The Winding Path

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January 2017: Forgiveness

Posted on Jan 22, 2017

January 2017: Forgiveness

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

~ Harold S. Kushner, from the Foreword to “Man’s Search for Meaning” (2006), by Viktor E. Frankl (survivor of 4 concentration camps including Auschwitz)

In my December blog, I came across many rabbit trails to pursue in the future, one being forgiveness (or letting go). I anticipated having time to research this concept even further than I have, thus far, in my work as a psychotherapist. However, that is not the case. I have been mulling over what I have learned up to this point. This will be my attempt to synthesize those ponderings into a cohesive entry.

I will start with the conundrum that got me thinking about forgiveness. When I processed my sexual assault of 25 or so years ago back in November, I was able to let go of the grime, if you will, of that experience. I released the guilt and shame (yet again), the hurt and pain, the hold that it had on me. I closed the chapter. It is no longer a defining moment in my life. I am free to pursue who I am truly meant to be. However, I was not prepared to release the perpetrator from being the one responsible. I had finally placed the responsibility onto the perpetrator (no longer taking the blame myself); and I am not about to ‘set him free’ from that. He remains the responsible one. So does that mean I haven’t forgiven him?

Much of the material on forgiveness/letting go is focused on the person doing the forgiveness. It is the very thing I did—released myself from the grime or residual effects of the abuse. But one thing I don’t want to do is the let the perpetrator “off the hook.” I don’t want to absolve him of responsibility. Synonyms for absolve include: pardon, forgive, clear, release, free. Which brings me to my quandary: I do not want to forgive my abuser in the sense of forgiving a debt. Nothing owing. Free and clear. No longer held accountable or responsible for what is owed.

Yet contrary to that sentiment, I am not holding a grudge or expect any retribution. I don’t feel I am owed anything—not even an apology (I want no contact with him, so no sense trying to apologize). There is nothing he can do to restore my sense of self or repair the damage done. So making amends is also out of the question. Which makes me think of something I recently learned in reading a novel by Jodi Picoult (The Storyteller) about the Jewish concept of forgiveness.

In Judaism, there are two wrongs that are unforgivable: murder and a ruined reputation. In the case of murder, it is impossible to go to the wronged party to plead one’s case; and a dead person cannot grant forgiveness. No one else can substitute their forgiveness (as in the case of genocide or bereaved family members). As for a good reputation, that cannot be reclaimed. It can’t be undone, so-to-speak. Reparation is not viable—in either case of murder (death) or reputation.

So where does this leave me? Common considerations in the process of forgiveness are letting go of the victim role and reclaiming personal power, as well as reconciliation. In regards to my sexual assault, there is no need, nor opportunity, for reconciliation. When it comes to ongoing relationships with abusers, which I do have in the case of family, reconciliation for me looks more like coming to terms with reality. True reconciliation, when the abuser takes ownership of their actions and makes restitution, is not always possible. Not everyone is open to seeing the error or impact of their ways. In such situations, it is a matter of adjusting expectations and setting boundaries. But that is another story for another day.

At this point, I am mentally holding in tension the conflicting ideas of wiping the slate clean and holding someone accountable. I am no longer held prisoner by the impact of another person’s actions. In that sense, I hold nothing against them; and I expect nothing from them. To some people, this is forgiveness. I have successfully let go. I chafe at using the word forgiveness, though, because I will not wipe the slate clean in that I will not release them from being the responsible party. It was not my fault. I am not to blame. The damage was done—but not by me. And that opens yet another can of worms in that his actions were part of a system. The beliefs I grew up with contributed to the abuse dynamic. So I also hold those people and institutions responsible for what happened to me. But now I am staring at the slippery slope of what if’s.

So once again I ask myself, where does all this rambling rumination leave me? I may not be comfortable using the word forgiveness in the classic sense of granting a pardon—as I am not prepared to no longer hold my abuser(s) accountable/responsible—however, I have let go of the pain and shame and expect nothing from my abuser(s). So if you are comfortable calling that forgiveness, be my guest. For now, I will keep holding those concepts in tension: letting go of my own “stuff” while laying the blame and responsibility where it belongs. Nothing more to be said or done. That chapter is closed. I have the freedom to move on.


