From the Archives: Beyond Clenched Teeth: Reflections on Forgiveness by Elizabeth Cunningham

Moderator’s note: This marvelous FAR site has been running for 10 years and has had more than 3,600 posts in that time. There are so many treasures that have been posted in this decade that they tend to get lost in the archives. We are beginning this column so that we can all revisit some of these gems. Today’s blogpost was originally posted January 19, 2014. You can visit it to see the original comments here.

Elizabeth Cunningham

“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

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10 replies

  1. Oh, I miss Elizabeth’s posts and was delighted to read this one. She is right, healing has a rippling effect moving backwards and forwards in time – i recently had an experience of this kind – we all wound, consciously and unconsciously – and forgiveness must occur in its own time – I have tried to forgive before I was ready to do so, and had to acknowledge that I was being dishonest with myself…. as for anger/rage how do we forgive without first experiencing the full range of these feelings as painful as they might be?????

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Brava!!! Elizabeth, I also miss seeing your posts regularly and hope you finish that project and come back to FAR. We readers need your thoughtfulness,

    Of course, this post makes enormous sense, and we do need healing. In all directions. Especially now with politics so poisonous and people so selfish and thoughtless. Thanks for writing this and reminding us that the standard-brand god doesn’t forgive anybody, not really, but that we can forgive each other, though it may take some time.

    Bright blessings, my friend! Stay warm and safe this winter.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. oh Barbara I really like this comment – people selfish, thoughtless, AND poisonous…the standard – brand god is a joke.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you all! I am still hard at work on the project with a sort of a deadline. When the draft is complete I hope to share more. It covers some of the same terrain as this post.

    Love and good wishes now and in the new year, Sara and Barbara!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for sharing this post. It is so heartbreaking when powerfully healing ideas are used as powerful weapons. I am so glad that you have found these beautiful ways to transcend the brokenness and wounds and to find deep healing, and to offer it to others.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Dear Elizabeth, you have, interestingly, written about a fact that is seldom acknowledged: forgiveness is demanded of women, but not of men. I resent the fact that forgiveness is somehow considered a female trait.

    You know I respect and admire you enormously, and your advice is most laudable, but somehow I simply can’t get to the place where I can forgive that person in my past. Yes, it all happened nearly sixty years ago, and yes, I have moved on, but…I can’t honestly say I truly forgive that person.

    Perhaps it will happen one day, who knows? I’m not holding my breath, though, I can tell you.

    With great affection,

    Goddessfiction

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Goddessfiction,

    I hear you! And I agree. No need to will forgiveness, I never could. Some things are unforgivable or not our business to forgive. We can tend to our own wounds and turn the one who wounded us over to the mystery.

    With affection to you, and wishing you all the best,
    Elizabeth

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this gem of a post. I have been working on my own forgiveness issues. I so love how you frame it: “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.”

    Especially after thinking about your insights, I see healing and forgiveness as two sides of the issue that have to come together for us to live in fullness and health. Wow! Just great. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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