by Barbara Rogers
To begin with -- a quote by Judith Herman:
"Forgiveness is a relational process. "‘I forgive you' is the response to a heartfelt apology and request for forgiveness," Herman says. If the apology is never made, the process of forgiveness cannot take place. And "genuine contrition in a perpetrator is a rare miracle," Herman writes, after decades of experience. For a victim to attempt to forgive a perpetrator who never asked for forgiveness, or who is unrepentant and still lying and refusing to admit any wrongdoing, would be an empty exercise, like kissing oneself in the mirror. A trauma survivor needs to tell her story to "an open-minded, compassionate witness," her therapist, her closest friends - and to other survivors in therapy or support groups - until she realizes that she needs to mourn the fact that she will probably never be asked for forgiveness."
From "This Changes Everything" by Cristina Robb (p. 353)
Read also the excellent article:
"The Myth of Forgiveness (by NetzwerkB)"
The relationship between parents and their children is marked by the command to honor and forgive parents—while the main focus for treating children lays on the importance of discipline. Why do we think in these terms about this unique relationship, where one part has all the physical, emotional, and mental power, and also the responsibility to guide malleable, innocent children by being a meaningful role model—while the other part is dependent, powerless, vulnerable, and at his or her parents’ mercy?
These different expectations of parents and children really speak about how power is handled and used. In order to ensure their child’s obedience and loyalty, parents are allowed, even encouraged, to use anything they define as discipline. What is thus handed down to children as punishment teaches them that power has the right to use violence and degradation—and that these are acceptable forms of human behavior, when practiced by those in power. The powerless child is without human rights.
We teach children never to attack or hurt others. How can we be meaningful role models if we don’t respect our children’s human rights—above all their right to physical integrity? There are certainly parents who treat their children with caring respect and loving guidance. But corporal punishment is still approved by two-thirds of Americans and sanctioned in schools by more than 20 states. Society is a silent by-stander that ignores the suffering of abused children. No laws protect them. And later in life, we ask these abused children, when they try, often through therapy, to deal with the consequences of what happened to them that they need to forgive—at least at some point.
The command to honor parents allows a destructive mechanism to continue from childhood into adulthood—that children may be treated with disrespect and disregard for their dignity, humanity, and human rights. The true feelings of the child, who suffers from abusive parental behavior, are either ignored or defined as non-existent, disobedient, rebellious, disrespectful, or as unforgiving towards the parents.
But this mechanism blocks the child’s feelings, his understanding of his current life’s problems, of himself, and of his past. It is kept alive by the belief that those with unlimited power are entitled to punish, humiliate, belittle, and ignore the child’s feelings and pain; by the belief that parents always deserve to be honored and forgiven; and by the belief that repressing the child’s truth and true feelings is “forgiving.”
Even if no parent asked the child’s forgiveness or tried to understand him or her, forgiveness is praised as the cure for anger and hatred and as the path to inner peace. I know from my own experience that I found inner peace through forgiving myself—above all for taking a path that led me more and more away from my parents and their beliefs. Every step I took on this path led me closer to my true Self.
Anger, hatred, or pain are labeled as a problem only when they appear in children, who suffer from abuse, or if they later try through therapy to overcome the consequences of the abuses they suffered. For adults, even the most revengeful and cruel treatment can be disguised and excused by the euphemistic word “discipline.”
As I was growing up, my mother was always in a state of suffering and bitterness. Her uncontrolled angry outbursts terrified me and my brothers and sisters. She did not practice forgiveness towards her children, and educational beliefs did not advise forgiveness towards children but stressed the importance of discipline. Her belief that she was justified in punishing and persecuting us gave her a free hand to take out on us whatever she struggled with internally. It took years of therapy for me to understand emotionally that her actions and beliefs were wrong and cruel, that I was not a guilty, evil monster as she portrayed me. Late in adulthood, when I finally had the inner strength and power to do so, I learned that I had the right to create boundaries to not be hurt anymore by her coldness, lack of compassion, and cruel harshness.
After a long journey in therapy, I know that every human being experiences different feelings, depending on what is happening in his or her life, or what may be triggered from the past. These feelings create our aliveness and contribute to our sense of self. I have lived for many years now not only in geographical distance to my mother, but also without contact with her. Often, I have been advised to forgive her. But staying away from her to protect myself from her—from her stubborn self-righteousness, from her endless self-pity, from her complete unwillingness to understand me and my life’s ordeal, and from her demand that I deny that incest happened with my father—allows me to be true to myself. It enables me to experience my feelings and thoughts freely and powerfully. I don’t have to bury them for her anymore.
