Thursday 29 October 2015

What being preached forgiveness never taught me about healing

Forgive. Forgive. Forgive.

How often have I heard this message, growing up in the Christian faith? Don't be angry - forgive! Let go of the past - forgive! Release your hurts - forgive! Whatever happened - forgive.

I wrestled with that message for years. What did it mean? What did it look like? How would I know when I had properly forgiven? I wrestled with it through one challenging situation after another, and I couldn't understand why it felt so insufficient. I was willing to forgive, so why did I still have all this anger and pain?

I was told, repeatedly and by countless people, that I just needed to forgive more fully. I was told by people who knew of my experiences and by people who knew nothing of my wounds but simply preached blanket forgiveness. From the pulpit, blog posts, casual conversations, Christian articles, it was a message that permeated my interactions with my faith. Forgive! Forgive, because it's the right thing to do. Forgive, that your own self may be freed from the past. Forgive, that you yourself may be forgiven. Forgive, and all will be well again.

Forgiveness was the beginning and the end, the first and final word, the totality of dealing with any offense or hurt.

It took more than a decade, consuming anxiety, and a desperate need for help for one person to finally whisper that word I'd never heard before: heal.

Not forgive - or at least, not only forgive - but heal.

Those experiences were traumas, the counselor said, and what you have been experiencing are the effects of those traumas. You need to heal those wounds. I can help you.

And she did.

First by working through those past traumas, then by developing skills to affect my thought patterns in the present, my anxiety went from a continuous roiling boil to a quiet simmer. Oh, it still boils up at times, but dealing with moments of tightly-wound anxiety is so indescribably more manageable than the never-ending vibration of panic right under my skin.

So why had not one single mention of forgiveness, in all these years, ever been accompanied by encouragement to seek healing?

It was as though, after being hit by a car, I was told to "let go" of my concussion. As though forgiving the driver of the car would make my broken arm a non-issue. As though the release of my anger was more important than seeking care for my injuries.

Trauma is a wound, an injury, that needs and deserves to be healed. The cause of the trauma is irrelevant; trauma is trauma, regardless. It doesn't matter if there are those who think it wasn't "that big of a deal". If it was traumatic for the person it happened to, then that trauma exists. It is real. It can be shoved down, ignored, denied, or leaked out in all sorts of unhealthy ways, but what it needs is healing.

But what about forgiveness?

Acknowledging the need for healing does not deny the importance of forgiveness. The challenge lies in all the ways forgiveness has been twisted into something it was never intended to be.

At its core, forgiveness is the pardoning of a debt. It is releasing our demand for repayment, for vengeance. Such debts of this nature can so rarely be "paid back" in any satisfying sort of way, anyway, and by releasing that demand, we free ourselves from endlessly seeking it as much as we free the other person from trying to repay it.

Far more relevant, however, is the list of things that forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness does not mean we no longer feel angry. Forgiveness does not mean we no longer hurt, often deeply. Forgiveness most certainly does not mean forgetting. It is not a slate wiped clean of all memory. It does not grant the offending party permission to re-victimize the one who forgave. It does not fail to seek justice where appropriate. It does not cover up, does not hide, does not cloak the situation in lies and secrecy. It does not deny protection for those who need it. It does not mean there are no consequences. It does not mean that a relationship will continue.

And yet each of those things were included in the messages of forgiveness that I so steadily received and continue to see today. My years of wrestling with what it meant to forgive happened because I was trying to make forgiveness do what it was never intended to do. If you still felt angry or hurt, you hadn't forgiven properly. If you still felt the need to report a crime, you hadn't forgiven enough. If you weren't willing to hush up and forget it all happened, you hadn't forgiven fully. Maybe you need to go pray some more.

But never? What happened to you was wrong. You need to seek healing for yourself. Here are some options. Let's get you some help.

Monday 12 October 2015


I've been noticing lately. Watching, then catching myself watching, grinning, heart bursting with all that is good and right and beautiful.

