I don’t know who first came up with linking forgive and forget together, but whoever it was, was wrong. We don’t forget. It’s impossible to forget. We have brains that store millions of bits of information every day. Trauma makes a deep, lasting impression in our memories and physical bodies. We know that people who were traumatized as small children, can recall the minute details of that trauma later in life. We are only just beginning to recognize and address the effects of trauma on our soldiers. No. We don’t forget. If we could forget, it would mean we would lose an important lesson meant to protect us in future encounters. We remember for an reason.
So, let’s throw out the guilt about not “forgetting” what was done to us and look at real-life forgiveness.
In his book, Forgiveness is a Choice, Robert Enright, PhD, says forgiveness happens when you let go of the desire to take revenge and no longer wish evil on the one who harmed you. That frees you from carrying the anger and resentment that colors your life. You don’t even have to tell the one who harmed you that you forgive them. (Let’s face it, in many cases they wouldn’t care or it’s better if you stay away from that person and not give any indication that they can worm their way back into your life.)
I heard Dr. Enright speak on the subject a year or so after my divorce, when I was wallowing in guilt over not forgiving my ex. Enright said something that struck me- forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. I could forgive and not put myself back into the situation! I always thought that if you forgave, you had to return to the relationship and pretend the offense never happened (that forget piece.) Returning meant I opened myself up to the possibility that it could happen again (those of us who experienced abuse know it does.) Having lived the cycle of abuse, it was good to hear that forgiveness doesn’t require reconciliation. Also, he went on to say that it doesn’t condone, excuse, or minimize bad behavior. It does, however, state that what the offender did was wrong and that it should not be repeated. (Wow! I wanted to stand up and cheer.) Furthermore, we can forgive and still seek justice through the legal system, requiring an offender to face the consequences of his (or her) actions. (Yea, Dr. Enright!)
Forgiveness is a gift of grace, meaning that the offender doesn’t deserve our forgiveness, but never-the-less, it’s offered.
In his book, Enright makes it clear that the process of forgiving can take some time. The depth of the hurt and the length of the time over which we were injured determines how long it will be. Those offended get to decide when the time is right and need not feel guilty. Saying we forgive before we are ready would be a lie. We would end up harboring resentment. That’s not true forgiveness.
By processing at our own speed, we are not holding the infraction over the offender’s head or throwing it up at him (or her.) Many of us heard from our partners, “You have to forgive me.” Offenders try to make us feel guilty because we are hurt and angry at their behavior and not ready to forgive. They may try to pound us over the head with Bible verses about forgiving, insisting that we forgive instantly or we aren’t Christians. They shout, “It’s over. I said I was sorry. Get over it.” This is how those who have wronged us try to turn the tables to make us feel guilty and them the victims. Someone who’s truly sorry will give you the space and time to work through the pain. He or she will also take steps to atone for the bad behavior.
In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Carissa Pinkola Estes talks about forgiveness not coming in one sitting, but in percentages. Usually, we think forgiveness is a 100 percent or nothing deal. Pinkola Estes says it has layers. You may only be 55 percent forgiving and working on the remainder. If you are at 10 percent, you may not be ready to forgive, but open to considering it. The point is, if you are willing to move toward forgiveness you are taking steps in the right direction. Cut yourself some slack. Trust that the process will move at it own pace.
“You are not bad if you do not forgive easily. You are not a saint if you do. Each to her own, and all in due time.” Pinkola Estes
“Forgiveness is free; trust must be earned.” Robert D. Enright, PhD
You can download my interview with Dr. Enright by going to www.hazelden.org/bookstore. Search for my book But He’ll Change and click on a copy. Scroll down the page to the .pdf link for Interviews with experts. This is a free download.