We come up with clever ways to convince ourselves and others to forgive; talk about the decaying effects of living in unforgiveness and how forgiving is not for the other, but for ourselves. But despite all these unique contributions to this struggle, I often find myself frustrated about the lack of vulnerable dialogue addressing the overwhelmingly painful journey into this world.
What is hardly ever talked about is the actual process and why it is so damn challenging to go into the realm of forgiveness and come out the other end. We’re talking about going through some intense emotional pain that acknowledges damage, permanently impacted relationships, etc. Even to acknowledge pain might change the relationship so drastically that the one who wounded leaves or we choose to end the relationship. Terrifying!
Out of curiosity, I start with the small thread of questions that lead me to unravel even deeper discoveries. Why is forgiveness even a topic or a human issue deserving focus? Why is it a part of life? Is it just about getting the pain to go away, or is it beyond this? Is this another way of saying mercy? Is it just ignoring or overlooking the offense? What does it look like to forgive?
I believe forgiveness is a life-altering, transcendent, vulnerable journey of bringing us into true living, true connection and authenticity. We are not overlooking anything. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We are traveling into the wound, moving into the hurt, looking at it, facing it head on, seeing it for what it is and giving it a voice, until it changes something in us.
Forgiveness travels far beyond the idea that we feel relief from anger or hurt. It is an experiential movement towards something greater; shifting our perception of ourselves, others, life and God differently. This process is not about getting “rid”, but about connecting to life in a profound and transformative way. The hurt becomes a part of us and our story for the better.
In an odd, upside-down way, forgiveness is partly about mirroring the pain we feel for the other person, for them to see their own internal pain. But, regardless of the other’s intention of harm (directly or indirectly), it is about us entering into the pain to become aware of our own self and heart. It is a courageously, radical journey of getting to the root, to discover something powerful and unseen before.
Why Does Forgiveness Even Exist? The Inseparability of Relational Pain and Life
Because we are relationally wired, our hearts are naturally open to receive love, compassion, care, being seen and known. Our deepest desire is to be connected to others. It is beyond mere survival; it is foundational to living vibrantly and transcendently. Liken it to a flower, vegetable or fruit plant. It is in a constant vulnerable state of need for nourishment in order to grow beautifully and productively.
Emotional hurt is the most vulnerable felt experience in our humanity. It is indicative of our natural vulnerable nature; that we live susceptible to harm from others. It does not mean we intentionally throw ourselves into the lion’s den or passively welcome others to demean and trample us. But to truly express a Divine love, which involves confronting what is inhuman, means that we position ourselves at the risk of infliction of another’s pain.
Hurt is never truly anticipated or fully expected and known. It is a curveball to the soul. Often times the mind cannot even catch up to understand the agonizing blow of relational pain. It is a blistering shock that words fail to articulate. The language is a guttural grown communicating that something is devastatingly off.
Such pain is often felt when we are young. And when considering our young self, we are powerless and defenseless. We live fully open, relying on our caregivers to address the pain by showing compassion, care and understanding. This response helps us to heal and generates a greater closeness to them. Our parents are the foundation for awareness of our internal world, which includes when they hurt us and how they repair it.
Hurt is an unavoidable and inseparable element to existence. I have often dreamed about the day when people would not affect me; that I could live unscathed by their actions. But such dreaming is just that; for the reality is that relational hurt is a constant tenant in this life and inextricable to vulnerable living. It seems this is what Jesus implies when he increases the man’s answer of forgiving someone 7 times by multiplying it by 77!
To be hurt means we take a stance of living defenselessly. We operate unguarded, instead of a hypervigilant state of self-protection, looking around every corner for the potential presence of pain. Now, if we step into vulnerable situations where we confront or share our hurt to another, naturally we can theorize that there may be some degree of pain, but we don’t avoid it or guard ourselves against it (unless it is dangerous).
But here’s the paradox, in order for us to live boldly in such a state, the prerequisite is we travel into the hurt we already carry from past wounding. And this is an incredibly difficult and rocky path!
You Can’t Just “Get over it” (not until you go in it)
First off, hurt indicates that something is off in the relationship; something missing (rejection, abandonment, ignoring or neglecting needs) or something added (physical, verbal, and or sexual abuse) that pushes us into the shadows, instead of draws us closer to one another.
Instinctually when we experience wounding or hurt within relationship, we pull away. The heart closes up and naturally, we develop ways of protecting our hearts from any further damage.
