Radical Forgiveness

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Sixty-Five

“Forgiveness is not easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness” Marianne Williamson

There are times that the act of forgiveness seems absurd. A year or so ago, I was riding to the airport in an Uber. The driver was talkative and shared that he had lived in Phoenix for a short time. He spoke with an accent, told me he had lived in several cities in the U.S. and that he was from Mogadishu, Somalia. I asked him how he ended up in the U.S. He told me this horrific story. He said that he and his family were attempting to escape the civil war in war torn Somalia. They were physically running away from Mogadishu when insurgents caught up with them and with their machetes butchered the entire family and he alone escaped! I thought to myself how would anyone ever work through such violence and tragedy? I was traveling to work with one of my men’s groups and the topic of the weekend was forgiveness. Quietly, I wondered how anyone could realistically forgive others for such a terrible and heinous act of violence. When hatred, division, and strife exist, forgiveness can seem impossible. Families who experience genocide, generations of racial prejudice, and many other forms of grisly and gnarly tragic circumstances perpetrated by those with greed and hate face impossible conditions in which to consider forgiveness. Perhaps you think that the egregious acts of betrayal, hurt and utter disregard that you have endured seems impossible to forgive. To compare your situation to another’s, is not helpful toward creating resolve. Ultimately, the hurt, pain and devastation that you have experienced from whatever act of betrayal you experienced has robbed you of safety. It doesn’t foster healing to minimize or maximize your hurt versus someone else’s.

I have come to understand that the only way through hurt and betrayal is through the dynamic of forgiveness. I work with addicts and their partners in recovery. I have not known of an addict who acts out who does not traumatize and betray him/herself and their partner, families, friends and professional colleagues. When treating addiction, betrayal is an all-encompassing impact to everyone involved. It has been my experience that forgiveness is the most comprehensive healing measure toward addressing acts of betrayal. 

Lewis Smedes wrote “to forgive is to set a prisoner free, only to discover that the prisoner was you”. This reflection can be very motivating to forgive. Some think of betrayal as complex. I agree. For all, the basic fabric of trust has been destroyed in a relationship that total trust has been given. Like having two compound fractured legs, the dominating thought is how could you ever walk again without a limp, let alone endure the present pain of treachery? Compounding betrayal’s broken trust is past life trauma that the current loss of trust triggers. The response to the trauma of betrayal will vary vastly. Those who are fortunate to experience less past trauma will have less complications. Addressing the current pain in betrayal will not be compounded by previous traumatic experience with the same intensity that those who have experienced past complex trauma.  Yet, anyone who knows the trauma of betrayal will wonder did I miss something, did I do something wrong? Some agonize that somehow they could have avoided the betrayal if they had just done something different. Even though the thought may be ludicrous, it is so common for those who are victimized to blame themselves. Like the guy waiting at the stoplight to turn and someone plows into him from behind, though illogical and nonsensical he blames himself for going down the wrong street and now needs to call the cops, exchange insurance information and will now be late for an appointment. Being victimized with betrayal can trigger the same bizarre thoughts. Of course, there is no one response to betrayal for all, with some managing betrayal different than others. Yet, the common denominator toward essential healing is that of forgiveness. 

Yet, how do I forgive when I am stuck with intense feelings of pain that scream at me to never forgive and to never trust?

The pathway to forgiveness can be circuitous for sure. Yet, there are common components. Embracing these components will require radical commitment. One way to navigate forgiveness includes a reference to the aforementioned Smedes’ quote. Forgiveness is a process of releasing yourself from the emotional prison that has ensnared you. Forgiving others has always been a healthy selfish way of releasing oneself from their own prison of hurt, hate and resentment. 

An important step toward forgiveness is to embrace the feelings of pain, loss and immense struggle that betrayal brings. Numbing out with alcohol, drugs, busyness even remaining stuck in depression and rage is not helpful. That said, we are all human. Getting stuck in powerful painful feelings is par for the course. Yes, there will be a time to embrace and release. We are not robots. So how long we stay with painful feelings will vary to the person.  Embracing the hurt and committing to sit with the emotional pain of betrayal is critical to resolution. It doesn’t feel like resolution. But, recovery requires that you trust the process when you waffle with the fact. We are wired, if you will, to go through the pain and not to avoid it. This will take as long as it takes. While in pain, you do not have to throw up in your partner’s lap. You might. You will but you don’t have to stay stuck and allow yourself to act out revenge toward the one who hurt you. This is not the pathway toward forgiveness. It is my experience that it cements becoming stuck in revenge and resentment. 

There are times that embracing the pain will feel like scrubbing the wound as if you were taken to the emergency room in a hospital for treating road rash. The first thing they do is the last thing you want— that is, they scrub your wound to avoid further complications from infection. That said, you still must scrub the wound. It’s not pretty and yes, it is healing. It will take as long as it takes. 

Radically, there is another step regarding embracing the wound and accompanying feelings. That is, in principle- not like kind, it is important to recognize the way in which you have hurt others, (even, possibly, directed to your betrayer) as you have been hurt. Becoming stuck in hatred, resentment, anger/rage and grudge will produce in principle the same hurt toward others that have been perpetrated toward you. This process recognizes the mentality of “I want what I want when I want it” that dominated the thoughts of the one who betrayed and now had impacted you who have been victimized. This step will require that I let go of my rationale of justification that says I deserve to strike back. Essentially, it is a bad attitude that must be treated for healing. This step too will take as long as it takes. 

Once you do this difficult work, you are ready to first forgive yourself. This means that you do not hold it against yourself the hateful spirit, mean remarks and judgmental attitude that you have harbored that has impeded you from completing the forgiveness process when you have been betrayed. Forgiveness simply means that you will not hold against yourself the hurtful acts that you have committed. You simply let go and walk in the opposite direction in spirit and action. You practice release, loving kindness toward self and others. Of course, loving kindness behavior toward yourself may differ from loving kindness behavior toward your perpetrator. Once you forgive yourself you are ready to forgive your perpetrator of betrayal. Simply put, you forgive the one who betrayed in the same way you forgave yourself. It means that you let go of the hurt and other painful feelings attached to the betrayal act and you choose to not hold it against the one who hurt you. It does not mean that you must remain partnered or in relationship with the one who betrayed you. It means that you simply let go through forgiveness.

Forgiveness seldom is a one and done experience.  Betrayal pain often lasts a lifetime. Yet, it does not have to dominate you. Forgiveness is often an experience that must be practiced every day. It becomes an integral part of your spirituality. You can forgive for many reasons. For sure, a good reason is what I have identified as healthy selfish. You forgive so that you can get out of your own prison that your lack of forgiveness has created. 

It should be cautioned that these steps of forgiveness are not meant to be assembly-lined. Sometimes I have heard some Christians say “if you are Christian, you should forgive like Jesus did”. Well, you are not Jesus and neither am I. You will need to incorporate these components of forgiveness in timing with the pace of your spirit. Trying to force forgiveness of another when you are not ready or other injuries have not been validated and addressed would be like focusing on scrubbing road rash before you stabilize someone’s irregular heartbeat from traumatic injury. Forgiveness is not easy and will need to be practiced for a lifetime. That said, forgiveness is the crux of resilient living and dynamic healing.

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