With the celebration of the holidays and the beginning of the New Year, forgiveness feels like a good topic. I can’t think of a better time to clear the decks of the old and negative and make way for the new and hopefully positive. The type of forgiveness I’m talking about is the punctuation where we mark the end of an emotional cycle with a person or event that was painful to us. If we genuinely forgive, we’re done with any ill-will associated with that person or event. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re open to further interactions with the person or that we’re happy the event happened, we’re simply over needing to process it and don’t bear any malice against those involved. Are there any skeletons in your closet that need forgiving or processing of some kind?
Our busy, busy busyness and tendency to repress the unpleasant can make sweeping things under the carpet quite tempting. Even fairly large occurrences of pain can be excused away and ignored, creating a chain not unlike the one Marley used to scare Scrooge on Christmas Eve, except this one we carry on a day to day basis. Unprocessed emotions are weight and forgiveness can’t be attained until they’re acknowledged and dealt with. I had a patient who came to see me because of her chronic alcoholism. She was 63, her skin was a bright cirrhotic yellow and she had been drinking hard for over four decades. During our first session I noticed a twitch when I mentioned her Father. In subsequent sessions I continued to pursue possible troubles in this relationship. She tried to blow it off and pretend everything was fine but finally broke down and cried the type of cry that can only be cried after years of repression. Her Dad had died some 40 years before and she had never discussed the matter to any depth with anyone. She’d blamed herself for his death for all those years, though there was no logical way to conclude she was in any way responsible. After she opened up it didn’t take long for massive improvement to occur. She stopped drinking, her skin returned to a normal color and I hear through the occasional call that she continues to thrive some eight years on.
Often it seems the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. In an odd way it’s seductive; if we’re to blame we can pretend that we had the power to prevent what hurt us from happening and pretend that we’re more in control and less vulnerable than we really are.
Rather the opposite of that dynamic is trying to jump prematurely to forgiveness without going through the cycle of emotions we need to experience to process whatever loss, betrayal or unfairness that has come to us. True enough, painful emotional experiences are no fun to work through but I’ve never found a short-cut that worked long-term. In our varying ways we need to go through the processing laps of denial – bargaining – anger – depression and acceptance until we’re done and can genuinely move on to forgiveness.
Certainly life is at times most unfair, and any of us can find ourselves angry with God or whatever higher power we hold. When my wife Ellie was dying of cancer I was so enraged that such a good person was allowed to suffer so horribly, that passing a church steeple would often ignite an intense stream of curses and obscene gestures. As time passed I realized that it wasn’t God I was angry at; I don’t believe God had a sponsoring role in her disease, I just needed to be mad at something. Years after she died and my grief subsided, who did I have to forgive to punctuate the end of this loss? It may sound a bit loony but I forgave life for being life. Sometimes wonderful things happen to us that aren’t our doing and other times unbelievably horrible circumstances happen to us or our loved ones that are in no discernable way cultivated or deserved. My anger wasn’t going to protect me from future tragedies but it absolutely could taint or disperse the positive aspects of my life. Forgiveness was the door to go through to move on without the past making each step heavier and harder and keeping my eyes looking down rather than looking up to see what was in front of me and beyond.
We all experience rough times and I’m don’t think I’ve had it tougher than the next guy. What I am saying is that this may be a good space to look at what you’re carrying around. It might be a good time to let it go and move on to forgiveness. Untended, emotional scaring can weigh us down and lead to a depressing, negative view of life. In one of the therapy groups I ran we had an end of year ceremony that focused on forgiveness. Each person would write down who or what they were ready to forgive on a small piece of paper. We all talked about each one and then, if it seemed like the person was really ready to forgive, the paper was put into a brass metal bowl where it was burned. It’s was a nice way to punctuate the past and move into the New Year with as little unnecessary baggage as possible.
Hope Y’all Have a Great 2011!