They’ve been at war for five years. For sixty years. For three hundred years. They’ve been at war so long they no longer remember how it began. Or, they remember exactly how, each injury recorded with precision—who did what and who wreaked vengeance for it—catalogued and passed down to the next generation like a family crest.
The grievance, so carefully honed and nurtured, becomes a living thing, constructed of muscle and blood, pride and righteousness. A living thing that must be fed and grows stronger as charges and countercharges accumulate across the decades. Enmity inherited like a bad gene or an heirloom. The reason for all one’s misery, one’s failings. The reason to live and the reason to die.
An entire cosmology is woven from the crossed strands of antagonism. The identity of a people: Who we are is the enemy of them. We will dedicate our lives to eradicating them. And they to eradicating us.
Against such heft, the power of forgiveness seems but a thin stick made of nothing but air. Unthinkable. Unseen. Impossibly fragile. Ridiculous.
What does it mean to forgive?
The student looks up from the pages of the book she is holding. My book. She is young, perhaps twenty, her dark hair curling about her cheeks, but there is no hint of youth in her eyes as they search my face. Her slender body perches forward on the wooden seat, her spine rigid. As if her very destiny somehow hinged upon my answer.
The circle of students seems to hold its breath. Waiting to hear what I will answer. Or perhaps it is only me suspended, unable to draw in air.
Their instructor has assigned my book and invited me to this small, pleasant campus to speak to the class—to read from the text, discuss the writing process, answer questions. The book, a novel built from seventy-three poems, contains this history: my grandmother was molested by her stepfather; her son was molested by her second husband, his step-father; I was molested by her son, my stepfather.
In the year 2003, students are not shocked to read about family abuse; it’s a staple of contemporary literature, almost a cliché. What might be slightly less familiar to them is sitting in a room with someone who is willing to speak openly about it, without the protection of the page or the television screen between them. What seems most inexplicable to them is that I’m not bitter or broken or twisted with rage.
In his book, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough proposes that the predisposition to forgive is rooted in genetics and has been selected through evolution. Those with the ability to forgive would have been better at maintaining the family and community, which would help them defend against predators, gather food, and reproduce. Forgiving behavior has also been observed among most primates, dolphins, goats, hyenas, and even fish.
McCullough argues that revenge, too, is biologically hardwired in the human brain (as well as in brains of many animals.) The instinct for revenge has also been genetically selected because it at times allowed our ancestors to solve specific adaptive problems that would otherwise have threatened the survival of the species.
Thus, depending on environmental conditions, including social environment, humans have the capacity to go either way.
What does it mean to forgive?
A facile answer won’t do, I know that. Yet the true response to this student’s fervent question encompasses years, decades of work and evolution. A thousand tiny steps.
How do I map for her the long and circuitous route I traced? The decades of wandering, losing and finding myself?
It began in a vale of pain. At ten I banged my head into trees. At thirteen I razored my wrists. At twenty-one I swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. But none of the causes could be discussed; the landscape of my family home could never be acknowledged. So good was I at keeping the pact of silence that I let go of the connection between the events of my childhood and the despair that shrouded me. The source of that pain could only be me—I saw myself as damaged goods.
I moved into the world armed with the only weapon I could muster: attitude. Wielding whatever hipness might be mustered by a working- class white girl from the Motor City. I buried all my feelings except alienation and contempt. Anesthetized myself with tequila, with pot and acid. Scorned those who showed vulnerability.
Isn’t all bravado just concealment? I thought I was tough, but I was brittle. I wanted love but I couldn’t bond. I wanted to be known but I didn’t know how to let down the mask. I couldn’t even really feel. Navigating the world this way brought more, not less, despair. The old survival strategies were failing me.
I was fortunate to find a community of women committed to reclaiming their power through art. In this context, I began to claim my history and my wounds—the violence, the drinking, the sexual abuse—not only to myself but to others. In consciousness-raising groups. In therapy. In workshops. In Twelve Step meetings. In my writing. I even went on television to talk about being molested by my stepfather so that some other young girl would know her life was not unspeakable.
It is necessary to reveal the hurt, to speak the forbidden truths, but there’s a danger, too. It’s so easy to get stuck in the sinkhole of victimization, to become mesmerized by the throbbing sensation, the yellow seepage, the scent of rot. One can spend years holding tight to the grievances, regarding one’s life as tragedy, seeing one’s self as irretrievably scarred. Wanting someone to make it up to you.
But this stance poisons the life, distorts the future. It is like saying, Because I was once stabbed, I’m going to stab myself every day for the rest of my life, and that will be my life. One has to step away from the knife, be willing to begin the slow and patient process of healing. I remember the words of Jael Greenleaf, a psychologist who developed pioneering workshops for Adult Children of Alcoholics, who said, “Your childhood doesn’t have to be a life sentence.”
She taught acceptance. Yes, this happened, but it was long ago. Yes, I learned certain ways of thinking but I can learn better ways. I can give myself what my family couldn’t; I don’t have to live without. I am grown now and have so many more options. Simple and profound, to allow oneself to grow up, to move out of the past and into the future. Over time the scars fade to pale pink, and finally to paler memory.
That future begins by realizing, I’m all right, by embracing the willingness to be all right, recognizing the gratitude of being alive, of feeling the power to make of my life a joyful experience, of believing I can choose to do so, understanding that no one else but me can do it.
This is later reinforced by the meditation teachers who encourage a larger view of self and of world, teachers who insist, “Take nothing personally.” After more time passes one may come to believe that what happened in childhood was not a curse but a lesson, an opportunity for empowerment, for victory.
If one continues along this line for enough years one can become grateful finally even for the wounding, the lessons it taught, the victory it yielded. For the ways it shaped me. Embracing at last the shape of me.
