Why would anyone want to forgive when another has traumatized you?
I would like to suggest a different perspective on trauma and forgiveness. It is not forgiveness itself that is creating the sense of fear or disgust or danger or moral evil. Instead, it is the grave emotional wounds which are leading to these thoughts and feelings about forgiveness. When people are wounded they naturally tend to duck for cover. When someone comes along with an outstretched hand and says, “Please come out, into the sunshine, and experience the warmth of healing,” it can be too much. We then blame the one with the outstretched hand or the warmth of the sun or anything else “out there” for our discomfort when all the while the discomfort is what is residing inside the person, not “out there.” And this reaction is all perfectly understandable, given the trauma.
If you experience a blown out knee while working out, and it is gravely painful, is it not difficult to go to the physician? There you face all the sharp white-lights of the examining room, and the nurses scurrying about, and the statements about surgery and recovery and rehabilitation. It all seems to be too much. Yet, it is not the physician or the nurses or the thought of the scalpel or the rehab that is the ultimate cause of all the discomfort. That ultimate cause is the blown-out knee. Isn’t it the same with forgiveness? You have within you a deep wound, caused by others’ injustice, and now the challenge is to heal.
Forgiveness is one way to heal from the trauma which you did not deserve. Like the blown-out knee, the trauma needs healing. So, I urge you to separate in your mind the wound from forgiveness itself. My first challenge to you, then, is this: Is it forgiveness itself that is the basic problem or is it the wound and then all the thoughts of what you will have to do to participate in the healing of that wound?
Forgiveness heals. Forgiveness does not further traumatize. To forgive is to know that you have been treated unjustly and despite the injustice, you make the decision to reduce your resentment toward the offending person and eventually work toward mercy for him or her. That mercy can take the form of kindness, respect, generosity, and even love. Do you want that in you life—kindness, respect, generosity, and love? Forgiveness can help strengthen these in your heart or even begin to have them grow all over again for you.
– Excerpt from the book, The Forgiving Life, Chapter 2.
Security was tight. Oh that….I had forgotten that I had the New York subway schedule in the winter jacket. Sorry about that. No paper allowed.
After going through two secured doors, we went into the courtyard. It was night and so the floodlights were bouncing off the razor wire that wrapped each fence. That wire looked almost festive as it gleamed and sparkled. But, of course, it represented a darker reality than the dance with the floodlights let on.
A little farther on we met Jonah (not his real name), who was coming to attend the talk on forgiveness.
“Hey, do you remember me?” Jonah asked as he extended a big warm hug.
“Yes, of course. How are you?” I said. It had been a while and I was very glad to see him.
Jonah’s is one of the many success stories we hear once those in prison go through forgiveness therapy. He went from max to medium because his constant anger diminished. Forgiveness has a way of doing that. As a person, as Jonah puts it, “gives the gift of forgiveness” to those who abused him, his inner world becomes healthier.
“Forgiveness saved my life,” he said with earnest and serious eyes. He knows of what he speaks. Anger landed him in medical facilities and eventually contributed to serious crime and long prison terms. Yet, his anger was cured by understanding, through forgiveness therapy, that the abuse he experienced as a young man turned to a poisonous anger which was destroying him.
“No one cares how angry you are. It’s yours and yours alone when someone gets to you in a big way.” He had to confront that anger, struggle to forgive the one who was so unfair, and now Jonah can meet me with a warm, wonderful smile, a hug, and a vitality for life that is so unexpected in juxtaposition to the floodlights and the officers and the dancing razor wire.
Jonah is set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and for many years to come. The past pain will not destroy him and any insensitivities, frustrations, and challenges that are part of max and medium security prisons will not crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger: forgiveness.
Forgiveness therapy is beginning to gain traction in prisons because counselors are beginning to see that it is one of the few approaches to corrections that actually works. To forgive is to take the floodlight of analysis off of the self and place it, paradoxically, on the one who did the harm. It is to tell a wider story of whom that other is. Forgiveness therapy allows the person to see the abusing person’s vulnerability, woundedness, and anger that “put me on the hook” as one of my friends in prison describes it. As the heart softens toward those who are cruel, one’s own inner poisons find an antidote in growing compassion. And it works.
One of the main insights I now see is this: As those in prison realize that they are capable of giving the heroic virtue of forgiveness to others, they understand that they, themselves, are stronger than they had thought. They realize that they are givers, human givers, men. “I am a man” not a number, is a common new and growth-producing insight, one that helps those in prison to stand tall in the face of grave challenges. “I am a woman” will be next as we move soon toward a max facility for females.
Long live forgiveness therapy in prisons. Oh, and by the way, did you notice that throughout this little essay, I never once used the word “prisoner”? You see, the word “prisoner” is a sweeping term, encompassing a person’s entire being by their address, by where they reside. Jonah knows he is more than “a prisoner.” He is a man, one who forgives.
