Growing up, I had this idea that forgiveness was something granted upon the repentant. I thought that when people realized that they had wronged someone, they went to that person and said that they were sorry, and then they received an “I forgive you” as a reward.
As I grew older, I realized that things rarely work this way. Often, when we have been wronged, the person who wronged us doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that we are hurt. Sometimes, even when they do apologize, we don’t want to grant forgiveness. It can feel like condoning their bad behavior.
However, the weight of the resentments that we carry can become a burden almost impossible to bear, and they can keep us in what Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu call “The Revenge Cycle” in The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. In The Revenge Cycle, a hurt leads to pain, which leads to choosing to harm another, which leads to rejecting shared humanity, which leads to revenge-retaliation-payback, and then to more violence cruelty and hurt. And the cycle repeats and repeats.
We can see the Revenge Cycle play itself out in recurrent wars between countries, couples who constantly fight, and feuds between families or family members. The resentment that they refuse to let go of keeps them from stepping out of the cycle and choosing to forgive in order to end the violence. While it may feel like violence should be answered with violence, this does nothing to end the pain for everyone involved, and in fact tends to lead to more pain. Choosing against revenge is truly the strong road, and the path toward healing.
Sometimes when I discuss with people that they need to work on forgiving their abusers, they tell me that they can’t because it would be letting that person off the hook. They say that by continuing to hold the grudge, they are punishing that person for the hurt that they caused. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t true. Usually abusers don’t have any idea about the hurt and resentment that their victims are holding against them. The result is that the only person that is punished is the one holding the pain. Choosing to release it is a way for people who have been wronged to heal themselves.
Forgiving is for the victim, not the perpetrator. In forgiving, victims release the hurt and the resentment that has been eating at their insides. And in doing so, they regain power over their own lives.
Desmond Tutu was instrumental in South Africa in both ending apartheid, and in helping the country to heal from the violence caused by apartheid laws. He founded The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which created the safe space necessary for victims of apartheid violence to talk with their abusers in order to create healing, and to release pain and resentment.
Tutu lays out four steps to forgiveness:
- Telling the story. “Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed. It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting” (Tutu, p. 71). Often, after abuse, people hide the stories of their hurt. But silence and secrets are the breeding ground of shame, and by exposing the stories to the light, we can dispel the shame of the secrets. It is important to choose carefully to whom we tell our stories. If it is possible to tell the perpetrator of the hurt in a safe way, that might be preferable. However, if the perpetrator is not available, or not open to the story, a therapist or a trusted friend/advisor might be a good choice.
- Naming the hurt. “Giving the emotion a name is the way we come to understand how what happened affected us. . . We are each hurt in our own unique ways, and when we give voice to this pain, we begin to heal it” (Tutu, p. 95). Sometimes the very act of naming the emotion can take some of the power out of it. By saying, “Oh, I’m feeling hurt, or anxious, or sad,” we give our attention and caring to the emotion, which is the first step in allowing it to heal. Emotions that we ignore tend to grow, and come out in ways that can be surprising.
- Granting forgiveness. “We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining trapped in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts. It is how we move from victim to hero. A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others. Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future” (Tutu, p. 121). Whether or not the perpetrator of your hurt knows that you have forgiven is not important. You know. You know that you have set down the load of your anger, hurt and betrayal. What a relief! This can be a slow process. Sometimes it takes several attempts over time to release the fulness of the pain. Be patient with yourself, and don’t expect the process to be completed overnight.
- Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. “A preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue. When we choose to release a relationship, that person walks off with a piece of our hearts and a piece of our history. The choice is not one to be made lightly or in the heat of the moment” (Tutu, p. 148). Deciding whether or not to continue the relationship is difficult and personal. If the relationship is one where the benefits outweigh the costs, then renewal can be a good plan as long as both parties agree. However, if having a relationship with the person who hurt you is unsafe, too painful, or puts other people in your life in danger, it is likely that releasing the relationship is the best choice. Take your time with this decision, and make sure that your heart feels comfortable with the choice that you make.
While this process may seem daunting in the face of overwhelming pain, it is truly the best path towards healing yourself of the pain and resentment you may be carrying due to the hurtful actions of others. If it is possible for victims of apartheid violence and oppression to meet with their perpetrators, tell their stories, name their hurts, grant forgiveness, and make a choice about whether to renew or release the relationship, I believe that it is possible in almost any situation.
Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that people pretend these situations never happened. They are never spoken about, and the feelings are suppressed. In these situations, nobody grows. The perpetrator never understands the depth of the hurts that they have caused, and the victims never release the pain and resentment or take their power back.
If you choose to confront your abuser, be aware that he or she may reject your story. If that occurs, that doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong or that your story lacks merit. Instead, I would suggest that the abuser was not ready to hear what you had to say and has a lot of work to do on him or herself. With that knowledge, choose a different person to tell your story to, so that you can heal. A therapist is always a good choice.
As you read this, there may be many situations that come up for you that you have been holding on to and would benefit from releasing. If you would like more information about doing so, here are some resources for you:
The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu