Beyond Clenched Teeth: Reflections on Forgiveness by Elizabeth Cunningham


Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpeg“I forgive you.”

These words make my teeth buzz like the sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. I can vividly recall my sister and myself, as children, saying these words through clenched teeth.  Not only were we Christians, we were the minister’s daughters.  We had no choice. The only other words I hated as much: “I’m sorry,” also forced through clenched teeth.

Oddly enough I cannot recall my older brother being told to ask my forgiveness when he and his friend pummeled me. That fell into the category of: “you egged them on.” My mother did used to say of my brother, mournfully and anxiously: “he doesn’t know his own strength.” Which meant: it isn’t his fault that he hurt you.  But my sister and I were supposed to be nice to each other.

I also cannot remember my late father the minister ever asking forgiveness for any of his excesses and abuses, except possibly once when I was sixteen. He was very drunk and pulled me into a rare, excruciating, and seemingly interminable embrace as he whimpered: “I love you so much,” which I doubted given his customary behavior towards me.

As for God’s forgiveness, during Morning Prayer (three Sundays out of four) we declared: “we have left undone those things we ought to have done and we have done those things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” On Holy Communion Sunday, the confession was more dramatic. “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed by thought, word and deed, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” In both versions, God was implored to forgive us for the sake of “thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ.”  I did not believe for a minute that God the Father forgave us for any reason and least of all because his Son had died for us.

As an interfaith minister and counselor, I’ve worked with people who have suffered extreme abuse (rape, incest, physical violence.) Premature or willed forgiveness can be damaging in itself. Here is an alternate method:  Healing.  To give a crude, literal example: if you stab me, I don’t have to say (through clenched teeth) “I forgive you” as I stand there bleeding.  I must turn my attention to myself: tend the wound, wash it, bandage it, keep it free of infection till the wound heals. When the literal (or figurative) wound heals, the harm is undone, and I am free to hold you harmless.  That is what I think of as an unforced, organic form of forgiveness.

Some wounds are a mere accidental scratch, some go to the core of our being and may take a lifetime to heal. We can choose to tend our wounds, regardless of whether or not the one who wounded us did so knowingly or unconsciously, regardless of whether that person is sorry or not, regardless of whether that person is alive or dead. The harm done to us often renders us powerless. Healing can restore our agency. Healing as forgiveness is not so much a moral imperative as a practical one. It is a process, one that can and sometimes must include acknowledgment of anger. If we do not judge anger as a shameful negative emotion (indicative of moral failure), in most cases anger will pass when it has served its purpose.

My parents are both dead. There was enough healing on all sides for them to die in some kind of peace and for me to be left in peace. Healing continues as my understanding of their lives and wounds deepens with time. At sixty, I am writing a mystery novel that includes characters based on them.  I can only hope that whatever harm I have done to my own children will also heal. For harm inflicted by the institution of the church on an impressionable child, virtually re-writing the New Testament from an imaginative (and rather sassy) point of view has been profoundly healing for me. Some readers tell me that Maeve’s story has helped to heal their wounds, too.  Healing in any form has a ripple effect, outwards as well as backward and forward in time.

On the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day observed, I want to acknowledge the reality of collective harm and the need for collective healing. Our nation, whatever its virtues, was founded on two systemic evils: genocide and slavery. Women won the vote less than a century ago. Many individuals and communities in the United States still struggle for basic human rights not to mention those our nation has harmed in the global community—and the harm we as a species have done to the earth itself. The seeking or granting of collective forgiveness is subject matter for another post. (Take the topic and run, bloggers.) In this larger context, most of us have been both victims and perpetrators of harm.  May we unclench our teeth, roll up our sleeves and turn our attention to healing our shared wounds.

Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. She is a counselor in private practice, a writing coach, and an aspiring hermit.

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Categories: American History, General, Grief, Healing, Spirituality

Tags: , , , , ,

36 replies

  1. So profound, Elizabeth. From your heart and life, you bring wisdom to help those who must find ways to heal and to forgive. Thank you.

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  2. Beautiful blog. Healing is indeed important, but you know what? When it’s forced, it just isn’t real. That makes me wonder if collective forgiveness is even possible. Let’s hope everyone can even take baby steps. Brava!

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  3. Thank you, Duncan and Barbara. In one draft of this post, I attempted to discuss Pope John Paul II’s request for forgiveness of The Church and found it too big a topic to mention in passing. I hope someone will ponder the subject of collective harm and forgiveness.

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    • In Canada we are also dealing with our relationship with the First Nations People. There are so many aspects: some used the education received in Residential Schools to go on to Doctorates and using their skills to help their people. Some are recovering their language and customs. Some refuse to forgive the harms done and remain in a victim mode. And when the government or the churches say: “sorry” – is it believable? Who holds, and seeks to increase power? More questions than answers for me.

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      • Good questions, Barbara. Maybe you will write a post pondering them!

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      • Maybe the place to look, Barbara, is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which seems to have done a remarkable job in South Africa. Of course, in North America, it would have to be a little different, since much of the victimization was perpetrated by people who are now deceased. I think we need such commission in the U.S. At least Canada is beginning the process. We’re just ignoring it.

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      • I would say that both Canada and and the US are continuing to harm it’s First Nations and American Indian peoples. Honoring or more accurately, not honoring treaties is an ongoing thing. This isn’t something that was “done” to them by dead people. It is someones still doing it to them. They hold that view and have great evidence to back it up. They blame the current governments along with past acts. And I am a sworn ally. Which is why this is a great post. How do you forgive or should you even forgive while someone/government is still harming or increasing the harm?

        For me, my focus is on the government to stop the harm. No healing can ever take place while ongoing atrocities continue.

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    • Thanks, Barbara!

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    • Nancy, our process is called Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=3

      The town I live in was the location of a Residential School. The city is bordered by two “Reserves”, the Hupacasath (http://hupacasath.ca/) and Tseshaht First Nations (http://www.tseshaht.com/). There is a lot of friendly interaction and some not-so-friendly conflict. Feelings are mixed and sometimes confusing, containing all the ones I mentioned above. (or below depending on where this reply ends up! :-))

      The Governments have made public apologies, as have the Churches that ran the schools. How much is motivated by guilt, public pressure, for political advantage, etc? One of the local Churches, the denomination that ran the school, had a congregational meeting and decided it was just and right to acknowledge and apologize the harm done. The national office was not happy because they were in court over the matter. The congregation met with the local FN Elders and asked what to do. Everything revolves around food! (Eucharist?) So the Christians cooked up a feast, took it to the Reserve, invited the people, and read a formal apology from their congregation. The response was touching and humbling. The Elders said that the event was now a part of their story to be passed through the generations. Some acknowledged the apology and said they could not forgive. Sometimes, all a person can do is repent, confess, and apologize. Forgiveness can’t be forced. All of which leaves me with a sense of the complexity of apologies and forgiveness as others have expressed here!

      From the other side, there is my own need to forgive: father, step-father and mother and brother!

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      • Barbara, I sense a post from you on the subject is emerging. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.

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      • wemarriage – that is so true. But I don’t think things go in a straight line, or that we wait until the dominant society stops oppressing others. By acknowledging the injustice and our part in it, we opened a way for some to heal. And when our Provincial Gov’t tried to initiate a plan of further oppression, many local people stood with the F.N. People and took action. (We also had a lot of fun doing it!) I see it as a somewhat irregular process more than a series of orderly steps. We do what we can, but can’t control everything, or anything beyond our own choices.

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    • Wemarriage and Barbara, I am not finding the correct reply buttons. I really appreciate your exchnage and hope that you will both write more on this subject.

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  4. Elizabeth, you have put your finger on the very heart of what bothers me the most about the concept of “forgiveness.” I frequently hear of women being asked to “forgive” rapists, batterers, and so on, but I never seem to hear of men applying the concept of forgiveness. For myself, I think forgiveness is vastly overrated. I have not and will not forgive the person who wronged me in the past. And just for the record, I have gone on to have a happy life with a wonderful family–I don’t sit around brooding about what happened 50 years ago. I still remember, though, from time to time.

    Thank you for this beautiful post, which provides much food for thought.

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  5. Thank you, Neferhuri. I hear you! Sounds like you have done a great job healing and prevailing. Thank you for writing.

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  6. Hi Elizabeth —

    I agree with everything you wrote here. Healing is of paramount concern, and how it happens depends on the wound, the people, the situation, etc. Premature healing is really just repression of the wound, and it doesn’t help anyone, least of all the one who does the forgiving.

    And yet in my experience, forgiveness has played a part at least some of my healing(s). For me forgiveness is less for the one forgiven than for the one who forgives. It has allowed me to get beyond my angry feelings of injustice, (sometimes) to reestablish relationships that were important to me (or to decide not to have anything to do with the person responsible for my pain), and to find my center once again in my own life by not continuing to give energy to the wounding, and, therefore, the person who has wounded me. Forgiveness allows me to move on. i.e. it faciliates healing. Interestingly, the research on forgiveness shows just these connections (and much of it has been done right here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

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    • Well said, Nancy. Healing is forgiveness and forgiveness is healing. You can arrive at either one either way.

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    • I agree with you Nancy that it is important to transform angry feelings and not to keep returning to the the painful memories. However, for me this does not involve forgiveness so much as distance. I can see that x did y to me which was wrong in part because x had also been treated wrongly. I can have compassion for x and even wish the best for x, without forgiving x. I am not interested in forgiving someone who does not even acknowledge harmful behavior and is likely to repeat it. This has only created for me the false sense that “everything is OK.” Maybe we are dealing with different definitions of forgiveness. For me it is important not to wish x harm but also to keep clear in my mind that x has harmed (me) before and is likely to harm again. The situation would be different if x did see the harm x had done and was truly sorry and promised to (try x’s best) not to repeat the behavior. Then forgiveness would be appropriate.

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      • What you say makes sense to me, Carol. Distance (figurative and literal) is absolutely essential in some cases, as is awareness that some people who do harm refuse to acknowledge it and have no intention of stopping until some external force prevents them.

        We recently had to leave our home of many years because of a complex property situation bequeathed to us by my mother-in-law. Too long a story to go into. We tried everything we could to deal with the situation and finally removing ourselves (we are so happy where we are) was our only recourse if we wanted to preserve our health and sanity. I can remember shouting at Jesus one morning: Forgive my neighbor seventy times seven? Been there, done that. And I am done! You deal with him.

        Now in a place I call the happy hermitage, I am beginning to heal, though I still have nightmares (as recently as last night). I am beginning to be able to forgive my mother-in-law the mess she left us and am daily gaining detachment from the person who literally terrorized us.

        As for my father, he never did fully acknowledge the harm he did, but I could not, cannot help understanding him. Of course death does give plenty of distance. Thanks for writing.

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      • Perhaps the difference here has to do with a confusion of forgiveness with absolving people for their wrongdoing or maybe the confusion of forgiveness with reconciliation. I don’t equate forgiveness with either of these two. I don’t need an apology from the person who hurt me to forgive them, and I don’t necessarily have to reconnect with them in any way. And for sure I won’t let them hurt me again. For me forgiveness is an INTERNAL process where I work through the hurt, gain an understanding of what happened, rebuild a sense of safety, and let go of my anger. Research shows that without such forgiveness people hang onto their grudges and this has negative health consequences.

        Such research showed that forgiveness in general is positively associated with better health in terms of the heart, hormones, and immune system. There are also psychological benefits to forgiveness. People who forgive more readily are less likely to be depressed and anxious, and more likely to be happy. These physical and psychological qualities could all be key in predicting a longer life, another scientific finding about the benefits of forgiveness. The sooner the psychological healing begins, the more likely it is that your health will reap the benefits.

