I received a letter sent to the office the other day from a woman called Amber who has been on a journey of self-forgiveness. After reading the stories on The Forgiveness Project website, she notes that only a couple of the stories are about people who have forgiven themselves.
Yes, it’s true that the majority of stories are about forgiving another person but a great many, at some level, do include an element of self-forgiveness. Take Eva Kor for example. Eva and her twin sister were deported to Auschwitz at the age of 10 where Josef Mengele used them for deadly medical experiments. Both sisters miraculously survived. Eva Kor has since spoken explicitly about her experiences at Auschwitz, and her journey towards forgiveness is one that takes place over several decades, culminating first in her forgiving the German people and then forgiving the Nazis. Perhaps most movingly of all she describes the process of self-forgiveness:
“The day I forgave the Nazis, privately I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them, mine couldn’t. And then I forgave myself for hating my parents”.
For me, those words poignantly sum up the whole complex journey of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a single magnanimous gesture in response to an isolated offence; it is part of a continuum of human engagements in healing broken relationships.
Amber has been on a very different journey of self-forgiveness. She writes, “I have spent many years searching for healing/progress/development/improvement yet always ended up feeling STUCK”. She explains how “the guilt, shame and accompanying sorrow” from having rejected her two sons in their adolescence had such a firm grip on her that “I imagined their victimhood was sealed and therefore mine too: I must always be guilty because their past would always be a part of their present and future, as it is mine.”
She describes very well the trap that non-forgiveness can bind you to, where no resolution is possible, where you are simply fixed to one spot, stuck with your regrets and sorrow day after day. She describes years of avoiding people and their ‘normal’ lives, ducking any innocent questions about ‘family’.
But then something shifted for Amber. Perhaps because unyielding regret is exhausting after a while, she mustered the commitment to change. Fundamentally it was a decision to forgive herself and use the emotion of remorse creatively. She concludes:
“The fact of remorse gives us ‘permission’ to release ourselves, for how can we ‘payback’ in the world if we are crippled by low self-esteem, low self-respect and a belief that we are unworthy of participating in a happy, useful existence.”
Part of reparation, I have found, for both victims and offenders is being able to share their story with others. As the Dalai Lama once urged a woman unable to go out of the house after losing a loved one to the violent conflict in Northern Ireland, “get up and use your story to help others.”
Something shifted and broke open for Amber by finding resolution, making sense of her actions so that the pain of the past no longer dictated the path of the future. Thus she was able to move on with her life, using remorse not as a prison of shame but as a spur to create value around her. She describes it as “freeing” because it isn’t dependent on whether her sons can forgive her or not. It comes from an innate understanding that life is complex; we mess up; we make decisions we regret; we hurt people we love. This illustrates the complex tapestry of forgiveness which acknowledges that life is morally complicated, that good people do bad things and bad things happen to good people.