I grew up with daily emotional abuse. I am at a point in my life where I have empathy for my parents. I don’t bring up emotional abuse at this point to hold it over their heads.
I mention it in case hearing that validates someone else’s experience, and it’s relevant for me to the subject of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is one of the eight pillars of joy identified by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in “The Book of joy.”
When I read of the pillars of joy, of the many pillars, some I felt that I was already strong in. Some, I thought, “I can work on this.” Forgiveness was a hard one for me.
The Stone: Forgiving is Letting Go
One day, during the time that I was living out of my car, I was driving to work while listening to the Tool song, “The Grudge.” Because of the emotional state I was in, the lyrics resonated for me.
I was in the middle of a mental breakdown that lasted for months. I couldn’t trust anyone. I was experiencing extreme paranoia. Eventually, I would understand that I felt this way because I was channeling past trauma.
But at the time, I was just trying to get through day to day and keep up with my Acceptance Commitment Therapy.
As the song played, I started crying. I realized that being a victim of abuse had led me to practice fault-finding. I had plenty of fault I could find in the past, and hanging onto that just meant I always had plenty of material to keep me ruminating.
I had been listening to some guided meditations, and I had some exposure to therapeutic techniques. They had a lot of language and themes in common with the lyrics in the Tool song.
Around the same time, I was following an excellent guided mediation on letting go of negative thoughts. In the guided meditation, we are walking on a beach. Our negative thoughts are an anchor around our waist.
We then cut the rope to the anchor and let it go. Then the waves come and break apart the rope and the anchor. They are carried out to sea, as you let them go.
Then you are free, and you move freely in the light.
In the song, “The Grudge,” the lyrics suggest hanging on to something, not letting it go. “Clutch it like a cornerstone, otherwise it all comes down.”
The idea of a stone or weight being let go is repeated in the lyrics
give away the stone
let the oceans take and transmutate this cold and fated anchor
give away the stone
let the waters kiss and transmutate these leaden grudges into gold“The Grudge,” Tool
These lyrics convey the sense of weight, like the weight of the thoughts in the guided meditation on letting go of negative thoughts.
How the Victim Role Keeps us Suffering
Forgiveness definitely involves getting rid of a heavy weight that can be hard to let go. When we feel our life has been affected by abuse, we can get fused to the role of the victim. Moving on means leaving behind that familiar role.
The cost of not letting go is expressed for me in the lyrics of “The Grudge:”
Choose one or ten
Hang on or be humbled again“The Grudge,” Tool
Having the language from therapy, I interpreted choosing between “one or ten” as choosing between a pointed finger, finding fault, and open arms.
The fact that these are presented as a choice is meaningful to me. It resonates with my experience.
Abuse tends to go in cycles. It perpetuates itself. Every abuser had an abuser. Seeing yourself as a victim enables you to continue this cycle.
As long as you see yourself as a victim, then you still have an attachment to the resentment that you felt about your abuse. Nobody deserves to be abused. So it’s natural to feel resentment that you were abused.
You deserved to be loved without abuse. You have to validate that yourself and move on. You can’t hold yourself back waiting for validation that for so many people will never come.
You might wait your whole life hoping to hear, “Yes, that happened. I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve that”
Only when you move on from defining yourself as a victim can you have mature relationships with others in which you are open, present, and compassionate.
Victims don’t offer a lot of compassion. Victims need to be heard. They’re always chasing that elusive validation. A victim is blocked from being present and being an emotional witness for another person.
Victims don’t have the self-confidence to choose healed partners. Victims are living in a framework of conflict, and it is thus almost inevitable that their relationships will end up being relationships based on conflict.
Recognizing the Trauma through Emotional Inventory
Forgiveness is essential to stepping away from the trauma, letting go of the stone of staying emotionally connected to that trauma.
I think of trauma as being like a physical wound. If we are cut, we can see the wound, and we know that our pain is because we were cut. We wouldn’t identify with that cut.
But when we experience emotional pain as a symptom of trauma, it can be harder to link the pain with the cause. We don’t naturally have a lot of detachment from our feelings.
It can help to practice the emotional inventory, simply articulating what you are feeling.
Being able to identify the feeling and acknowledge it gives you the ability to see and acknowledge the trauma that is causing you the pain, just as seeing a cut helps you identify where on your body you are injured.
Trauma heals just like a physical wound heals. But only if we recognize the trauma and practice wound care just like we would on a cut.
In order to heal trauma, we have to open space for other emotions and other ways of relating to the world in love. We have to accept the trauma, accept the past, in order to release it and move on.
The first step is becoming in tune with your emotions so you can recognize the emotions that stem from trauma and accept them. Forgiveness stems from acceptance.
Your trauma may cause you to feel things you wish not to feel, and acceptance is very helpful in letting those feelings come and go. Like troughs and crests in a flowing stream, we experience joy and grief.
When we accept difficult feelings with the mindful understanding that they always pass, it helps to arrive at forgiveness. Then we can open to healing in our relationships.
The Healing Power of Love
The healing power of sharing love with others is tremendous. If we use practices, such as emotional inventory and gratitude practices, to help us live with open arms, then we can achieve greater intimacy in all of our relationships, from work acquaintances to friendships and loved ones.
When we open and share love, then we can get to a place where we feel safe enough to detach from the trauma and the victim role.
For myself, after I moved into the house I live in now, coming from living out of my car, it took a long time of being around people who were caring to feel safe.
I had a lot of trauma, and it took time to resolve, like washing off caked-on mud.
Thankfully, I had someone who I could talk to in my roommate, Meagan. We had some shared experiences, and I felt like we were able to be emotional witnesses for each other.
My roommate, Taylor, was a friend from work before she moved in. It was really comforting to have someone I really knew in the house. And she helped me get to know my other roommates better.
Mandi is… like the glue that holds everything together. She is a talented and hardworking woman who isn’t afraid to be vulnerable.
Mandi’s passion is dancing, and so Covid-19 has been pretty hard on her. Us roommates have filled the gap where we can with laughter, adventures, and great conversations.
It is gratifying to be a part of so many shared experiences. And I feel that forgiveness was truly necessary for me to be able to do that.
If we don’t live with open arms, we can’t share love. We can’t be an emotional witness. We can’t let people in under our guard because we’re stuck in a role that makes the world a landscape of conflicts.
Forgiveness Takes Time and Work
I started working on forgiveness, and it took a lot time.
I respect that for me to stay forgiving, I have to maintain my practices. As near to every day as I can, I try to make the space to focus on gratitude, to work on defusing with my thoughts, and focus on strengthening empathy.
I’m not angry. I’m not resentful. I accept where I am. I look at people who go to the grave unhealed, and I recognize that you can’t take healing for granted.
Healing is work. You have to be vulnerable. You have to allow feelings to happen so you can recognize them for what they are. You have to maintain practices indefinitely.
I’m grateful that I have the tools, now. I’m grateful to feel presence, to feel like I’m building a life I love.
I don’t judge anyone for not finding the tools and using them. I’m just grateful that a long journey in which I had no direction for a long time led me eventually to therapy and growth.
I’m where I need to be. And that means I can let go.
I’m still working on the pillar of forgiveness. I wouldn’t say I’ve forgiven perfectly. I feel like every step I take to live my life sidelines that trauma, makes it less relevant to my life, and so it’s like an act of forgiveness.