An article by Melissa Healy in the December 31, 2007 edition of The Los Angeles Times reports that researchers have discovered that the process of forgiveness is good for one’s health, that it can “improve cardiovascular function, diminish chronic pain, relieve depression, and boost quality of life among the very ill.”
What does it mean to forgive?
There follows the recognition that the ones who hurt me had been terribly hurt too, hurt in ways I could scarcely begin to comprehend, and deprived of any opportunity of a framework to understand, to do anything more than strike out blindly, to replicate what they’d been taught. As I grew more powerful within myself, I discovered the capacity to feel their hurt, to grieve for them, their broken souls.
To understand that they had no power to break me. That I am not, in fact, broken, but intact, alive with purpose. A purpose shaped and tempered by the events of my childhood, harsh but necessary lessons to prepare me for my work in this lifetime. I discovered the capacity to bow to those lessons, to bow in reverence to their teachings.
In this way I set myself free. I drop the cloak of victimization, the leaden weights of anger and grievance and disempowerment that drag its hem in the dust. I relinquish the solidity of suffering and all its compensations—righteousness and excuse. I no longer identify with their actions. I stop taking it personally. I get on with my life.
A 2001 brain-imaging study conducted by Thomas Farrow of the University of Sheffield, England, found that individuals engaged in the process of forgiveness showed strong activity in the prefrontal cortex that controls emotion, problem solving and complex thought. Additionally, there was increased blood flow to the part of the brain that registers reward, underscoring that forgiveness brings benefit to the forgiver.
My grandmother, the one about whom I wrote in that novel in poems, never recovered from her stepfather’s molestation. Kicked out of her house, she became a prostitute at age 12, an unwed mother at age 14. She had no language with which to protest what had been done to her, no one who would hear and validate her injuries. Instead she acted out her rage and was punished for it: In her thirties, she intentionally set fire to her house and was locked up in a mental hospital. For the rest of her life, she was in and out of asylums, subjected to a regimen of drugs and electroshock therapy. Tormented by guilt over her reactions to the circumstances over which she had little control and for which she found no relief, she never forgave herself.
A 2001 study by psychologist Loren Toussaint of Luther University and colleagues notes that forgiveness of self, in addition to others, is a critical factor in the avoidance of chronic depression.
In Buddha, The Gospel, an 1894 compilation drawn from a range of Buddhist texts, author Paul Carus contemplates the difficulty of self-forgiveness, “People will forgive great wrongs which they have suffered, but they will never be at ease about the wrong which they themselves have done.”
My stepfather also never relinquished the trauma of his early wounding. He married four times. He fathered four children, all of whom he left. He drowned his feelings in booze, punctuated by outbursts of violence. He molested his stepdaughter.
I wrote to him, several years after he divorced my mother, a letter of forgiveness. He responded with a screed of his resentments—not toward me, but toward my mother and everyone whom he believed had done him wrong. On New Year’s Eve in 1996, he was found collapsed on a sidewalk in Detroit with a head injury. He fell into a coma from which he never recovered.
Research suggests that failure to forgive may, over a lifetime, boost an individual’s risk for heart disease, stress, mental illness, and other ills.
If our survival as a species depends, as McCullough’s research suggests, upon our capacity to forgive, what does that bode for the roiling and enduring conflicts across the planet? Those intractable enmities that no negotiation can seem to mitigate? Can Arabs and Israelis ever live peaceably? Can Serbs and Croations? Hutus and Tutsis?
Humans tend to categorize others as either “friends and neighbors” or “strangers and enemies.” When we are wronged by someone in the first group, we are inclined to see it as being in our interest to forgive. When we are harmed by someone we perceive as a stranger or enemy, we are more likely to opt for revenge. The shift toward a more peaceable world may depend in part on our ability to enlarge our view of who are our friends and neighbors, that is, our ability to perceive a common interest between ourselves and others that makes us more willing to cooperate with them.
The desire for revenge can also be mitigated by the application of justice. This may consist of an acknowledgement of the wrongs that have been committed, such as occurred with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa at the end of apartheid rule. Justice may beg an apology, as when Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jewish people for the church’s participation in Jewish oppression over centuries. Justice may require a demonstration of sacrifice, as when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) agreed to disarm to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. Justice may require reparations; between 2003 and 2006, U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan paid $31 million dollars condolence payments to civilians and their families who had been harmed or killed by American soldiers.
Without any perception of justice, the genetic urge toward vengeance against strangers or enemies is nearly impossible to override.
McCullough notes that the capacity of humans to choose forgiveness over revenge may depend on three conditions: 1) the perception that the transgressor is somehow worthy of compassion, that is, we can view them as human, as someone not entirely unlike ourselves; 2) the belief that the transgressor may in the future be valuable in some way, that is we have some common interest that is larger than the harmful action; and 3) the assurance that the transgressor is unlikely to harm them again.
In the bathroom of a spiritual healing center in the California desert I see this sign:
Giving up all hope of a better past
The student’s eyes haven’t left my face. They scan it like a map for the lost. What does it mean to forgive?
I take a deep breath and hope I can communicate some essence beyond my meager words. “Forgiveness,” I tell her, “is a gift I give to myself. I grant myself the power to forgive. I let go of my hold on the past and turn instead to the future. I release the image of myself as damaged and instead see myself as whole. I set down my grievance and open my heart to compassion. I become grateful for every part of my life.”
The young woman looks hopeful but perplexed. In some part of her she already knows what I am saying and is nourished by the reminder of it, but her mind, clinging to whatever wounds she carries, can’t yet take it in. There may be no shortcut for her; she may have to live her way to this insight.
Yet our conversation has raised in her a possibility; some light has ignited in her. In her eyes I can see her soul yearning toward it.