I never expected that one day I would be asked to give talks about forgiveness. Forgiveness was the farthest thing from my mind. How could I ever forgive someone who hurt me so much, someone who was supposed to love and adore me? After all, I was her child. By the time I was twelve, I made a pack with myself that I would never let anyone hurt me the way she did. I lived a life protecting my heart, keeping connections at a distance and sabotaging intimate relationships if they got too close. And where did I end up? Middle aged and single.
On the outside, I looked good. Had a successful career in a glamorous field and was acknowledged with prestigious awards along the way. My face, my projects, my stories were featured on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and others. As I aged, I managed to keep my weight down, my figure looking not too far from college days and my face less wrinkled than many of my contemporaries.
I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “Why are you not married?” or said “The man that gets you is a lucky person.”
Underneath this glossy package, I was seething with anger towards my mother. My accomplishments didn’t matter. From head to toe there wasn’t anything right about me. My hair was too frizzy, my butt too fat and my nose too big.
Growing up and well into adulthood in my mother’s eyes, I just couldn’t do anything right. And my brothers couldn’t do anything wrong.
Little did I know, the obstacles I faced in my childhood would end up being the biggest opportunity of my life. By facing those challenges, I figured out the secret to finding forgiveness and the power and freedom that gives you.
Growing up in my house was like growing up in enemy territory and you’re the only one who was captured. From the moment I was born, mom took ownership. She was at the helm controlling how I looked, spoke and behaved. Not always successfully as she wrote in a letter to me in college, “You are my product and you are destroying it.”
When my nose started growing so did her relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. No, I never had a nose job.
My brothers were mom’s bouncers. The one closest to my age did not want me around as you can imagine he had been the youngest. And he let me know it on a regular basis – destroying my dolls and then trying to do the same with me. And my eldest brother did as he was told.
When mom wanted me out of her way, she had my brothers put me on top of the refrigerator where I could not get down.
There is one evening mom refers to today proudly as the night she pulled a Mommie Dearest on me. Remember the movie about how Joan Crawford was so abusive to her daughter Christina?
I was a teenager and out with my friends. I came home a bit later than she expected. When we pulled up to my house, my mother was standing on the street with a glass of water in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other hand. With my friends watching from the car and the head lights shining on us my mother threw the water in my face, and told me to walk the dog, she didn’t care if I got raped if I wasn’t already. That was just the beginning.
Never knowing what I would do that would trigger her rage on me, I lived in fear of my mother, in fear of her punishments, often humiliation.
The fear led me to being sick and I had headaches and dizzy spells. As soon I left home I never had headaches again.
When I hit middle age, I finally gave in to mom and agreed to visit plastic surgeons for consultations about my nose as long as I could have a camera crew with me. What resulted was a funny short film about mom’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job.
After the Q&A, people stood on line to compliment my nose, and then tell me their story. It wasn’t always about their nose. It was about criticisms they endured from their mother.
I saw how many people were hurting and knew I was not alone.
It didn’t matter if I was attaining success in my career, traveling the world, making friends internationally – underneath it all I was fuming and holding onto victimhood.
I had given my power away. I was still reacting to mom’s insults and criticism. And often would give it right back to her, having learned how to have a sharp tongue and knowing how to leave a lasting scar. I was not proud of my behavior and it was not making me happy.
I was emotionally and mentally trapped hanging onto the anger.
I knew I would have to change how I thought about my mother in order to heal myself.
I knew if I was going to find peace and happiness I would have to forgive her. I just didn’t know how.
Mom was now well into her 80s. I asked her if she would be willing to go on a journey with me to resolve our relationship in front of the cameras and she agreed. I knew I had a golden opportunity. In her mature years without the responsibility of taking care of children, my mom’s humor came out and she was not only willing but also happy to show herself to the world.
The result was my award winning feature documentary LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! It’s been released widely. Unforeseen, this deeply personal film has been transforming lives all over. Due to the humbling response, I have launched workshops and talks teaching forgiveness called NO MORE DRAMA WITH MAMA.
So how did I do it? How did I forgive my mother? There are three main steps.
The first step is to UNDERSTAND.
I knew I had to first understand my mother and to do so I would have to dig into her past. With cameras rolling, I started my investigation and learned about her pain, her father’s suicide attempts, the untimely death of her baby sister, and the financial hardships. And the childhood she never really had.
