〈This is an excerpt from my book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.〉
When you sacrifice for others, you are doing a lot more than acting in service to them. They may be bleeding emotionally inside, and you then bleed inside to help them stop bleeding inside. For example, Brian’s mother, Yolanda, was overly-controlling toward him and his partner, Simone. Instead of distancing himself from Yolanda, he spent time gently giving her examples of her not letting him, in her own mind, develop independence in adulthood. This took energy, a checking of his anger so it did not spill out to her, and some suffering on his part to help her to understand.
Of course, we have to exercise temperance here too. Sacrifice does not mean that you do damage to yourself. The paradox is that as you sacrifice for others, you experience emotional healing.
Dr. Frankl, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, provides a remarkable case study of the kind of meaning one can find in sacrificing for others. His example is not in the context of forgiveness. I relate it to you so that you can see how sacrifice works and becomes an aid to the one who is doing the sacrificing. An elderly physician came to see Dr. Frankl because of the loss of his wife 2 years earlier. Dr. Frankl saw that he was psychologically depressed. His question to the physician was this: “What would have happened to your wife if you were the one to go first?” With that question a bigger picture opened for the physician. Had he gone first, then it would have been his beloved wife who would be visiting Dr. Frankl for her depression. By her going first, she was spared years of grief. The physician then understood that he could willingly take on the suffering on behalf of his wife……….
Can you see how a sacrificial attitude, within reason, could aid you in forgiving and in overcoming resentment? I say within reason because you do not want to overdo this either. If a person refuses to hear what you have to say, or refuses to accept your sacrificial gestures and begins to use you, then it is time to reexamine the approach. None of these approaches is foolproof. If you see benefit in the sacrificial attitude and related behaviors, then what is your particular plan? What will you do that is hard for you to do in service to the other? How long will you give this undertaking? Do you see even a glimmer of evidence……that the other is open to even small change? Be sure to monitor your coping level during this exercise so that the sacrifice does not lead to an even greater resentment. If that begins to happen over a period of time, then it is time to reevaluate this particular approach in your case. If, on the other hand, it seems to be working, then stay at it as long as you can and as long as the other is willing to work with you in changing behaviors.
Reflect on the possibility that without your forgiveness, that person may never learn to live well. You may be playing a part in helping him or her grow deeply as a person. How might that be? He or she is being given a chance to see what genuine love is and to see it in action. Your sacrificial approach may even be playing a part in the very survival of this person. Of course, you do not want to go so far with this sacrifice that you do damage to yourself. Instead, the point here is that as you give of yourself, within reason, this giving might prove to be emotionally healing for you. When you are ready, write down your answer to the question of how you may be aiding the other’s healing.
Dr. Frankl then gives the reader an insight that is worth remembering: Sacrifice changes as soon as it is linked to a sound meaning that underlies it. The physician now had a meaning for going on, and his willing acceptance of outliving his wife was a sign that he loved her and wanted her safe.
“As we continually live with love withdrawn from us and a resulting resentment (with the short-term consequences of thinking with a negative pattern, thinking specific condemning thoughts, and acting poorly), we can settle into a kind of long-term distortion of who the love-withdrawing person is, who we ourselves are, and who people are in general. The basic issue here is that once love is withdrawn from us, we can begin to withdraw a sense of worth toward the one who hurt us. The conclusion is that he or she is worth-less. Over time, we can drift into the dangerous conclusion, ‘I, too, am worthless. ’After all, others have withdrawn love from me and have concluded that I lack worth, therefore I do lack worth. Even later, we can drift into the unhealthy conclusion that there is no love in the world and so no one really has any worth, thus everyone is worth-less.”
Excerpt from the book, The Forgiving Life, Chapter 1.
There are moments when the human body may be stripped of its physical skills, but the human spirit is not broken.
Here is the story of a lady who is a testament to that. The year was 1989 and 26-year-old Laura Chagnon was merely walking down a Boston street. She didn’t know that would be the day her life would take a 180 degree turn. She was the victim of a senseless assault by one or more people; the detectives never caught the individual(s).
More important was the result, one minute ambulatory, Laura was now quadriplegic, legally blind with a head injury. To this day, her short-term memory is not very good. She was in a coma for 5 weeks and came out of it feeling a sense of loss. Her legs were no longer her legs because now she could not walk. She could no longer use her hands.
Four years in physical rehabilitation facilities followed. Doctors told her parents that her cognitive ability was minimal and to save the aggravation and put her in an institution for the rest of her life. They refused, their unconditional love was stronger than the doctor’s advice. The doctors said Laura would be a vegetable, still her parents would not break.
In 1993, Laura returned to live at home with her parents. She had caregivers around the clock to be her eyes and hands. She would not let life be a pity party and wanted to be a productive member of society. Laura started to dictate sentences to her caregivers and the sentences evolved into poems. One poem after another, each day more poems. Now, her identity changed, she didn’t feel like a quadriplegic woman, she proudly said she was a poet. Laura’s poems were of very good quality and were printed in local newspapers. She told people she was some day going to be a published poet with her book of poetry to be shared with the world.
She had no malice for whomever assaulted her. Laura simply said, “I traded my legs for the opportunity to write poetry.”
