One day, long after their abusive father died, Kate asked her brother Kevin how he felt about their painful childhood. "I can't condone how we were treated," said Kevin, "but I've finally forgiven dad."
Kate was astonished. "Not me. I'm so consumed with rage and hatred, I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive him."
"But don't you see, Katie," Kevin said, hugging his sister, "then dad is still powerful. He's still beating you up."
Kevin was not telling his sister to simply "forgive and forget." If we forget our personal or our world's history, we risk having cycles of abuse and injustice repeat themselves. "Forgiveness is not forgetting or denying the effects of a wrongdoing, and it is not pardoning or excusing," explained Rokelle Lerner, a psychotherapist speaking at a recent Hazelden Women Healing Conference in Minneapolis. Forgiveness is "the road from resentment to connection," she added, quoting another writer.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says resentment destroys more alcoholics than anything else because deep resentment leads to futility and unhappiness and shuts us off from the "sunlight of the Spirit." Authentic forgiveness takes time as the hurt party works hard to let go of resentment and the need for retribution, said Lerner. Ideally, the offender will also work hard to earn forgiveness through sincere and generous acts of restitution and repentance—what those in recovery circles call "making amends." But our ability to forgive can't depend on the reactions or actions of another, she said.
As people recovering from addiction often discover, genuine forgiveness is an internal process that can occur with or without anyone else's knowledge or participation. When you practice the art of forgiveness, you may reconnect with another person or community, or you may reconnect with parts of yourself that get shoved aside when bitterness takes over.
Most alcoholics know guilt, shame, remorse, and self-loathing intimately. To rid themselves of those feelings, they come to accept that they are imperfect beings worthy of forgiveness. Understanding that we are more than our transgressions helps us see beyond the transgressions of others.
It is also important to look objectively at a situation to determine what you or other factors (e.g., illness, personal struggles) may have played in what occurred. You may then see the problem from the other person's point of view and choose not to be offended, or you may choose to engage in a healthy and respectful dialogue in an attempt to heal the relationship. It is always important to protect yourself. If it is in your own best interests to discontinue the relationship, or if the person with whom you are in conflict is dead, some experts suggest writing an "unsent letter" in which you express your hurt and feelings, yet proclaim your forgiveness. You can even burn the letter as a symbolic act of releasing your resentment.
Kevin discovered that he could forgive his father, yet still be mad at him for abusing his sister and him. As Lerner pointed out, forgiveness can exist simultaneously with anger, just as joy can exist in the midst of grief. Lerner cautioned not to approach forgiveness too quickly or too casually. She said this "cheap forgiveness" is often a gratuitous gift or a compulsive attempt at peacemaking done with no processing of emotion and no coming to terms with the injury. Such forgiveness, she said, is "premature, superficial, and undeserved."
Someone once said that forgiveness is letting go of the idea that you could have had a different past. When we forgive, we surrender the burden of hurts and resentment that so easily weigh us down and keep us from living a full and joyful life.
Healthy forgiveness is not the simple, hasty "I'm sorry" that we were taught to say whenever our parents demanded that response. Real forgiveness is hard and contemplative work that we practice one day at a time, one experience at a time. It is a path to healing and serenity that begins and ends with compassion for ourselves and our feelings. Perhaps rather than "forgive and forget," our new adage should become "forgive and live."