A big light bulb moment came when I played a psychological board game. I threw the dice and it landed. The facilitator asked to me to imagine my mother as a little girl. At that point, I knew about her childhood and saw a wounded little girl. Then she said imagine yourself as a little girl. I knew my pain and that I was a wounded little girl. Then she said now you both come together. Wow! She was no longer my mother. We were both wounded little girls.
The second step is REFRAME.
By learning about my mother’s pain, I was able to understand her and instead of seeing her as an abusive mother, I now reframed how I looked at her and saw her as a wounded child. And by doing that I changed my expectations of her.
The third step is FORGIVE.
When she said something critical, it bounced off of me, as I knew she was a little girl in pain herself. By reframing how I looked at my mother, I was able to actually feel compassion for her and forgive her. I rendered her abuse powerless over me. And as a result her insults were less often until they faded away. Why? Because they had no effect on me. I laughed them off or ignored them and at times gave her love in return.
What makes us so upset is when we have unfulfilled expectations. When your three year-old daughter looks up at you and says, Mommy or Daddy, I don’t love you anymore. What do you do? You bend down and pick her up and give her love because you know that is really what she is asking for. So when you mother tells you that you are fat, you will amount to nothing, imagine she is a child crying for love and respond accordingly.
I forgave my mother. I didn’t say I forgot. You never forget.
“If you don’t forgive and you hang on to the anger and resentment, it hurts you and affects all aspects of your life – your relationships and health.”
– Gayle Kirschenbaum
While I was making LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! I reread my childhood diaries and relived the trauma. I ended up getting an autoimmune disease. It came out through my skin, and I developed a bad case of psoriasis on my hands that they were bleeding and I needed to wear vinyl gloves it was so painful. After trying various medical treatments and not getting lasting results I turned inside and realized I got myself sick due to the emotional stress and I will heal myself. I did so by changing my thoughts and getting rid of the anger and forgiving my mother and feeling love.
The biggest gift you can give yourself is the ability to forgive.
Forgiveness is emotional freedom. It unleashes the perpetrator from holding the noose around our neck, which we have allowed.
Once I learned the secret to forgiveness I was able to apply these steps to other people and used this method to also forgive my brothers. I know now when I am faced with a difficult person and situation how I can turn it around.
As I look at others who are acting unkindly, I reflect on myself and know when I am unkind to others, it is coming from fear, insecurity and anger. When we are feeling loved we are not reacting nasty to others.
With that said, by showing kindness, compassion and love to someone you can actually transform them.
Our BRAIN is the most powerful organ in our body. It is our thoughts that control our emotions and actions.
By changing my thoughts I was able to reframe how I saw my mother and forgive her.
Mom has become my closet friend. Today she is in her 90s. We have been traveling the world together for the last 10 years. We speak to each other daily by choice because we love to share and communicate.
To recap the three simple steps:
Think about your own life. Who hurt you so badly that you have not been able to forgive them? Remember you have the power to make the choice whether to forgive or not. We all have a story. Be the hero of your story not the victim.
To watch Gayle’s TED Talk, visit: No More Drama With Mama
Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?
In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.
These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?
Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?
This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?
Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.
Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):
- Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
- At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
- Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
- At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
- After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
- Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
- Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.
When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.
My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.
Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.
One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?
Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse. Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.
What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.
Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?
Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.
Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.
The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com – You’ve probably read or heard the story, but it’s worth repeating with a final twist.
In the early morning hours of June 5, 2002 — the day after she received awards for excellence in physical fitness and academics at Bryant Middle School in Salt Lake City, Utah — 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her home at knifepoint. The next day, the FBI told her parents, “If she’s not home in the first 48 hours, she’s probably not coming home.”
Smart did not return home quickly despite a massive regional search effort involving up to 2,000 volunteers each day, as well as dogs and planes. The search continued for weeks.
Her abductors, homeless street preacher Brian David Mitchell and his wife Wanda Barzee, held her at encampments in the woods 18 miles from her home and in San Diego County, CA. They kept her shackled to a tree with a metal cable to keep her from escaping.
Nine agonizing months of captivity
Mitchell repeatedly raped Smart during her captivity, sometimes multiple times daily, told her she would never see her family again if she tried to escape, and regularly threatened to kill her. He often forced her to drink alcohol and take drugs to lower her resistance, and he both starved her and fed her garbage.