If you do not mind, Nihilism, forgiveness has a challenge for you. It is this:
Forgiveness is quite interested in whether or not you still hold to your view under the following circumstance [Warning! Graphic content…to make an important point]:
An 8-year-old girl was brutally kidnapped and repeatedly raped by 5 men who kept her hostage for one year. When she finally escaped, her right arm was so damaged from physical abuse that the arm had to be amputated at the elbow. She now is blind in her left eye and she is afraid to go out of her home.
Is there any person in the world who looks at this truthfully who would say, “She deserved this”? Or, would say, “There is nothing wrong in these men’s actions”? Or, “These actions are wrong only for certain cultures and historical epochs, but not for others”?
I know, I know. Your rebuttal is this: You can show us at least one ideology in the world that would tell you that the men had a right to this.
I am not talking about ideologies, if you do not mind.
I am talking about looking this situation straight in its face and then looking within to one’s own conscience and then asking, “It this wrong? Is this wrong today and yesterday and 1,000 years ago and 1,000 years in the future…..across all cultures everywhere?”
Does the morality of this scenario “inherently exist” in you and in all people of conscience? If you say no, then are you willing to keep the above image in your mind…..for the rest of your life? Can you do it and survive? If not, then are you willing to reconsider your nihilistic view?
Forgiveness, by confronting horrendous actions of others and doing so day after day across so many cultures, sees that some things indeed are inherently wrong, even if some people continue to deny as wrong what happened to that dear girl above. If you cannot answer—truly answer—forgiveness’ challenge in this example, then your philosophy needs to push the restart button.
In late August, my colleague, Gayle Reed, and I visited a maximun security prison to discuss forgiveness. The point was not to focus on those in prison seeking forgiveness for their crimes, but instead to help each of them to begin forgiving those who have abused them prior to their serious crimes. Many of these men have been deeply abused by others, but this becomes invisible as the focus is on their crimes and rehabilitating them for those actions.
Yet, this next point seems so little understood: Those who perpetrate crime so often have an anger, a hatred, a fury within because of the injustices they have suffered, often long before they lash out at others. If it will diminish, this kind of fury within needs major surgery of the heart. All the rehabilitation in the world, if it only focuses on their bad behavior, will do nothing to cleanse the heart of fury. Only forgiveness therapy will do that—and this idea of “only forgiveness therapy” came from one of the counselors at the prison, who supervised a forgiveness group for 6 months.
The day at the institution was special for us as we saw the men’s hearts melt at the realization (over 6 months of forgiveness therapy) that they have been deeply hurt by others, not only perpetrators of hurt onto others. They gained the insight that their own anger, rage, and fury built up to such an extent that it came roaring out onto others. As one man said, “Forgiveness is the enemy of hatred.”
Another man had this remarkable insight that anger, which is displaced onto unsuspecting other people, leads to the victim possibly passing that anger to another person, who may pass it on yet again. At some point, he reasoned, someone has to stop the passing on of anger and forgiving can do that job. He said this: “When another is in pain, they are on the hook. Then they put you on the hook. hen you put others on the hook.” He was clearly seeing that his anger was passed to his victim(s).
After our meeting with the men who took part in the 6-month forgiveness group, several of the men came up privately to me. Each one had tears in his eyes and whispered that he needs to forgive himself now. They are having a hard time living with themselves. The remorse was genuine and the pain real.
After 30 years of studying forgiveness and seeing the scientific results of a significant reduction in anger by those who forgive, I am confident that as the people in prison (both men and women) learn to forgive, their anger within the institution may diminish, making their prison home safer for everyone, including the officers and all who attend to them.
This is a new idea for corrections. May it be a standard idea within a decade.
I have had a deep trauma in experiencing physical abuse in my former marriage. I am worried that forgiveness will open the wound again, something I certainly do not want. What do you suggest?
When you forgive, you do not have to re-visit the details of the physical abuse. Forgiveness asks you to label what happened as wrong. You will have no problem in so identifying what you experienced. Once you label the behaviors as wrong, you then make a decision about whether or not to forgive: to examine the one who abused you as a person (not evil incarnate), to be open to softer emotions toward him, to offer mercy. None of these developments ask you to go back in time to visualize the trauma.
At times, some people need to go back to examine whether or not what happened to them was, in fact, unjust. For example, an adult brother yelled at his adult sister, but it was in a context of her pushing him very hard regarding how he handles his finances. This occurred at a time of high pressure for him. She at first thought what he did was insensitive and hurtful. Yet, she was not sure and so she examined the experience in more detail. Upon doing so, she realized that she played a large part in his frustration and decided not to forgive because he had an extenuating circumstance concerning his behavior. Yes, some people still would choose to forgive, but she did not. She came to the decision by careful examination of the event.
This is not the case for you. You know the abuse was wrong and so you can take the next step of deciding whether or not to forgive without examining any of the details of what happened.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the process of choosing to forgive in Dr. Enright’s self-help book Forgiveness Is a Choice.