Forgiveness. Few topics evoke stronger responses from victims. Should we forgive? If so, why, when, and how?
These are complex questions, and this essay highlights but a few principles I gleaned from forgiving the adults who raised me. I suggest visiting The Forgiveness Project for more comprehensive guidance.
My mother cared for me from my birth until her death when I was six. She suffered from worsening depression during that period and finally took her own life. I remember her as occasionally playful and loving but often tearful and distant.
At first I resisted blaming her. How could I direct anger toward such a frail soul? But in young adulthood I started feeling bitter: her depression and suicide cast long shadows. Why didn’t she work out her difficulties and stick around to raise me? By my forties, after years of depression and suicide attempts of my own, I understood better. I’d experienced firsthand how despair deludes people into thinking suicide the only option. Feeling kinship with my mother made forgiveness easier.
My father had left the household when I was four, but took over my upbringing following my mom’s death. He was an alcoholic, and like most men of his generation did not express much affection, though he seemed to care about me. Unfortunately, he failed to protect me from mistreatment, despite ample evidence of its occurrence.
His alcoholism angered me, especially when I watched his drinking as a sober adult. I saw him belittle family and friends. I observed how alcohol enabled him to ignore problems, and it was clear he’d used it to wash away the signs of child abuse. But I still loved him, and to my regret I didn’t forgive him until after his death. Forgiveness only became possible when I woke up to how easy it is to screw up in adulthood. This lesson of middle age wasn’t available earlier on.
My stepmother, Della, was my most difficult forgiveness problem. She never wanted children and married my dad thinking his kids would stay far away. She harbored deep resentment about being forced to raise another woman’s offspring and took it out on my sister and me with calculated cruelty.
Desperate to keep her from hurting me, and because I needed mothering, as a child I tried hard to please Della. I became like a kidnap victim: cringing and subservient. I wanted to believe she loved me, so from the start I forgave the abuse.
But this was premature, based on childhood wishing, not mature resolution. Before I could legitimately forgive, I needed to consciously blame. Years of raging followed, starting in late adolescence. I confronted Della and my father and told everyone who would listen about her brutality. Predictably, this caused a rift in our family. Only after my anguish was spent could I return to the possibility of forgiveness.
Around this time I found out more about my stepmother’s own childhood. I’d known for years that Della had been severely abused by her uncle. But at my dad’s memorial service I learned that the uncle had been coerced into raising my stepmother (and three siblings) after her parents died. Encountering this startling parallel allowed me to place my stepmother’s actions in their larger historical context.
Appreciating the bigger picture is what makes forgiveness possible. Recognizing shared human frailties and the flow of toxicity through generations enables us to feel compassion toward those who abused or failed us. We don’t minimize or excuse wrongs, but we view them from a more healing, communal perspective.
Our reward is greater openness of heart: forgiveness leads to freedom.
© 2013, Will Meecham, MD
Note: The foregoing essay was initially written as part of a fourteen article series for the Center for Post Trauma Wellness (CPTW) website, where all fourteen can be found (look in the News & Views section). The CPTW site was only started earlier this year and has yet to build up much traffic. In the interest of both finding a larger audience for this project and also giving CPTW some exposure, I have posted seven essays of the series here. Today’s entry concludes the set.