  1. It finally occurred to me late last night that I have forgiven the debt incurred by my abuser, in that he owes me nothing. The debt has been forgiven in that sense. However, the account still shows the transactions that led to this forgiven debt. I have not erased the account nor destroyed the ledger. Prompting me to think there are three types or levels of forgiveness, with which I will incorporate a concept from The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman (2009, p. 139): “Successful recovery requires completion of the pain rather than retention of the resentment.” Or as I like to paraphrase it, forgiveness (and hence recovery from abuse, trauma, betrayal, or disappointment) requires completion of pain and release of resentment.

    When it comes to non-recurring betrayals from the past, forgiveness (as exemplified above) requires closing the account, but not clearing it. I can walk away, liberated from anymore contact with, or impact by, said person. Completion of pain and release of resentment has been accomplished.

    The situation of ongoing contact with an abuser or betrayer (due to family or professional obligations) involves forgiving the debt, not closing the account, but changing the terms of the account/relationship such as adjusting expectations and setting boundaries. Self-protection along with completion of pain and release of resentment. However, when it comes to ongoing abuse that cannot be averted, forgiveness is not possible. The pain is recurring. There is no opportunity for healing and separating oneself from the source of pain. Safety is paramount. Different action needs to be taken. The pain is not complete. Resentment will likely build.

    The most difficult level requires forgiveness of the debt and turning the page or starting with a fresh ledger. These are the relationships that are ongoing and include mutual investment. When a breach of trust occurs, remorse is expressed, restitution or reparation is paid, and reconciliation is achieved. The depth of forgiveness necessary to rebuild trust is much different from that required to close an account or renegotiate terms. Not only is pain completed and resentment released, the relationship is repaired and trust rebuilt.

    Forgiveness is not easy and should not be taken lightly or granted flippantly or under obligation. It is a process. Much ground work and healing must occur for forgiveness to be possible. An additional consideration from the same book noted above is that one can’t ask for forgiveness as that is asking the wounded person to take action. If you are asking for forgiveness, the action to be taken is to make an apology.

  2. A wise person once told me that you can forgive a person, but this does not give the forgiven to be allowed access to you (back into your life) nor does this forgiveness give the forgiven right to speak into your life. Growing up in the church it was always preached at me that I had to forgive and forget or turn the other cheek (which meant to me that I was a door mat for other people). This is not necessarily what I believe anymore. I have forgiven people, let go of stuff and stated in the same sentence that I no longer had an interest in a relationship with this person. I had enough of the mistreatment and hurt. I believe it is okay to forgive and to not allow the hurt to continue.

    • Yes, that darn “turn the other cheek” conundrum which is downright false! Here is a more accurate understanding of that concept. I don’t know the writer’s name.

      “Turn the other cheek”. I came across another interpretation. It does not mean to be a door mat. It means to insist on being heard as an equal in a conflict. In ancient times if you were slapped across the right cheek in a back handed fashion you were ignored as second class like an animal, a child or a woman. If you were slapped across your left cheek with the palm of the hand you were considered an equal. To “turn the other cheek” means that you take the hand of your assailant and insist that he dignify you with a slap on your left cheek, not back handed.
      So I do believe that to ‘turn the other cheek” means to listen to others, and to stand up and be counted yourself.

  3. This hits close to home for me. I ‘ll share my experience. I took strength from seeing another who actually gets it. I was terrorized and abused by a group of older boys at aged 11 over the course of one summer. I just somehow dealt with it and filed it. I realize now it was neither. This is how my own resolution came about.

    Cue about 15 years ago. I used to stop at this Chinese takeout place that was right at the edge of skid row. You can guess the rest, right? So I ask this guy, if he was the same xxx who I knew from this school. He says I remember the school, not you though.

    That was my release point. I thought, The Universe always finds a way to even the score. Never tried to look up the others. Doesn’t matter. After seeing the one, for me the universal score is squared.

    • I am glad you found resolution. It does sting a bit, though, when our abusers don’t even remember us, never mind what they did to us. Glad you had a ‘full circle’ moment.

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