Breaking Generational Cycles: Forgiveness

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash 
white tulips are symbolic of forgiveness, purity, and serenity

Emotions tend to run high around the idea of forgiveness when it comes to child abuse and especially child sexual abuse (CSA). Understandably so. I am not advocating that you forgive your abuser(s), especially if you are in the early stages of coming to terms with what happened to you. There are so many things to factor in including the relationship to your abuser, the severity of the abuse, the timeframe, your resilience, other illnesses, advice from your trauma therapist, and whether you have a support system. When you read stories about parents forgiving their child’s murderer and other profound acts of forgiveness, there are almost always certain things present such as a long and deep faith tradition with years of healing, pondering, and counseling.

It is not to be taken lightly. Here’s a quote from a good article on what forgiveness is and what it is not:

True forgiveness means acknowledging that our suffering matters—to us, the one who’s lived it—whether or not the other person ever agrees with us.  We say, you matter—to our own heart.  And it bears repeating… we do all this with or without the other’s awareness.  Forgiveness is an inside job.

Nancy Colier LCSW, Rev.

 And here are 5 myths about biblical forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not something anyone else can tell you to do, much less tell you when you are ready for it or if it’s right for your mental health, your family, or your situation. It is a profoundly personal decision and should be respected as such.

All that said, I do suggest that you forgive yourself for thinking any of it was your fault and for your mistakes. Those who cannot carry their own shame are more than happy to shift it onto their victims. As far as mistakes, you were likely hampered by changes in your brain and brain chemistry. Chances are that if you experienced childhood trauma, you made some mistakes that were driven by forces that you were unaware of. Trauma research is fairly new. Be gentle with yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Learn, apologize, make amends when appropriate, and move on.

You have to have a strong support system and it helps to be in trauma therapy to tackle this stuff – to open Pandora’s box – especially while raising children. If you can do it before you have kids, that’s fantastic. That was not the case for me. There were few therapists who understood trauma when I was raising my two, plus I didn’t understand all the implications of my own abuse and so shoved all of it aside for a couple of decades.

The worst mistake I made was leaving my son with my mother for five days while his sister and I were out of town at the Betty Ford Family Program. He was too young for the children’s program. Knowing what I know now, I would never have done it. At least it came after my threat that we would cut her off entirely if she was not kind to him. She changed her behavior (and I was seriously, though still privately, angry knowing she could control it after all those years). There was no difference in my son before and after, but in light of what I’ve learned, it was still a mistake. We just got lucky.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

You always think abuse is personal. It is personal and it also is not. Abusers abuse. That’s what they do. It’s not specific to you – or rather only to you – you were close, convenient, and powerless. Believing it was only about her was why my mother left me with her mother and stepfather when she went to Vegas with my dad for a week. Years later, when I was finally dealing with the fallout from my abuse, I realized that something did happen to me that week, but by that point, my trauma therapist advised that since it fit with the family pathology, there was no reason to dig it all up. I’d already processed plenty in order to see the patterns and to heal.

I chose to forgive my mother and my family because to me that seems like the true completion of the full cycle. She never forgave her stepfather and ended up bitter and alone, full of hate. I do not want to end up the same way, so forgiveness is the difficult last step to truly break the cycle. It does not mean that any of it was okay, but rather it unhooks me from the situation and frees me from it. I still feel anger sometimes. I certainly still feel the effects of the abuse. I am also able to place the blame and shame on them instead of me. Forgiveness means I am free to be in this moment, unshackled from the past. Finally.

why write #1

Writers write. We have to and the prospect of years toiling in obscurity doesn’t seem to dissuade us. But that’s not the why I’m talking about. Digging deeper, perhaps the real question is, what are you wrestling with? Why do you write?

I was reading about the new movie with Mel Gibson, The Beaver, along with the comments about Gibson in social media and it got me to thinking about forgiveness. This dovetailed with a very long conversation with a very wise woman who was telling me about a mistake she’d made a few years ago – nothing catastrophic, nothing remotely on a par with Gibson’s anti-Semitic rants, just one small mistake that caused some embarrassment. The particulars aren’t important, but she noted that just as I remarked that “it’s a learning process,” she said “no, I screwed up, it was my fault, I should have known better and I will do better next time.” She’s at the point where she’s tired of people brushing it off when one tries to own up to a mistake and she’s right. It occurred to me that we’ve learned to deflect taking responsibility for mistakes (the non-apology apology of “sorry if i offended”) including allowing others to own up to their mistakes because as a society, we are apparently no longer willing to offer forgiveness. If someone says something verbally heinous, particularly if they’re on the other side of your fence, be it political, religious, whatever, there is apparently no mea culpa strong enough to warrant forgiveness.

That’s the kind of thing that endlessly fascinates me as a writer. There’s so much to explore. Big questions. Is it true we’ve stopped forgiving, why can one person say something and be shunned and another get away with it? Does truth really emerge during drunkenness or not? Good, evil, suffering… oh, suffering. Again, we’ve decided suffering is bad and must be eliminated. Are there consequences to that? Does the law of unintended consequences kick in?

With only a cursory look at some of the issues above, you could create an entire narrative around a society or group of people that refuses forgiveness. It could be general or it could be specific to one form of expression or one act (you, yes, you! could be the next Orwell or Hawthorne!) All these thorny, not-easily-answered questions are part of what keeps me coming back to the page. What do you wrestle with?

(I know, and am sorry – worst movie adaptation ever, but come on, the pic works so well with the text!)