Smart endured the unimaginable for nine agonizing months before she was spotted with Mitchell and Barzee in Sandy, Utah, on March 12, 2003 by a couple who had seen Mitchell’s photos on the news. Smart – disguised in a gray wig, sunglasses, and veil – was recognized by officers during questioning, and Mitchell and Barzee were arrested.
After years of delays and mental evaluations, Mitchell was found guilty of kidnapping and transporting a minor across state lines with intent to engage in sexual activity. On December 11, 2010, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For her role, Barzee eventually was sentenced to concurrent terms of fifteen years in state and federal prison.
Forgiveness is not acceptance
For Smart, the ordeal carried a heavy price tag but she says she has long since forgiven her captors and has not allowed it to define her life. During a recent presentation at Indiana University Kokomo, she explained it this way:
“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a victim anymore. I see an activist, I see a wife, I see a mother, I see a friend, I see someone I’m proud to be.
It’s not what happens to us, it’s what we decide to do next, how we move forward, how we pursue our lives.
It’s not the acceptance of the action done against you. I don’t think forgiveness is saying, ‘It’s OK that you raped me.’ It’s not saying, ‘We’re going to be friends now.’
I will never be OK with the act of rape. There is no circumstance on earth in which I will say rape is OK.
It is not that you accepted the evil that was done to you. It is an acknowledgment that it has happened, and that you have dealt with your anger, your grief, and your pain, and you are able to then move on.
It’s loving yourself enough to let go of your pain and move forward.
If I get to the end of my life, if I die, and I find out religion is one big lie, I still won’t regret it because it’s helped me to live a better life, to be a better person, to care about people, to believe in forgiveness, to believe in hope.”
Since her abduction, Smart has gone on to become an advocate for missing persons and victims of sexual assault. With encouragement from her family, Smart has stepped into the public eye, writing two best-selling books, and lobbying with her father for laws to protect children including the Protect Act of 2003.
Smart also founded the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, to raise awareness of predatory child crimes. She is now married to Matthew Gilmour; the couple has two young children.
Kidnapped at 14, held captive and raped, Elizabeth Smart says now: I was lucky – The Arizona Republic, azcentral.com
Elizabeth Smart shares story of hope, triumph, forgiveness – Indiana University Kokomo
Elizabeth Smart Biography – BIOGRAPHY.COM
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The Daily Signal, Waco, Texas – Jeremiah Thomas—a 16-year-old all-star, state champion football player from Waco, TX—was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive bone cancer just four months ago. Since then, he has battled chemotherapy, radiation, a collapsed lung, and paralysis from the waist down.
Unfortunately, Jeremiah has also had to endure despicable scorn and taunts from many social media trolls. With perhaps only weeks left to live, Jeremiah has been accosted numerous times on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with some deplorable messages:
“Jeremiah … You aren’t dead yet? God, do your job!” taunted one anonymous writer.
“Good Riddance,” another posted to Jeremiah’s prayer group page on Facebook.
And Jeremiah’s mother, Kendra Thomas, quoted one person as saying Jeremiah has “a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic [sic], hateful” agenda, and another as saying “He’s garbage and is suffering as he deserves.”
All that hate and vitriol was generated because Jeremiah made a “legacy wish” through the 38-year-old Make-A-Wish Foundation that some social media respondents apparently found offensive. As his final wish, Jeremiah dared to call for the abolition of abortion in Texas.
When that wish circulated around to Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, he called Jeremiah and spoke with him in his hospital bed in June about passing a bill to abolish abortion in the state in order to make Jeremiah’s “legacy wish” a reality.
We have grown up in a culture of death, sexual confusion, immorality and fatherlessness. This culture of death I speak of consists of abortion, homosexuality and suicide. One-third of our generation has been wiped out due to abortion; 60 million babies have been murdered. Over 25 million people have died as a result of AIDS. We have been handed a bill of goods that has completely destroyed us. In our nation, we have chosen death and received the curse.
While struggling with his terminal illness–known as osteoblastic osteosarcoma–would certainly be enough suffering for most people, Jeremiah has been handling the hate mail gracefully.
“Its kind of sickening,” Jeremiah says. “I pray for them…What has happened to people to make them think like that?”
Jeremiah’s mother adds, “Jesus has given him a special grace to forgive. He tells his siblings, ‘Just forgive. We can’t return evil for evil.’”