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      • Nancy, you said:

        “Perhaps the difference here has to do with a confusion of forgiveness with absolving people for their wrongdoing or maybe the confusion of forgiveness with reconciliation. I don’t equate forgiveness with either of these two….”

        But you see, my understanding of forgiveness is that it does exactly that: absolves the perpetrator from his wrongdoing. That’s why I refuse to forgive the person who wronged me. If I did, I would in effect be saying, “Gee, honey, it all happened a long time ago. It’s not a big deal. No hard feelings.” Huh! It was a VERY big deal and I do have hard feelings. I’ll have them until I die.

        But I don’t dwell on it. The only time I really think of it is when the subject of forgiveness comes up. I am happy, much healthier than many people my age (about-to-turn 70) with a life I enjoy. But I haven’t forgotten. No. My life was changed too permanently and drastically for me to EVER forget.

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      • Neferhuri —

        Forgiveness for me also doesn’t have anything to do with forgetting what happened. I will never forget being raped, but I have come to terms with it. If I ever forgot the experience, I would potentially open myself to being victimized again. AS a result, I’m less trusting than I was at a very naive 20 years old, and that’s a good thing. I’m safer as a result.

        And when I think about being raped, I’m not sure I would use the word forgiveness. It might be misunderstood, and as a feminist I see rape as a major crime used by patriarchy to keep women trapped and afraid. But the process of dealing with this abuse perpetrated against me seems to be the same as the one I described in my original response. I worked through my pain and confusion and anger and PTSD (and that took a while). I came to understand why the guy raped me. He was an Iranian who hated all Americans, and I was the one available as the target of his hostility. It happened in 1967, and that’s only 14 years after the CIA orchestrated the coup against the Shah of Iran, so he had reason to see the U.S. as his enemy. Of course, that doesn’t exonerate him for sexually abusing an individual woman, who had nothing to do with the CIA. But it did allow me to understand his motivation and why he felt justified in raping me.

        I’m no longer angry at him, i.e. I’ve given up my feelings of rage. Originally I wanted revenge. During this period, I channeled my anger into my work for the women’s movement and that helped me to heal. But eventually I realized that my desire for vengeance was murderous, and essentially no different than his disregard for my humanity. (Ask most rape survivors and they will tell you that at some point during their rape they were afraid that their rapist would kill them, since he was treating them like an object, not a person — just what soldiers are trained to think of their enemies). In fact, while taking part in a dream group, I had many dreams about my rapist trying to rape me, and ultimately realized that at least this internal/dream rapist was a part of me! And as a part of me, it was energy that I had cut myself off from — by hating it — energy that I could use better in my life. I realized that I had to embrace this part of myself and reincorporate it into my psychic structure, something I did years ago. In contrast, I have no desire to ever reconcile with my actual rapist. Why would I? There’s no reason to believe that he has changed.

        I have rebuilt my sense of safety. Getting to know men that I can trust has helped. And not having been raped in 46 years certainly makes a difference. I no longer feel like a victim (and haven’t for a long time), and I think that’s the important part. Whatever gets people who have been victimized to the point of wholeness again is what healing is all about.

        Writing this response has allowed me to get in touch with why some of you would not use the word forgive to describe your healing process. I was thinking about the process from the inside out, i.e. how I experienced it, and from that point of view I have no difficulty in using the word forgiveness. But when I think about how most of the world understands the word “forgiveness” (looking at it from the outside-in), I would never use it to talk about healing from rape, since it could so easily be twisted against me or against other women.

