“Healing does not mean forgiveness either, though it is a result of it. Healing is knowing our woundedness; it is developing an intimacy with the ways in which we suffer.” -Lama Rod Owens
I always believed that forgiveness was the first step toward healing. I was wrong. When we were young, we were made to believe that a series of magical words would absolve all parties of wrongdoing and enable everyone to move on. “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” This, of course, is yet another reason why childhood is so confounding and adult advice so contrary to what we instinctively understand. We would walk away from that obligatory apology feeling confused as to why we still felt hurt and guilty for not having actually forgiven, despite the copacetic exchange, the shaking of hands, the mandatory hug. When the pain of a wound is still palpable, still stabbing at us with such acuteness that it brings tears to our eyes, no healing has actually taken place, merely an exchange of pleasantries. Forgiveness requires action. Absolving the wounder will not change that, despite everything we are taught as children.
Maybe it is assumed that if we survive to adulthood, there is nothing to be forgiven, that the wounds will heal themselves. I always assumed that my own inability to forgive was a lack of maturity on my part, an inability to let go. I spent most of my adult life feeling guilty, hating myself for still feeling the pain of the past, hating myself for my inability to move on. I once saw a therapist who would simply say, “well, you have to forgive” and I would look at him and say, “yes, but how?” and he would look back at me but never seemed able to produce an answer. And so we would stare at each other and I would leave feeling frustrated that at $180/hr he could not help me understand my inability to part ways with the nuclear-sized anvil I had carried around for most of my life.
Forgiveness is a lofty ideal. It would be so easy to believe it can be done without any specific action, without confronting those who wounded us or exploring the root of the narrative that surrounds our pain. But if we do not, we remain in darkness. Pain is like mold. It thrives in darkness. If we leave it to sit in that place of aloneness, it will simply fester and grow. It will become rooted and more difficult to eradicate with each passing year. Nothing can be healed until it is dragged into the light.
Confronting pain is perilous. Nothing will exacerbate it more than invalidating its existence. Few parties, when confronted, are ready to take responsibility for the mayhem they have caused and will, as often as possible, seek to diminish your experience. It is much easier to deny a thing that is, anyhow, invisible. When we routinely encounter this behavior we are eventually taught to invalidate our pain for ourselves. We question our intuition and attempt to bury the unpleasantness. I have done this often. I have side-eyed my wounds and tried to convince myself I was ridiculousness. The magic words of absolution has been spoken and therefore I had no right to feel any lingering pain. The past was in the past. I need only choose happiness and move forward. Right?
I have come to understand that healing is the pathway toward forgiveness, not the other way around. But healing can only begin when we have first validated the pain we carry. We must be willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of what we feel, to speak its name out loud. It does not matter whether others believe it is warranted or view it as we do. It matters only that we have experienced this thing in this way, that it exists inside of us, and that it needs to be brought into the light.
It is all so precarious. Bringing a thing into the light requires grace and compassion and empathy. Healing will not come when we seek revenge or to punish. We must first be willing to sit with the thing. We must be curious of its origins and seek to understand why it is still so important to us. We must speak to it, inquire of its nature, ask how it came to exist, how it has grown, and what it needs in order to be healed. And too, we must be willing to defend it- against ourselves and those who also wish to keep it in the dark. This thing exists. It is real. But it does not have to continue to be a source of misery.
When possible, I believe we should include all involved parties in the conversation, though that is seldom as easy as we would hope it to be. When not possible, we must find ways to speak for our perpetrators in their absence, to imagine their own story and offer the apology they are unwilling to give. Whether we like it or not, our lives, our stories, become intertwined, regardless of our best efforts at exclusion. I have to believe that no one, save the occasional psychopath, chooses to be a person who inflicts pain on others. Rather, I believe they are merely transmitting their own agony.
I depart for Monhegan Island on Thursday. I know that as I do so, I will also be embarking on my own journey toward healing. There are things that need to be removed from the darkness, things I need to sit with, speak to, and let go of. Things that need validated and things that need forgiven. It is a rare opportunity to take such a dedicated amount of time to do so. And I am so ready.