Photo by Lois Wagner of the Killing Tree in Cambodia.

Visitors leave friendship bracelets in memory of the children killed there

Your situation is unique and I am not in a position to tell you whether or not you should forgive your transgressor.

I do not know your situation and cannot pretend to understand the impact that the circumstances requiring forgiveness had on your life. You may be a victim of theft, robbery, discrimination, bullying, disloyalty or betrayal. Perhaps your partner left you, taking everything along with them, leaving you in debt. Maybe you were abused or assaulted as a child. You may be the survivor of rape or abuse by your partner or by a stranger. Or worse, to be the parent or partner of someone who was murdered. Could you, or should you, forgive the unforgivable?

I have no idea of where you are in your progress towards healing and I cannot guarantee that forgiving is a panacea that will remove your hurt and pain and will enable you to move on to a happier and more fulfilling life. You have been hurt. You are angry and stressed. You may not know how to pick up the pieces and start again. You may not want to pick up the pieces and start again.

Forgiving is a choice and you can only do this when you are ready. Getting to forgiveness is a natural process and not a single act. You may reach forgiveness only after completing a number of other steps and definitely after experiencing a whole bunch of other emotions. Don’t let me, the media, or others pressurise you. There is no reason for shame or guilt if you are not ready to forgive, and proceeding at your own pace is both healing and productive.

The Kübler-Ross Grief Cycle or Stages of Grief is a model that was developed by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. These stages or emotions are not linear, nor are they a predictable progression and many of them are experienced in tandem. However, based on my own personal experience, one needs to experience all these stages and go through the grieving and healing process in order to realise true and full forgiveness. And it is not an easy process. In fact, it can be very challenging.

I am sure you have all heard people tell you that you are only hurting yourself if you don’t forgive, right? But you cannot forgive when you are still focusing on retribution or revenge and are still dwelling on the pain and the negative emotions that the transgression caused. Forgiveness may be an agonisingly slow and difficult process and you may want to avoid many steps, but suppressing any of these emotions or skipping any of these stages can be harmful. The feelings become internalised and you may never come out of the depression and detachment mode, or you may fall back into that stage, or suffer from self-criticism and guilt or shame.  You may want to run away and hide and deny the excruciating experiences. This could result in you suffering one of many stress-related illnesses from headaches to digestive problems, to heart problems or increased hypertension. Do not allow society, family and friends to pressurise you into forgiving before you are ready. You may say the words to get these people “off your back” and not really mean them, and then your emotions become stifled and you may fall into an even deeper depression.

Anger is one of the most natural reactions rising from a transgression, and this emotion can give you the necessary strength and power to deal with the immediate aftermath of the offence. It can even help in the healing process. In my case, it stimulated me into driving moves to have changes made to the South African constitution. On the other hand, it can be harmful. It gave me unbelievable strength which later manifested itself in psychosomatic physical ailments (that story is for a later blog).

Forgiveness is generally defined as a conscious and deliberate decision to let go of feelings of negativity, resentment, hurt, anger, suffering, and the desire for vengeance or retribution against the offender. It is about our well-being and healing and not about that of the offender. It has nothing to do with condoning or excusing the actions of the offender, or releasing them from legal accountability and justice. It can, however, go a long way towards reconciliation. But remember that forgiveness is something that you do alone, and that reconciliation is a two-way street and the two are concepts are separate issues.

Remember that forgiveness is a very personal thing and starts deep within yourself. It should not be forced, but come naturally as you progress through the grief cycle. Be true to yourself.

You may feel that by forgiving a person they may do it again. You are not responsible for their behaviour or their actions as a result of the forgiveness. So do you forgive a repeat offender, someone who continually commits wrong acts? Forgiving a one-time betrayal may save a relationship, but repeatedly forgiving a husband who continually cheats on you, can be harmful. Are you letting him off the hook by forgiving him? So when he repeats his betrayal it makes you lose self-respect, self-worth and makes you feel shame and guilt? If he portrays narcissistic characteristics and you keep forgiving him, it can be self-destructive and can promote an unhealthy and toxic relationship. Now would be the time to move on and away from the relationship.

And do you forgive someone who is not sorry, who has not apologised, who has not asked for forgiveness? What about confronting the offender? Sometimes this is not possible. They may be in another country or may not even be alive anymore. It is usually better to be able to face the transgressor but if not, remember that they are inside your head and you can forgive them there.  They do not have to be part of the process and they do not have to participate in the forgiveness ritual.

Timing is everything. True forgiveness while the pain is still raw is probably not possible based on the severity of the hurt. You are unable to forgive if you are still holding the desire for revenge and retribution.  Forgiving at this point in time may increase your negativity, not only towards the offender, but towards yourself as well. You may start questioning your decision to forgive and may suffer self-doubt and this can lower your self-esteem. It took me 15 years of hating. Looking back now, it took far too many years for me to reach this free-ing place. Circumstances led me here rather than a conscious decision, but I wish that I had been lead there much, much sooner.

At the end of the day, it is your decision and only you can make it. You can forgive, or you can choose not to forgive. Whatever you decide is based on how you feel, but working through the stages can help you find peace and light and freedom.

I found that forgiveness, in the end, was a really simple process for me. I found it to be a powerful force of healing, and it really did provide me with a wonderful sense of freedom.

Yours – Forever Flying Free.

Lois