Let’s fast forward to the present. Laura has written over 5,000 poems. The doctors would be astonished. She is a shining example of overcoming adversity and not ever doubting the human spirit. Oh, by the way, that crazy dream of hers, to become a published poet: Laura met a publisher in June of 2013. He read some of her poems and was amazed. He said, “Laura Chagnon deserves to be published.”
For more than 20 years, her poetry was basically a well kept secret. If you read her works, I think you would agree she can hold her own with any poet out there. Now anybody can be the judge of that. Her published book, “Never Touched A Pen” the inspiring poetry of Laura Chagnon can be ordered at www.civinmediarelations.com.
Twenty-eighth year. Since early 1985 I have been thinking about the topic of forgiveness. I have thought about it in the area of psychology, then more specifically in developmental, clinical, and counseling psychology. Then I have thought about it more broadly in the areas of psychiatry, social work, law, education, and philosophy.
The journey has brought me into the restorative justice movement, the peace movement, the battlefield, the clinician’s office, and the classroom. It has brought me to the Balkans, Belfast, Brazil, Bogota, Dublin, Firenza, Liberia, Padua, Roma, and beyond.
I have written so much on the topic that I cannot keep track of it all—articles for publications in Jerusalem, South Africa, Australia, Rome, America.
No publication, no thought, no application to hurting lives is higher than my most recent book, The Forgiving Life. Here is why: I wrote it from the heart, a heart that has close to three decades of experience with the term forgiveness.
I have come to realize that forgiveness is so much more than a merciful act toward someone who was unfair. To forgive is to embrace, embody, and then to personify forgiveness in one’s life–and then to others’ lives. To forgive is to touch the lives of the hurting, including the one who hurt you. Forgiveness is actually cultivating a life of mercy and then to leave a legacy of love in the world, a world that sometimes attacks and tries to kill love. The love I consider here is not, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “sentimental bosh.” No, it is the kind of love that is strong and in service to others. It is the kind of love that abides in the heart and does not come out only on special occasions. It is the kind of love that becomes part of a person.
The Forgiving Life is basically a Socratic Dialogue, in the spirit of Plato’s writings, in which two good-willed people grapple with the notion of forgiveness until they understand it as best they are able today. The dialogue is between Sophia, who has a lot of forgiveness miles on her, and the feisty Inez who wishes to cast off the shackles of fear and anger.
The dialogue has allowed me to go considerably more deeply into the topic of forgiveness than ever I have done before. The dialogue, at the same time, makes it my most accessible work, available to anyone who wishes to spend a bit of time with this life-giving topic of forgiveness, and perhaps to allow that topic to transform one’s life.
I am indebted to Plato for showing me the way to accessibility. I am indebted to Aristotle for showing me what the moral virtues are, including forgiveness. Thank you, gentlemen. I hope you are proud that your ideas, from over 3,500 years ago, are living, although imperfectly, in my heart as I pass on your legacy in the hope of passing on a legacy of love and forgiveness to others.
What would you do if you grew up with a strained relationship with parents that extended into your adult life? What would you do if, on top of that, you experienced as an adolescent the laughter of rejection from peers (which we would call bullying today)? Then, what if life added an extremely controlling and (physically, emotionally, sexually, verbally, and financially) abusive relationship with one’s common-law partner that went on for years? What if he took your two young sons and threatened to never give them back until you signed a lawyer’s contract stating that you must obey all he says or else he keeps the children and all the material goods? What if you were beaten so badly that when you called 9-1-1, you were not sure whether you were speaking English or Hungarian? What if you then waited two hours for the police to arrive and they wanted you to hang around until the one who beat you came home so that all of you could sit around and chat?
Would you have the clarity of mind, the energy, and the emotional strength to recount all of this in a book?
Meet the author whose pen name is “EMP.” The book, entitled, It Is Forgiven, is published by iUniverse. In crafting her own story so that others can find a path to freedom, she recounts the details of horrors so strong that most of us could never put them down on paper, in essence re-experiencing the abuse as the words are written and the images play in the mind all over again. The reader gets a look into EMP’s soft heart as she recounts the laughter from peers during her adolescence, a time when we were all so vulnerable and sensitive to rejection:
I learned to speak to myself positively and encouragingly: Every person is a human being, just like me. They aren’t any different, neither less nor more than me. They are people, and I am one of them. (page 17).
EMP grew up in Hungary and eventually made her way to Canada with her two sons, where she wrote the book, published in 2012. What I find most fascinating about the book is the fact that EMP never talks directly about her forgiveness journey with her common-law partner. The forgiveness is seen subtly in her prose directed toward Joseph, the common-law partner. As you read, pay attention to the tone. Never once does the author strike out in anger in any way toward him. She is shocked, deeply hurt, disgusted by his actions, but on every page he remains a person, someone who could be redeemed, someone who could change. Some skeptics would say that the author was seeing him through rose-colored glasses, but you will have to read the book to know this is not so. EMP sees a very flawed human being, someone from whom she had to work hard to attain freedom, and she did. This is not a book written by a naive, denying, give-me-more-abuse person. No, instead, this is a book written by someone who stood in hope for years, was beaten, and found hope elsewhere. And in finding that hope elsewhere, she never threw him away as a human being. That is forgiveness. It is forgiven.