The Long and Painful Journey to Forgive

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“The work of forgiveness is not easy. It is not an effortless act for any of us, and it does not serve anyone to minimize the complexity involved in the work of forgiving. No, forgiving is not easy, but it is the path to healing.”

These insightful words were penned by Desmond Tutu, Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in South Africa. If you’re aware of the abuses that the people suffered there – false accusations, torture, murder, and so on – then you’ll agree he understands that it’s hard to forgive.

And if you’ve been betrayed, you have suffered beyond words. The damage that it does to your heart, soul and mind are almost unbelievable, and shouldn’t be downplayed. We’re talking about trauma that can resonate for years.

And, of course, you’ve heard forgiving can help you to move on. But that kind of injustice and sorrow grip your heart. They grip it like a vice. How on earth do you forgive? To be honest, it can feel like it’s impossible.

However, The Forgiveness Cycle or The Fourfold Path might be something that could help you with your journey to forgive.  Here’s a summary of what the four steps entail:

STEP 1: Telling the Story – Recall all the incidents that form the narrative. Assemble all the pieces of your experience. These are all the facts. It is shocking – but it’s true. It hurts so much, and it happened to you.

However, if your story can be witnessed and be heard by someone else, then the burden is relieved. You don’t carry it alone.  And that is very healing when you’re deeply traumatized.

“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.”

STEP 2: Naming the Hurt – A hurt that is denied or is forcefully repressed will always find a way to resurface in our lives – through depression, self-rejection, or through hurting someone else.

“When we give voice to our hurt, it loses its stranglehold on our lives and our identities. It stops being the central character in our stories.” 

STEP 3: Granting Forgiveness – It is hard for forgiveness to take root in our heart. It requires an acceptance of “You did this to ME.” And you rightly feel indignant for you didn’t deserve this. Your reaction’s very normal … And you should protect yourself. You can’t be used and hurt – for you would end being destroyed.

At the same, you’re aware that you would like to be free, too. You don’t want to stayed tethered to the damage and the hurt.

“We choose forgiveness because 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 … But forgiving does not come easy or cheap. We must choose forgiveness over and over again.”

STEP 4: Renewing or Releasing the Relationship – Only you can make the choice to release and walk away, or to renew and reinvest in the relationship again. And releasing is a valid, and a safer, choice at times – especially if you think the person hasn’t really changed. Also, if you choose to reinvest in the relationship with them, it cannot be the same – it has to be on different terms.

“Ask yourself what you need to renew or release a relationship …  Your decision to renew or release may well hinge on whether you get what you need. You may need that person to listen to your story and hear the hurt you have experienced. Also, you may need to know the perpetrator is remorseful before you renew the relationship, and be assured it won’t happen again.”

Let me finish with some truths related to forgiveness. I hope that these will help you if you’re on this road just now:

  • Forgiveness is hard – It takes a lot of effort. It means being willing to hang in there, and keep working on it.
  • Being willing to forgive doesn’t mean you’re weak. It takes tremendous courage, and real strength of character.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean “they get away with it”. The facts and still the facts, and they are still accountable.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean “you just forget it and move on”. It means recalling all the pain, and all the damage it has done.
  • Forgiveness will take time – usually a lot of time. As with grief, the healing cycle is repeated many times, before you feel you’re free, and are now able to forgive.

Note: All quotes are from: Tutu, D. (2014). The book of forgiving: The fourfold path for healing ourselves and our world. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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