Your Forgiveness Story
I am smiling here. Am I supposed to be smiling right before I tell my story of woe? Oh, well. Forgiveness can do that to a person—put joy in his or her heart even in the midst of pain. I am smiling because my forgiveness story, which happened a quarter-of-a-century ago, was responsible in part for the construction of this site. Here is that story:
I started to study forgiveness a generation ago, in 1985, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I did not realize it at the time, but as I began to study forgiveness, no one else in the social sciences had taken up this topic in any systematic say. Academia was virtually silent on the matter of person-to-person forgiveness, except in philosophy, where there were a handful of papers exploring this vital topic. The social sciences were silent. As I began to explore how forgiving others might have a direct impact on the well-being of the one who forgives, I encountered substantial and surprising opposition from colleagues, not only at my own university, but well beyond that. This surprised me—-isn’t academia supposed to be about open-minded investigation? About fearless sifting and winnowing? Apparently not. Here are two examples of what I faced early in this fight to bring forgiveness to the social sciences:
1) I was in the office of a prominent professor and after we exchanged pleasantries, he came right up to me. He was not happy. He came up so close to me that we almost touched noses. He glared at me and said, “Do you really think that forgiveness will alleviate symptoms of depression?” The way he said it, my answer was supposed to be,”Why….no…sir….whatever gave you that idea? That would be silly.” Instead, I swallowed hard and said,”Yyyyyes, I do think that science will show this.” Up to that point, this was a hypothesis for me and not a scientifically supported finding (which it is now :). Well, that prominent professor turned around, shook his head in disappointment, and laughed. He continued laughing as he walked out the door. And that was the last time he and I ever discussed the matter. I can still see his head shaking sadly at me as the professor walked out the door.
2) A graduate student whom I was advising came into my office one day and she was pale with stress. “What is wrong?” I asked. She explained that she had just met a professor in the hall who told her that she will never get an academic job working with Enright. The forgiveness work will go nowhere. Enright has ruined his career. She looked me in the eye and asked, “Will I get a job in academia if I continue working with you on forgiveness?” I was honest and said,”It is possible that you will not get a job in academia. It is too early to say how the academy will react to this work. You are taking a risk.” That actually seemed to help this very courageous student, who decided to stay with forgiveness, is now happily published and is tenured at an American university. Ahhh, sweet revenge! (Oops. We forgiveness-types should not use such nasty words as “revenge”….but we are human, too.)
There are other stories to tell, but you get the idea. For me personally, the greatest challenge to forgive people arose when I started to study forgiveness. I did feel betrayed because of my expectations regarding academic freedom—being put down for just having ideas is not so much fun. Yet, I came to see those who castigated me as not seeing far enough. They were trapped in a little world, one that dictates what one can and cannot think. I wanted no part of that. Eventually, I began to see how freeing my own thoughts were on forgiveness, despite opposition, and this gave me the impetus to forgive as I studied forgiveness as my life’s calling.
Some of the colleagues are among my friends now, others have left the university and I have not seen them in years, but my heart is warm toward them. They helped to challenge me. Without them, I may not have dug down deeply to produce the best science that I could. Their challenges made the work better and so as we inaugurate this new website, I give a special “thank you” to those who, a long time ago, were skeptical of me and the work. Their skepticism became fuel for perseverance and now here we are, with a new website that I hope helps others to lead the forgiving life.
My name is Darlene J. Harris and I was raped in my early teen years by my boyfriend. Don’t get me wrong, rape is a life changing event and if it had not been for the rape I would not have received the help I needed to Forgive my mother. That was an event!
I never understood the relationship between other girls and their mothers. I never experienced the bond between mothers and daughters. I never felt the love that flowed between them. To hear my girlfriends talk about their relationship with their mothers was strange to me.
Short Story Version You see, my mother was pregnant with me and gave me away to her sister before giving birth to me. Based on her story, she wanted to be with my father who had disowned me too. She cried nine months; the entire time she carried me. My hidden question: What made him more important than me?
