I think that the hardest part of forgiveness is identifying the wound. For me, not understanding that I have felt wounded has a lot to do with shame: most of the time, the things that wound me, frankly, embarrass me. I was overwhelmed with sorrow when my father gave me a hat. (For those who might be confused by this, I wrote about it in a post entitled, SPIRITUAL DIRECTION: Hunting the Jabberwock on The Value of Sparrows.)
I think that because I tend to just blink at my wounds, feeling somewhat unable to even understand them much less approach them with a plan to resolve them through forgiveness and reconciliation, most, if not all, of them just go unresolved for want of recognition.
It’s one thing to say, Father, I forgive you for driving over my bunny rabbit with your car (he never did this), and quite another to say, Father, I forgive you for giving me a hat.
But more recently, rooting around in my chest of unresolved incidents, I came to discover one the result of which was an awareness that I had never felt more angry in my life. It was a liquid anger. A clean, smooth, flowing river of anger that coursed through my body with a natural, filling sensation. Had I been a warrior, it would have been the anger that I would have wanted to bring with me into battle.
Instead, it occurred at church.
Mass had ended. Unusual for me, I joined in at the coffee hour. I was finishing a conversation with another person and I happened to turn around a bit. There, behind me, sitting in a chair, seated with her back to me was a very young girl. Her blond hair curled and floated away from her head. In the sunshine, she glowed.
In front of her, her mother, looking quite dour, squatted in front of her daughter. Something was troubling the mother. And I could see from the set of her shoulders, that now something was troubling the girl.
In the glory of the sunlight, I found it a bit too much to bear the feeling that the girl should be put through her paces in church, of all places. After communion. After the touch of God’s love on our lips and in our hearts.
And then there was the hair.
So I put my hand down on the girl’s head.
To comfort us both, I think.
And the mother, without looking up, took her hand and slapped my hand.
Hard. Very hard.
But as she decided to check out what she had done, she looked up and saw me standing there.
I would have thought that what she saw was nobody standing there. Just me.
But apparently, the mother didn’t have that reaction.
Instead, as she looked up, she looked into my eyes. And was afraid.
Her eyes filled with a fear that I might even describe as horror.
The realization that she had hit me frightened her. Horrified her.
And the anger pulsed through me. Only to be pushed into that room of, just how weird are you, Julia, sentiments.
Why should this woman be frightened of me?
My pattern was to slip into church, sit through mass, and then leave.
Without going through the receiving line. Without joining in the boisterousness that was the after-mass assembly.
I’d participated around and about when my children were active singing and acolyting . I’d participated in some evening group discussions. A few luncheons here and there.
But that was about it.
I’d never threatened anyone there. Or anywhere.
I’d never even been in an argument with anyone at church.
The most I could be accused of is scolding, on rare occasion, in writing, the rector of the church. Oh, and of telling the woman’s husband (another priest) that he had the spiritual depth of a fart.
And for that I had apologized. And appeared to be forgiven.
But for that look, for the first time in my life, I knew what pure anger was. I knew what it was to be absolutely angry at someone.
Everett Worthington, Ph.D., of Virginia Commonwealth University, in his book, Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving, has borrowed from another psychologist (John Gottman) four steps that he labels as reversing the negative slide. Coming back from the brink of ending a relationship altogether.
When I saw the words of the first step, I was hooked. Anything to do with stone walls and the lack of forgiveness gets my attention these days.
Step one: Move back from stonewalling back to contempt
I was floored by this sentence. Move to contempt? Contempt is a good thing, as compared with stonewalling?
Well, yes. It seems that at the least contempt involves words. If you are stonewalling someone, then you have gone beyond words altogether.
Being an overall unwordy person (at least verbally), I shrugged at this. I tend to love walls. I find the silence heavenly. A no-nonsense world.
You anger me deeply enough, I look for my trowel. But admittedly, it takes a whole lot to make me deeply angry.
Except when all it takes is a look.
I found, in my twenties, when I was working on my anger for my father, and finding that I was in no way interested in actually contacting the gentleman to do some of this reconciliation in person, that nature in its way helps with the work.
Incidents that mimic the original incident, that aggravate the pain that tries to keep itself all wrapped up safe and snug, ram into our lives like meteors crashing into the Earth.
I came up with the theory of heart stones. Like stones in the liver and gall bladder. Except heart stones are emotional magnets that draw to our lives incidents designed solely for the breaking up (and healing) of these stones.
And perhaps as these stones are broken up, as our walls are smashed down by life and time, the discomfort of contempt takes their place.
Step two: Move back contempt back to defensiveness
Except for stonewalling, I find all these concepts really uncomfortable to consider. Contempt, it seems, is an emotion directed at a person, rather than at an act committed by a person. I hate you for all the times you didn’t call me and forgot my birthday and didn’t come home for dinner.
Or, in my case, why did you look at me with fear in your eyes?
Defensiveness, on the other hand, is our mechanism to protect ourselves from the anticipated reaction from the other to our anger at him.
I’m angry with you. If you knew that, you’d be angry with me. So I’m going to back off, and if you say anything, I’ll defend myself against your unwarranted attack of me.
Our campaign of self-righteousness. Our attachment to our very stiff necks.
Step three: Move from defensiveness back to criticism
There’s a chart included in this step. It contains a list of questions to help you determine how defensive you are:
- Do you feel misunderstood by the other person?
- Do you have silent arguments in your head with the other person?
- Do you wake up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep because of the silent arguments with the other person?
- Do you feel criticized by the other person?
- Do you feel that the other person is violating your basic rights?
- Do you feel angry at the other person?
- Do you argue with the other person?
- Do you feel that you never get the last word when you talk to the other person?
- Do you feel attacked by the other person?
- Do you feel sorry because you have acted negatively toward the other person?
It strikes me as odd to value such actions or emotions as contempt and criticism, but perhaps that’s just the problem we have with forgiveness: not using certain things to our advantage because they seem too, well, yucky.
With criticism, at least, we can articulate the hurt. And articulating the hurt is really the most important step to understanding our own hurt. Once defined, matters get much easier, don’t you think?
Dear mother of golden-haired child, I felt very hurt when you looked at me with fear in your eyes.
Step four: Move back from criticism to normalcy
I’m so weird, I find the term, normalcy, the most offensive of all.
Perhaps the trick to using criticism to our advantage is to (1) stop just being critical in our heads and bring it into a conversation, or (2) if we use criticism in our everyday lives with those around us, to stop vocalizing it so much and write our criticisms down. Make lists if there’s that many.
Then, perhaps, we can counter the criticisms with a list of the good qualities the person has.
It’s a start. But even a start to forgiving someone is a good thing.
A great thing, in fact.