Jeremiah’s family had set up a GoFundMe page three months ago to help raise money for surgery. It had reached $118,659 as of Aug. 11.
Ciril Čuš, who grew up during the ’60s in Žetale, a small Slovenian parish on the border of Croatia, comes from a traditional Catholic family with two brothers and a sister. But there was nothing traditional about his childhood, his abusive father who nearly beat him to death, and his long journey down the path to forgiveness.
Ciril’s father worked as a builder and one day took a fall from 16 feet, spending a month in a coma. After the accident, he wasn’t the same. He started drinking, becoming very aggressive — and young Ciril was often the target. Between the ages of 7 and 10, Ciril’s head was fractured with a blunt object 14 times.
When his father was sober, he was a wonderful man; he taught his children a lot. But when he was drunk, he wasn’t safe to be around.
Ciril had to escape through the window several times and spent many nights in the barn. He was afraid to sleep because he had terrible nightmares. He had learning difficulties and barely finished school. When he was 10, he contemplated suicide. At 12, he took a job picking produce so he could get away from home and pay for his education. At 14, he wanted to run away from home but felt he had nowhere to go.
The abuse and distance from his father led Ciril to take up karate in school. Determined to prove himself — and protect himself — he won the national Slovenian kickboxing championship and became a kung fu coach.
After secondary school, Ciril got a job and moved to a nearby town. But, with a lot of time on his hands, he would often visit the local library. It was there that he started reading the Bible. ”I was drawn to the word of God, more and more every day.”
Convinced by a neighbor to accompany him to a Sunday church service, Ciril was revulsed by what he saw as the antics of the charismatic worshippers and he decided never to enter a church again. But his friend convinced him to try it a second time and that was when he heard a woman speaking about her husband who beat her and cheated on her, but she was still able to forgive him.
“For the first time in my life, I realized what my biggest problem was — that I was not able to forgive my father.” Ciril remembers. “I was so angry that I even considered killing him.”
In order to be able to forgive, a priest suggested that Ciril pray so he prayed a Rosary for his father every day and even made a solemn promise to God that he would pray until he could forgive his father. After a year and a half he realized that prayer alone was not enough, that he had to go to his father and tell him he forgave him.
Although he was somehow able to generate the courage to go meet with his father, there was no mutual forgiveness but from that point on Ciril prayed two rosaries a day instead of one.
After three years of praying, Ciril approached his father again. He apologized for everything he had done wrong. He told him that he was his only father and he loved him very much. In response, his father grabbed a knife and shouted, “I will kill you like a pig!” Ciril escaped while his father ran to the garage to get a chain saw. Ciril’s response: he began praying three rosaries a day instead of two.
Nine months and more than 800 rosaries later, Ciril learned that his father was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, coughing up blood and that his doctors told him he only had a month to live. Determined to forgive him before his father died, Ciril approached him once again.
“I took his hand, looked him in the eyes, told him I forgave him, that I was sorry for everything, and that I loved him,” Ciril recalls. “I held his head close to my heart. It was the first time in my life that I hugged my father.”
From that moment on, Ciril’s father stopped drinking and peace returned to the family. For the first time ever, Ciril saw his father embrace his mother and heard him tell his brothers and his sister that he loved them. His father lived another 16 years.
”Once I forgave, I was happy, joyful. This real encounter with God is more powerful than any hatred, curse, suffering or distress,” says Ciril. He never stopped praying, either. Today he is a parish priest in a small Slovenian town.
Ciril now says he realizes that he had to walk his path of suffering to be able to understand and help people who go through similar experiences. His life bears a powerful witness. He travels a lot around the world, witnessing about his experience of forgiveness.
”If we do not forgive, we stop God’s blessing from entering and God cannot work within us” Ciril says. “Forgiveness means establishing a new relationship with another person. And that is a great gift from God. But everyone has his own path. Sometimes it takes a long time.”
Read the full story: His father abused him, fracturing his skull 14 times, but he was still able to forgive – Aleteia, June 6, 2018
Aleteia (aleteia.org) is an online publication distributed in eight languages (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Polish and Slovenian). Its website “offers a Christian vision of the world by providing general and religious content that is free from ideological influences.” With more than 430,000 subscribers to its newsletter and more than 3 million fans on Facebook, Aleteia reaches more than 11 million unique visitors a month.