy, even though they are church leaders, are also as involved with the technological and mobile modern scene as anyone else. When a clergyman is asked to help someone forgive an injurer, he may know neither the offended nor the offender. He can only second-guess why and how the injury occurred. The church, like other sectors of society, suffers from impersonalism and size; and those who would turn to it for help in forgiving are often confronted by that reality.
Others expected to foster forgiveness are members of the professional “helping community”. Psychologists, social workers, family therapists, and psychiatrists all work with clients for whom forgiving is a central issue. Professional training, however, rarely focuses on forgiveness as a goal of the therapeutic intervention. As a matter of fact, quite the contrary is often true. The therapeutic community-at least some facets of it-holds that “empowerment” or venting of anger is a major and most desirable end state of therapy.
As a rule of thumb, most helping professionals believe that if a client comes to think more positively about himself, improvements will take place in his relationships with others. So, therapy involves self-improvement and the learning of self-improvement techniques (assertion, relaxation, claiming one’s feelings, and so on). The therapy “graduate” may be able function and over time may feel his wound less acutely. Deep inside, however, the residual effects of the injury may continue to poison him in the form of mistrust of others of misplaced anger.
Wrongs righted in the self do not right wrongs between people who harm each other; they remain in silent places, waiting for the transaction of forgiveness and the relief it bears.
What do people who need to forgive an injurer actually do to heal their hearts? If therapists or clergy are not helpful, what recourse does a wounded person have? There are three ways to end a skirmish on a battlefield: raise a white flag of surrender, retreat in defiance, or fight to the bloody end. The same is true of injuries that occur on the battlefield of the home. People can forswear their intractable positions and retreat; they can forgive; or when a method of forgiveness is unavailable they can fight to the end.
The courtrooms in America are teeming with wounded and furious people. Acrimonious divorces, bitter custody fights, and even small claims between friends are the order of the day in our litigious society. The legal system is one that forces face-to-face combat between an injured person and his injurer. When offenders can walk away from those they harm, the injured can exert what remaining control they have by forcing a confrontation with their injurers in courts of law. When there is no apology, a court case may follow.
In American society, justice and mercy are so closely intertwined that they often are difficult to distinguish. In fact, Judeo-Christian societies are supposed to be the prime examples of justice and mercy merged. The unfortunate conclusion might be drawn that whenever mercy is not forthcoming, justice will be sought. If human beings “need” to make things right through forgiveness but are barred from an opportunity to do so, they may seek rightness in the form of “justice.”
Forgiveness is the method by which the wounded person can readmit an outcast. In forgiving, a wounded person reopens his heart to take in and reaccept his offender. Upon reacceptance, the slate is wiped clean. But it is not possible to readmit someone who is not knocking on the door asking for readmittance; and most injurers not only do not knock at the door but have already opened new doors and stepped through them.
Still, forgiveness is possible to achieve. The reality is that more often than not, forgiveness occurs not as part of a transaction with the injurer but as the result of a solitary process doggedly and painfully pursued by a person who has been badly injured. In other words, forgiveness happens, but it too often happens with no outside help at all.
Unfortunately, an unforgivably wounded person must heal himself. The church or therapists may help, but without the opportunity to confront an offender directly, the offended person must still repair his own heart. Otherwise, he might waste his life waiting for either a chance to face his injurer, or a sincere apology that might never come.
It is the “solitary model” of forgiveness and its phases that we will be discussing here. The ability of human beings to forgive the unforgivable-even if they have to do it alone-is a testament to all that is right about our species. It speaks to the fact that there remains, even at the start of the twenty-first century, an inner conscience-a need to make things right when people have hurt and been hurt by each other. Forgiveness, whether a mechanism for survival or a basic need of the conscience, nonetheless happens. And when it is final, it imparts peace to the forgiver and restores a modicum of kindness to the human community as a whole.
In Part II, we will examine the “Anatomy of an Unforgivable Injury” (what makes an injury unforgivable as opposed to a forgivable injury).
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