When I suggest that forgiveness is a process, the implication is that there are several steps to the process and we take them one at a time. It isn’t as simple as that. There are steps that can be articulated to give us a sense of direction for the process, but they are all so closely interrelated that it is more like disentangling a tangle of yarn than a matter of climbing steps on a ladder or a staircase. The image of the tangled yarn, something that often feels more like a tangled rope around our necks, suggests that the process has a lot to do with loosening something that is tight, which is precisely what the Greek word aphesis, a word often translated as forgiveness, is about. Letting go that which has tied us up simply takes time.
Desmond and Mpho Tutu have written a valuable book called The Book of Forgiving that helps us understand the process of forgiveness. In my own reflections I don’t come up with precisely the same list, but it comes close and the four-step process in Tutu’s book gives us something to work with.
The first two steps listed by the Tutus are: 1) Telling the Story and 2) Naming the Hurt. These two steps are so closely related that they feel like one step to me, albeit a more complex step. I am inclined to call this first step: own the hurt. This step seems simple but it can be difficult emotionally because it means facing the pain and that is—well, very painful. It is, however, pain that is necessary for healing just as an infection has to be opened before it can be healed. Community is important as one almost always needs at least one sympathetic listener and often there is need for many more than that. The importance of telling the story is that when another has invaded us by injuring us, we are suffering on the terms of the perpetrator. The first step of suffering on our own terms is to tell the story, to face the truth of what has happened to us. We cannot forgive what we have not seen and faced for ourselves. As long as the truth of injury is repressed, it holds us in its grip. Over the years I have listened to people tell their stories, some of them about childhood sexual abuse. This listening makes it clear that the very act of telling the story changes the story from what it was before. Something moves within us when we tell our stories.
The many psalms of lament model for us this step of owning the hurt by telling the story. There is a communal element to these psalms as they seem to have had cultic use in Israel, and in fact are sometimes collective laments, and they have a long history of use in public worship in Christianity. These verses from Psalm 31 are one sample among many that could be picked out from the Psalter:
I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror[c] to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many—
terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
as they plot to take my life. (Ps, 31: 11-13)
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that Bishop Tutu chaired is, to date, the most powerful instant of a communal telling of stories. Everybody who wished was allowed to tell the truth of the injuries they had received during Apartheid. Perpetrators were also invited to tell their stories and were granted amnesty for doing so. Telling the story also makes it clear that much more is at stake that the forgiveness by the victim. Those in South Africa who listened to the testimonials, from the bishop himself to those watching on their TVs, were challenged to forgive what had happened.
There is a danger in telling the story. Doing so does not automatically begin a healing process. It can do quite the opposite. Asking God to blot our abusers from the land of the living (Ps. 69:28) once we have told the story of waters rising up to our necks (Ps. 69:1) hardly moves us in the direction of forgiveness. Telling the story of victimization and listening to it can enrage us and lead us to seek revenge. Worship in Holy Week involves telling the story of Jesus’ sufferings that culminated on the cross. What these observances should do is deepen our compassion for the victim, leading to compassion for all victims. Instead, Jews learned over the centuries that it was dangerous to be walking about during Holy Week if there were Christians around.
This is why I include “own the hurt” as an integral part of this first step. It isn’t enough to tell the story; it is necessary to tell the story in a listening way. That is, we must listen to ourselves when we tell the story. The importance of at least one more person listening is that a good listener can help the teller listen more deeply to him or herself. The mimetic desire to hear the story between two or more people increases the listening that is happening. Since the abuse we have experienced is inscribed in our bodies, we need this deep listening to reach our guts so that the muscles tightened over what has happened can loosen. The act of loosening happens in our bodies before it happens in our heads and we can’t put our hearts into forgiving until our guts have done it. I have listened to enough people to have learned that there is a strong and clear distinction between those who listen to what they are saying and those who don’t. Those who listen well to themselves move towards healing. Those who do not listen to themselves remain stuck with their pain, trapped with no exit until they do learn to listen.
Such deep listening is owning the hurt. Owning the hurt does not make it hurt less and it certainly does not solve any problems, but it is the first step toward healing and forgiveness. Owning the hurt is the beginning of letting go, which is the second step. This shows us how closely related the steps are. We will look at this second step in the next post of this series.
Proceed to The Process of Forgiving (2)