Leaving the idea of forgiveness behind, I am not a person mired in anger or hatred. When such feelings come up, which is rare, I check if a painful experience from my childhood has been touched, and, if necessary, I write to understand it with compassion. And then I forgive myself for having suffered so greatly without the strength to speak up, to defend myself, to change my life and my relationships. Finally, I deal with my present life, where the outcome is the realization that now I have choices, can live differently, may speak up for myself, and must protect my well-being.
I consider this forgiveness for myself essential and a great therapeutic healer. It is this kind of forgiveness I would advise to abused children, who are now clients working in therapy to overcome past traumas.
An act—especially a one-sided act—or attitude of forgiveness towards a parent does not heal the traumas and destructive mechanisms from the child’s past. Instead, it pushes them back deeply into the unconscious with the unspoken but explicit order: “Stay there; don’t act up or start bleeding again; I am over this, the past is behind me, so I won’t listen to you.” It does not ask parents or society to confront the abuser’s responsibility and to recognize the consequences of abusive actions. Thus, the reality and truth of the abusive behavior is buried under the blanket of forgiveness—and may be acted out again, most tragically and destructively, against the next generation.
When the past and the child’s suffering can be acknowledged, discussed, and shared, when a parent can express compassion, understanding, regret, and is capable of accepting his or her responsibility—then forgiveness will flow freely, without being demanded. But for many, the concept of forgiveness is meant for unforgiving parents, who are unwilling to even look at the harm they have done, much less sincerely apologize for it, regret it, or try to have empathy and compassion for their child. Thus, forgiveness becomes an invisible, secret tie, which continues to attach the victim to the perpetrator. It silences the voices of the victims and the truth through the recommendation, or even the demand, to forgive. I call it the trap of forgiveness.
The trap of forgiveness makes us believe that we are done recognizing what has harmed and deformed us as children. So we no longer strive to become conscious of it and to work it out—not only for ourselves but also to not repeat abusive, hurtful, or unkind behaviors with our own children.
In order to resolve feelings of pain, of anger, of protest, of hate, the victim of abuse is asked to forgive—as if this were to resolve the issues which a burdened childhood has created. This kind of forgiveness means to me that I must cut off my feelings, thoughts, and aliveness. It would silence my true Self. It would end the deepest desire I have had all my life—to be true to myself. Only if I am open to all my feelings and memories when they arise, all through my life, can I be true to myself and learn from them.
I have witnessed people who are trapped in feelings of anger, hatred, suffering, self-pity, jealousy, and others. They don’t need forgiveness to overcome their predicament but enlightening therapy. Often they are not aware at all that these obsessive, overwhelming feelings are triggered by painful or traumatic childhood experiences.
In my therapeutic journey—with different therapists, different forms of therapy, and much therapy writing on my own—feelings of anger, sadness, outrage, or hatred needed time to surface and to be acknowledged. Once they were understood and accepted, they passed and gave way to inner peace. A painful childhood memory was revealed by those feelings—and then simply became a fact.
The idea of forgiveness is often burdened with vague concepts and a dogmatic religious energy. It is meant to install guilt into the abused human being. It exploits and feeds on old feelings of guilt, accumulated in childhood. It enables a well known, past form of control over our feelings and needs to continue into adulthood and therapy. It prevents us from becoming empowered and free adults, who can speak their truth and lovingly care for themselves and their true needs.
All other crimes go to court, are prosecuted, and punished. But crimes committed by parents towards their children are dealt with secretly and shamefully in therapy, buried with the advice to forgive, and never find justice.
It is human and meaningful to for-give the acting out of revengeful ideas. But forgiveness becomes a trap when different levels of destructive guilt-ties to parents prevent the creation of healthy and self-protective boundaries that nurture the self and nourish our well-being. While the importance of forgiveness is recommended over and over again towards abused children, it is not expected of parents. Parenting advice is dominated by the word discipline, which can condone spanking, beating, whipping, and other humiliating abusive behaviors. These practices are degrading, inhuman, and would often be called torture if administered to an adult.
What would happen if we stressed forgiveness for and understanding of our children—and not solely demanding it from them? Then there would be no need for children to forgive abusive behavior because they would have experienced compassion, forgiveness, and love—instead of having learned the behavioral language of unforgiveness and inhumanity in the form of merciless and hateful parental behavior.
Why don’t we teach forgiveness to parents and expect it from them? Children need to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. They need to be guided with compassion and understanding in meaningful, human ways, without violence and degradation. Thus they experience love and become empowered to build lives and to create a world that are not dominated by violence.
© Barbara Rogers, March 2005
Screams from Childhood