It is a bad feeling to know that you were about to enter a world where the people responsible didn’t want you. Nevertheless, she felt she could not take care of me and this was the main reason she gave expressed for giving me away before my birth. My aunt and uncle had no children. My aunt raised my mother due to the early death of my grandmother. When I arrived (I was so cute) she decided to keep me; yet, she took me to my aunt and uncle’s home and left me to go to work.
I was 5 years old before I remember living with my mother in my aunt and uncle’s home. She came home because I was sick. Before and after I was born my mother was a live-in maid. We lived together until I was 14. When she couldn’t find work in the small town where we lived, she left again to work as a live-in maid. In my mind I hated my mother. I didn’t want her to touch me.
I was over 40 years old before I openly told her I loved her. That was very hard for me. What I need you to understand is that I had a profound respect for my mother. When she would leave on Tuesday morning to go to work I would cry. Crying never made sense to me because I didn’t love her. Needless to say, I was very confused — my emotions and my feelings did match. I believe in God and the redeeming grace of Christ and the Cross. I remember preachers talking about forgiveness but I don’t remember being taught an accurate understanding of forgiveness. Forgiveness always seemed to be “if you don’t forgive you are going to hell.” The teaching came across as frightening. Therefore, I accepted the fact that I was going to hell. Later I would learn that forgiveness is about my own well-being and foremost my relationship with God.
When I moved to California I was running. One doctor told me “you’ve been running from the same lion for too long.” His diagnosis was anxiety. I was choking and I needed some reprieve from my mother and aunt. You know and I know you can’t escape and in my case I had to turn and face the lion. I’ve faced a lot of things about myself over the years. I went to counseling, and after facing rape and my abandonment issues I learned different methods to change my thinking. I learned to accept myself. Accepting the part in me that hurt and nurturing it ha s made a big difference in my life.
My mother became very ill. I had to make several trips home to see about her but there was one trip when the change in my heart was more wonderful than I could have imagined. God allowed me to see and experience a wonderful change. I was able to see my mother and even my aunt, whom I loved, in a very different way. I had mercy and not hate for my mother. The picture included more than a self-centered only child.
Forgiveness allowed me to see more than my hurt. I began to see my family dynamics. Forgiveness enabled me to understand it wasn’t really about me and my hurt was no longer the center of the universe. It included others and no matter what had happened it wasn’t the same anymore. I’ve always known that my mother loved me and my aunt adored me. My mother was abandon by her mother because she passed when my mother and her twin brother were only six months old. My mother lost her twin brother when they were eight years old. Her first child passed at the age of two years old. I consider myself blessed because she gave birth to me. My aunt raised my mother and my mother trusted her to raise me. This was a blessing.
I began this article about being raped but know that if it was not for being raped which forced me to get counseling I would not know the blessing of being there for my mother during her sickness. I would not have made those trips home. So much changed my heart and life through forgiveness. If you ask me what helped me most it would be obedience! I grew in my obedience to God and to my counselor. Also, a few select friends were there for me acting as my hedge. My counselor gave me different exercises to do and one was writing about the different experiences in my life. When I wrote about my mother and the hate I felt, I found that I didn’t hate her I hated what she did. Leaving me; always leaving. When she passed away, the first words I uttered were “you left me again.” I caught myself and I knew she had been called home to be with the Lord.
Other than a willingness to be obedient to your resources of help, the only other suggestion I have is to seek out a church that teaches 1.) Forgiveness is immediate 2.) Healing and recovery is work. Understanding the need for forgiveness is critical and no matter the voices you may hear there is one who whispers you are doing good, I know it hurts, just keep it up.
The Forgiveness Institute does fascinating work and I’ve had the pleasure of communicating with Dr. Robert Enright for a long time. Incorporate the Institutes work into your journey. The journey into forgiveness is not easy but the end result is worth the pain. You will be able to be more effective in your life. Your impact and influence will make a difference in the lives of others. You begin to experience life differently. You will have a different perspective about things that happened to you. You will approach life differently in the present and in future. You will be hurt but you will handle it differently. You will learn to communicate with others and build strong relationships. Dialog will help resolve a lot of issues and hurts before they become deep seeded hatred and bitterness.
May the God of Abraham, Isaacs and Jacob be with you. God was there when it happened and He is waiting for you to ask Him for HELP! Taste and see that the Lord is good and allow your cup to runneth over. Dr. Enright, thank you for remembering me and giving me this opportunity to express my thoughts on Forgiveness.