I notice the intensely beautiful smell of the garam masala as I add it to my favourite butter chicken recipe. I savour my slow morning cup of coffee. I relax into those rare moments of quiet and stillness, feeling my breath and my heartbeat as the tension in my muscles begins to loosen. I watch one season pass into the next, exchanging the warm sun for the cool damp air. I watch these growing children of mine, the steady witnessing of their passing days and years.

I watch Jay rally those around him into a single activity. My shy and introverted self does not understand this mysterious ability, but I love to watch him organize pick-up games of soccer or tag or imagination with whatever kids are in the area.

I watch Kai play soccer, chasing after that ball with such single-minded purpose and joy. It's his first year and he grins the entire time. I watch as the joy builds until he can't contain it, until he starts spinning in circles right there on the field, just a few spins and then back to the ball.

Ell watches too, always watches - her brothers' soccer games, her brothers' gym time, her brothers' this that and always the other, and it's hard to still be little and not get to join. So I signed her up for swim lessons along with her brothers, and oh, such joy and pride! To be in the water, participating instead of watching, is the highlight of her week right now; it is a privilege to witness.

I watch Min as he explores his world and his family and his own growing self. My favourite times with him are our alone times, early in the morning when he first wakes up and again at the end of the day as he and I settle into the dark bedroom until he falls asleep. We coo and nuzzle and laugh until he hums himself to sleep, funny child. He wakes me up in the morning, arms reaching for me, then grabbing my face until I'm properly awake.

There is joy in watching each of them, but watching them together is joy multiplied. Jay is achingly tender with Min. Min listens hard for Ell, goes straight for her each morning and follows her around the house. Ell and Kai are my crazy middles, their interactions summed up thusly:

Kai: "This part is lava, and you have to jump over top of it!"
Ell: "But I can't jump that far!"
Kai: "Yes you can! Jump!"
Kai: "Oh...I guess you can't jump that far."

The husband has been working long hours, and we're all feeling it. The kids miss him and I miss him; he misses both us and rest. But he comes home and reads and wrestles and cuddles and plays, and few things are more heart-bursting than watching the five of them, one big wild mess of puppies.

There is joy, too, in the way he looks at me. These past two years have been filled with difficult work, but we have done the work (and continue to do the work; it's part of this life together, always, I imagine) and it has been hard but good and it is so much better than I knew it could be. I am so grateful, so breathlessly grateful, for this man who chose to do that hard work with me. It could have been so different.

I've been running. I cringe to even admit it, remembering all the times I could not roll my eyes hard enough upon reading that yet another person had begun a Couch to 5K, because oh my goodness, shut up about the running. Well, now I run (sorry not sorry), the end of my own C25K in site, hello week 6. I run because it is the one thing that keeps my anxiety fenced in, almost, mostly, enough that I don't feel the desire to crawl out of my skin or hide from this beautiful difficult life. The familiarity of running surprised me. It's been years since my teenage self ran - cross country and track and even a half marathon once, all those years ago. But still my body remembers, familiar rhythms, feet and legs and arms and breath, and it is a joy of the more strenuous sort.

I've been sewing, too. Next to this precious family of mine, creativity is the most life-giving thing that I do for myself. I finished Jay's bucket hat, at long last, after having put it on hold early this summer because the pattern ran smaller than I realized and it wasn't going to fit. He was so pleased when I finally got around to altering it and handed him his finished hat; I could learn much from his graciousness and patience with me. I'm nearly finished a new purse for myself, and I love it already. There has been an embroidered doll quilt for Ell and a small basket for my keys that I generally toss haphazardly on the table next to the door, and always more projects waiting. There is something intensely satisfying about producing something Beautiful and Useful with one's own hands.

In all this, there is presence and witness and gratitude. Be here. See what is here. Give thanks for what is here.

I am here. I see. Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you.