Now, if others are aware of this closing up and feel moved with compassion, the reality of their reactions will be seen and they will respond to the pain within us, allowing the voice of hurt to come forth. For example, if a parent sees their child shut down, they will speak to the pain their child feels and allow them to express this hurt in order to heal.
But when the hurt goes unnoticed and unprocessed we begin to develop layers of protectives to feel a sense of safety. We move from a state of vulnerability or defenselessness to defended living. We become guarded, with heightened sensitivities to pain.
When the hurt is continually avoided or hidden, we carry these wounds that leave us feeling insecure and tethered to the actions of others. We circumvent or find ways around anything that triggers feeling the pain. Hypervigilance forms; this paranoid heightened perception that other’s actions are directly or intentionally harmful towards us.
When you are in a secure place, feeling confident in yourself and satisfied, you do not see other’s motives as an intentional attack towards you. But when I am in the presence of hurt, everyone’s actions are filtered through this perspective that they are out to harm me.
Think about dogs that have been abused. When someone innocuously reaches out their hand to pet it, the animal, violently unhinges its jaw and snaps at the “harmful” gesture to protect itself from “danger”. So too when relational pain goes unhealed, we will live seeing the innocuous as dangerous and discernment of actual danger obscures.
One last metaphor that points to the necessary process of caring for the wound is likened to the experience of striking our thumb with a hammer. In this unfortunate circumstance, our thumb replaces the head of the nail, the hammer missing its target and instead making contact with our body.
What happens? We feel this acute strike followed by a radiating throb of pain. All our focus is now directed to this agonizing blow, even hours after the incident. Our surrounding environment is deafened by the scream of hurt, until we find solace from this feeling. Our immediate reaction is to nurse this wound and do whatever we can to alleviate the pain, until our thumb has returned to its restful painless state. We even find ourselves angrily snapping at others at their meager attempts to help us, usually if they are responding cognitively, instead of caring for the hurt (ice, bandage, acknowledging the volume of the pain).
How Do We Move into the Hurt? Part I: The Necessity of Another
This is where it gets messy, scary and ugly. Great sales pitch, right? The healing process requires at least two stipulations: that we stay tethered to reality and vulnerability by acknowledging the wounds, and that we have someone who will travel with us in the pain.
Why are both important? One, to deal with volume of pain, we instinctually turn down the volume in order to survive and maintain connection, thus creating defenses that block us from seeing the actual magnitude of ache. Two, emotional wounding is relational, and in order to heal, it is integral that we experience safe, caring relationships that draw us back into our vulnerable, fully connected selves.
When we operate out of our defended states, our openness closes up to protect from any further hurt. But this guardedness perpetuates because we have yet to experience another who will compassionately help us acknowledge and give permission to move through the pain. It is impossible to heal our wounds without others.
It is vital that someone encounters or walks through the pain with us. On our own, the process can dissolve quickly to pulling away from the muscular force of the wound. We retreat to seeking out comfort and connection in other arenas (sex, porn, drugs, food, shopping, etc.) that transiently capture this need, but quickly evaporate to reveal the stark, piercing presence of ache again.
We need another to give voice to the pain and permission to feel, in great intensity, all the uncomfortable emotions that accompany the laceration. Our default is to create defense, reasoning out why not to go to the pain or why we “should not” feel this way. When a compassionate heart reflects and accepts the raw and messy hurt we carry, giving understanding to it, what we have kept so tightly concealed and distanced ourselves from, begins to come forth.
Love calls what was hidden, pushed away, trampled on, unacknowledged, minimized, judged, shamed and rejected into the light. Love gives great importance to what has been devalued and feared.
When we experience this kind of response from another, it becomes integrated into our internal world. Their care, compassion, patience, and understanding becomes ours. It is now imbued in how we respond to ourselves and our own hearts. It also becomes a gift we give to others buried under their own pain.
How Do We Move into the Hurt? Part II: The Going In
The going in is where the courage kicks in. Now we are acknowledging and feeling the brutality of the relational pain. We run into our defense and ammunition, the grief and rage.
Our tendency is to wish or try to quickly push ourselves to the end, where the presence of pain no longer exists. But there is no short-cut. It is not a cognitive or logical process. We cannot just say some magical words “I forgive that person” and it all dissolves. Forgiveness is an experiential process of journeying to something more than just pain relief. Anyone who is trying to intellectually draw you out of the pain is not one to help, for they have not ventured into their own hearts.