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  7. The visual of an apology thru clenched teeth is so profound. In my mind I can hear it being said like a hiss, full of venom. Mending, I love and adore that word. I love to mend old cloths, mend fences and wounds. It brings a visual of taking something that was, and now maybe deteriorating, and putting the time and effort into making it new again. Not throwing it away.
    I do adore your perspective and the way you weave your words.
    Thank you…

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  8. Thank you Elizabeth. I too have found forgiveness a tough topic – particularly because the message from church services is to ask God for forgiveness and then it can be forgotten – no public expectation that we ask forgiveness of the people we have wronged – let alone do anything to change our behaviours. This may be part of the discrepancy identified by Neferhuri? Like you I hope that there will be more discussion of this topic both personally and collectively and the ways of approaching it. Thank you Nancy for your very helpful contribution and thank you Elizabeth for getting it going :-)

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    • Thanks, Margaret. As I struggle to write the post, I realized how huge the topic is, how personal and universal, simple and complex. Thanks for writing!

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  9. Elizabeth, your post and the comments are so full of insight that I am saving them to refer to in the future. Thank you so much for writing this blog–and I completely agree that you have a wonderful way with words! Blessed be.

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  10. Very powerful images. For me, forgiveness is filled with getting over and thru anger…and I am stuck in its maze. I hope that I find my way out-sooner than later. Your blog gives me hope.

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  11. Thanks for writing, Jayneapierce. I have been in the anger maze, too–and recently (see above response to Carol Christ). And a maze it is. Healing doesn’t necessarily run in a straight line. It can be labyrinthian. As with an actual labyrinth, each step takes you closer to the heart though it looks at times as though you are going further away. Keep tending the wound and may your healing be joyous and complete.

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  12. Wonderful piece, Elizabeth! Helps me unclench a few teeth over the hurt I’ve experienced with my husband and son’s addictions, resulting in terrible fights. Their relationship was a replay of my father’s with my younger brother’s. I felt horribly hurt by it all, and definitely suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, but am now concentrating on healing myself, and loving myself back to life.

    It seems that many who hurt have no idea that they have done so, as everything is focused on what they want now, and to hell with the consequences. (Particularly true of many men.) Doing creative things (in my case, writing), definitely helps the healing process. Forgiveness should never be rushed, it can only come after the majority of the healing is complete, however long that takes. And we definitely should NOT forget…..

    Hope that you learn to love your new ‘hermitage’ over time, Elizabeth.

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    • Thank you, Annette. I think it is definitely true that many who do harm are oblivious to their effect, perhaps because other people aren’t fully real to them or they see other people only in relation to themselves and their needs (or addictions)–which is why we can’t depend on them to help us heal. Glad you are finding ways to heal.

      I am VERY happy in my hermitage. Thank you!

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  13. “Perhaps the difference here has to do with a confusion of forgiveness with absolving people for their wrongdoing or maybe the confusion of forgiveness with reconciliation. I don’t equate forgiveness with either of these two….”

    Strange lack of a “reply” button after your excellent post Nancy. What you wrote describes my experience so well. Thank you.

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  14. I am grateful for all these rich exchanges. I feel well-nourished with food for thought!

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  15. Nancy, thank you for sharing your story. I think what you say goes to the heart of the matter. Healing takes courage and time, whether we call it forgiveness or not. In patriarchal culture and religion the burden of forgiveness had been placed on the victims. It has been exalted as a virtue often by those who have committed the abuse. So it puts victims, individual and collective, on the horns of the dilemma.

    I wrote above about a man who terrorized us and drove us from our home. It was time for us to make this move and in some sense the crisis was a gift–but that does not excuse what he did. Our resolution to the problem, while not vengeful or punitive (except in his eyes) may help not to change him (who knows?) but to contain him and prevent further harm of the kind he perpetrated against us.

    Have I forgiven him? I am still in the process of healing. Part of my difficulty the whole way through the ordeal was that (being a novelist and counselor) I could see from his point of view. I wanted a win-win. One of the most harmful and painful things about the situation was that he used my good nature and sense of fair play against me. He exploited it. It is a complex multi-layered wound and healing is taking some time, but it is happening.

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