Darlene J. Harris, is the Editor of “And He Restoreth My Soul” which provides an extensive view of sexual violence and its impact on survivors and society. This is a collaborative project of highly recommended professionals, pastors and others working towards healing; spiritual, emotional, and mental.
I have been practicing as a holistic doctor for over 20 years. My expertise is healing that results from rapid emotional release. By 1994, I had discovered that walking through forgiveness statements with people with chronic pain or chronic depression had an amazing effect that either instantaneously eliminated or greatly reduced the symptoms. While this has been a blessing, and I have built a practice using forgiveness within a healing technique I developed (EPTworks), my greatest personal experience with the miracle of forgiveness came while I was working with my brother-in-law. My sister came to work in my office as a way to escape an unpleasant home life and in hope to heal things in her life. By working in my office, she had access to the emotional work I was providing to my patients on a daily basis. Over the course of a year, her health improved and she lost 60 lbs of the more than 100 lbs of excess weight she carried. It became obvious that her husband was an abusive man. She wanted to divorce him. I advised to forgive first. As she transformed, becoming more at peace with him than ever before, he became more angry and controlling and even began verbally assaulting me in their conversations. He hated me for helping his wife and I began hating him. I hated him for hurting my sister all those years. I hated him for the hypocrisy of pretending to be a good may while verbally beating down his wife and four children on a daily basis. I hated him for not responding in love to the healing that was happening in his wife. I could go on and on–the truth is I really hated him and felt I had every right to continue to hate him. After all it was what he deserved. I was just helping my sister and waiting for the day she had the power to walk away from him in the power of love and forgiveness. She was almost there but I knew we had to offer her husband to opportunity to forgive and heal. That meant he would have to come see me—the doctor he hated. I never imagined he would take me up on this offer to help him save his marriage. Looking back, I think it was more of an offer for my sister than for him–kind of a hollow offer at best. My sister drew the line and told him if he wanted to improve their relationship he would have to do some work with me. Otherwise, she would be leaving. Both of us were shocked when he showed up at the office the next day for the appointment we set for him. I literally thought I might throw up and headed for the bathroom only to find myself praying to God to let me be at least neutral to this abusive man and sincerely help him. I got myself together and met them in my treatment room. We openly, calmly discussed the issues and he agreed to let me work with him through EPTworks and forgiveness. Almost immediately in the process, he was breaking down like a child, having been abused by his father. We walked through forgiveness statements and he seemed lighter than I have ever seen him and even grateful to me. After about an hour, I didn’t know what to think. I still did not like the man. I thought I could be around him without hating him but I didn’t think I would ever feel more than just tolerance. Over the next few weeks, my sister was reporting that he was kinder and more loving, overall, lighter. Over the next year, there were ups and downs. He came to see me, usually in the downs and always reported he felt a lot better. My sister had put her divorce plans on hold. At the end of that first year, she was getting weary of the good husband/bad husband chaos and wrote her husband a letter that she would be leaving. Her letter functioned as an intervention of sorts. He broke down and cried, apologizing to her for so much of the hurt that had happened and begged her forgiveness. They cried together and she forgave him. He insisted on driving to where I was (over an hour drive). When they showed up together. My brother-in-law looked different than he had ever looked to me. He was light and smiling with dampness of tears in his eyes. He rushed over to me and hugged me. He told me when he read the letter, it was like he had been in the dark and a light went on. He realized everything we had worked on he had done and how much he loved my sister and our family. He poured gratitude over me in a miraculous way. Even though I had done much forgiveness in my own processes with him, this was the final key that washed away all the toxic hate . I realized that changing from hate to love is more difficult than healing cancer but then they may be the same thing. Years later, there are no traces of the hate I had for my beautiful brother-in-law. I am so grateful that my relationship with him taught me that you can heal and love what you have hated. For me that is the greatest miracle of forgiveness I have experienced. My brother-in-law is now my good friend. He has become a loving devoted husband and father. We are grateful for each other and when this story is remembered in family gatherings–we both just look at each other with tears of gratitude and love.