We ourselves or others will either tell or ask us why we can’t just “let go”. But this “letting go” is much deeper than “getting over it”. Letting go, which is what we fear, is actually about giving up the defenses and going into the pain. It requires connecting to everything we have detached from; feeling the hate, rage, anger and encountering the gut-wrenching blow of grief (sadness, longing, missing). The reason it continues to surface or we talk about it to others in anger or bitterness is because we have not moved into the presence of the wound.
The start begins when we admit to not wanting or being ready to forgive; that we hate or want to destroy the person; that it hurts too much to go in there and see it, or that we are terrified. Normalizing this is important to accepting the process. It is an ebb and flow of inching towards the hurt and then pulling away. We must be allowed these margins to struggle.
Those that are there to walk with the person, absolutely must not attempt to convince the person on all the reasons they need to forgive or manipulate them into feeling guilt by saying “think if someone held this against you”. This will instinctually push them farther away into their defense. Instead, speaking to the emotion, acknowledging how scary and uncomfortable it must be for them, will highlight the actual reason they are pulling away or retreating to defense. This will invite them back into openness.
The Anger We’re Terrified of
One of the most uncomfortable and scary experiences the wounded one will encounter is their intense rage or hate. Anger has been a shamed and destructively conveyed emotion, but it is actually a vulnerable, life-giving and intimacy-enhancing feeling. Anger is righteous passion. And passion always orients us towards something to which we give of ourselves, such as art, music, cooking, etc. Anger is a passionate expression of hurt, relational disorder, distance and fissure.
It is vital that we enter into feeling the voluminous depths of our anger in order to heal fully.
Wanting the Wounder to See
Another challenging obstacle is how uncomfortable we are to admit that we want the other to see and acknowledge our pain. We don’t even want to see how badly we have been hurt. To acknowledge that we have been hurt means we welcome the truth that we care for this person; that they matter to us and that seeing the damage will majorly, possibly catastrophically, shift the relationship.
The truth is that we want to make it known to that person that we are hurt, sometimes through the emanating presence of bitter responses towards them. We want them to notice and acknowledge it but are terrified of exposing this on our own volition. As much as we try to cauterize this want, our desire is often to be connected to this person and for the relationship to be restored.
The Arrival: When You Know You Have Come out the Other End
Forgiveness is an undulating and emotionally-charged journey. It is a courageous endeavor into a monstrous odyssey that although feels destructive, paradoxically, it is a strengthening of the heart. Such a strengthening opens us up to deeper understanding of our own selves and others. It moves us into vulnerable living and loving.
When people have not ventured into their pain, they manufacture what they believe is strength (shutting people out, manipulating, fighting, destroying, using intellect, verbally tearing someone apart, using sex to control or secure a relationship). They are actually trying to get to that strength we were intended to carry, yet it only comes through a reverse process of going through, instead of running away.
When we have come out the other end, the “act” or the person’s presence no longer hits us viscerally with anger or hate. Pain may still exist, but the guards are gone. We feel the sadness of a changed relationship; possibly its ending. We grieve not only what has been done, but we feel compassion and moved towards the one who wounded us.
Vulnerably, we can share how we have been impacted to others, even to the person with whom we were wounded by. We might even feel drawn towards this person, wanting relationship or connection in some capacity. However, if someone stays guarded, closed, resistant or is still operating in harmful ways, out of care for ourselves, distance is important. It signals that the relationship cannot move closer.
Our perspective of this person has changed. We no longer see them as this “enemy” or “monster”. They become human to us and their own wounded hearts gain greater clarity. We are even moved with compassion and care. We now understand that our healing is not contingent upon their response; that our healing does not wait until they change or acknowledge wrongdoing. Even if they were to do this, we still have to go through our journey of recovery.
Lastly, I believe endeavoring in forgiveness shifts something significantly within us. We move closer and closer to the heart of God, who always moves vulnerably, knowing that such movement is a risk to incurring hurt (suffering). When Jesus says, unless you forgive, your Father in Heaven will not forgive you (I’m paraphrasing), he does not mean that God does not actually forgive.
God’s forgiveness is vast and unending. But when we stay guarded against the pain, we close up and then pull away, which blocks a deeper knowing and experiencing of the richness of God’s loving mercy. We end up shutting ourselves off from a vibrant and transformative love. But forgiveness moves into this knowing that we internalize and emphatically express to others entrenched in their own pain.
Forgiveness is not something you “get over”, it is something that transforms you, evolving you into a Being overflowing with an otherworldly love, foreign to this world, but what we all crave.