FEW OF US HAVE AS MUCH REASON to hate someone as Tracey, a 24-year-old Aucklander. She still vividly recalls scenes from her childhood. The sound of those early-morning footsteps coming toward her bedroom. And the fear that used to send her flying to the toy cupboard. But these days there’s little sign of the bitterness she carried for more than half her young life …
As the youngest of three children, Tracey always wanted the attention of her brother and sister. But she was too young to join in the games. “I was the baby of the family, so they wouldn’t play with me.”
Then, “somewhere around the age of five,” it happened. Tracey’s father began giving her the affection she wanted so much – and she was too young to realise what he was doing.
“It didn’t seem wrong at first. He told me it was private, special, between the two of us. And if I told anyone I would break that special love.”
But just before her 10th birthday Tracey discovered that something was desperately wrong. One evening as she rode her bicycle around the streets near her house, she smiled innocently at a passerby. He followed her, grabbed her from behind and, with a knife held to Tracey’s throat, carried her to a deserted property nearby.
“He taught me what rape was … and while it was happening I was thinking, ‘But this is what my Dad does.’ I just couldn’t understand it.”
Tracey ran home after the rape, crying, and told her parents what the man had done. The police were called, and Tracey went through all the questioning and medical examinations. “I was thinking to myself, ‘How come the police are after this guy for doing something my father does to me all the time?’ It was at that point I realised something was wrong – but I wasn’t strong enough to tell anyone about it.”
After the rape, Tracey’s life returned to normal – or what was normal for her. “However, now I knew that what I was taking part in was not right.”
She would hide in wardrobes and cupboards to avoid her father when she heard his footsteps on the stairs. But it didn’t stop him. Over the years that followed, he continued to use her sexually. As a teenager she became more and more desperate, but still she felt trapped, unable to tell anyone about her horrible secret.
“I thought about suicide … drugs … And at one stage I very seriously considered a career in prostitution. I thought I might as well get money for what I was doing. I guess I just accepted that this was it for me. I didn’t feel strong enough to do anything about it.”
Tracey was nearly 18 now, and her father could sense she was going to crack. He kept telling Tracey not to say anything … “but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I ran off crying one day, and Mum came to find me. When she asked me what was wrong, I said, ‘You’re so blind you don’t even know!’ And I told her what Dad had been doing to me all those years.”
Tracey remembers her mother going back to confront her father. And then the two of them walking towards her along the path. The first thought that ran through her mind was that her father was coming to kill her. But then she saw the look on his face …
“His head was drooping, and he was crying. It was the first time I’d seen him look guilty like that.”
Tracey felt a great weight lift from her shoulders. Her secret was out at last. But what was she to do now? She had once dreamed of ruining her father’s career, hurting him as much as she could, and dragging his name through the mud in front of all his friends. But now that the truth was known, she couldn’t bring herself to make either her mother or herself suffer anymore.
“Mum was too weak to go to the police. And I knew if I reported it, that would split up the family and cost me the only things I had left.”
There was also the rape incident. “I remembered what it had been like, when people found out it was me. You feel really dirty and grubby after the court-case – like you’re someone’s dirty laundry that’s been hung on the line for everyone to see. I didn’t want that to happen all over again. People forget that the victim suffers a second time in court.
“Eventually it came down to the personal price I would have to pay. If people found out about Dad, they would find out about me …”
So Tracey made her decision: she would not take the matter to the police.
WHERE TO NEXT?
What now? How was Tracey to cope? Was she just to forget the whole thing? Brush it aside and let bygones be bygones?
What about the memories? How could she stop feeling used and worthless? What about those bruised emotions, that pain, the feeling of being forever unclean?
How would she handle relationships with boyfriends? How could she live with a father who had hurt her for so many years – and was now getting off scot-free? What about the part of her that cried out for revenge? Surely someone should pay for her lost childhood?
More than a decade of sexual abuse can’t simply be put aside. Although Tracey’s father had stopped his behaviour and there was an uneasy truce, the damage from those years of selfish betrayal didn’t just disappear.
It now seemed that Tracey had escaped one awful trap only to get caught in another – with her resentments all bottled up inside. “The more bitter and angry I felt about my father, the more stressed I got.”
It showed in various ways. She was obsessed with keeping her body clean – but, on the other hand, she dressed as scruffy as she could to stop herself being attractive to men.
She was obsessed, too, with a belief that marriage and children could never happen for her. “I couldn’t get close to any guy without feeling repulsed. Pictures of my father would flash through my mind, and all my little-girl dreams would just fly out the window. My future was gone.”
Tracey cut herself off from her father as much as possible. “We lived in the same house, but that was it. I would go to extremes to avoid being anywhere near him, and I was always on guard.”
In spite of her decision not to report him, she found herself driven to pay her father back. “I lived for years trying to get revenge. If there was an opportunity to do or say something to hurt him, I would.”
A WAY OF ESCAPE?
Most of us haven’t been as cruelly treated as Tracey. Yet many of us nurse memories of hurts and injustices that eat away at us. Unfair things that we can’t forget, that we didn’t deserve, that keep on hurting and can’t just be ignored or shrugged off.
Remember what it’s like to be stung by the words or actions of someone close to you? Remember when a friend betrayed you, or spoke poison about you? Or a parent blamed you unfairly? Maybe you know what it’s like to be deserted by a husband or wife.
At some time or other, many of us have been let down badly … cheated … humiliated … made to feel rejected or unloved or unlovable. Some of us have suffered at the hands of a stranger, someone we’ll never know. Or maybe the person we hate is long since dead – but the hate itself won’t lie down and die.
The unfairness is what hurts. A wrong was done and someone ought to pay. Someone deserves our scorn, our contempt, our hatred. That’s how Tracey felt about her father. And it seemed as if she was doomed to stay caught in this resentment-trap for the rest of her life.
That’s when Tracey found her way of escape … an exit from her personal hell.
It’s a way that – at first sight – makes no sense at all.
Tracey decided to forgive her father.
WHY SHOULD ANYONE FORGIVE?
Forgive? Why should she forgive? There’s every good reason why she shouldn’t! What her father did to a helpless, trusting child is UNforgivable!
And yet … maybe not forgiving is too awful to live with?
The desire for revenge is natural enough. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!” makes sense, in a gruesome sort of way. And the world is full of people – and nations – who are battling to get even.
Trouble is, it doesn’t work. You never get even. It’s a chain reaction that just goes on and on – and the hurt and anger and bitterness on both sides simply increase. Two people trapped in an elevator that takes them down into more and more hatred.
Sure – a savage pleasure can come from nursing the memory, from stoking the fires of your resentment. But that resentment is like a tape-recorder in your head, playing re-runs of the rotten things that were done to you. And you get so hooked into it that you can’t leave it alone.
Maybe you just want to bury the memory? That’s understandable. Some experiences – like incest – are so ugly that you try to block them out, stuff them deep into the dark pit of your subconscious mind.
Trouble is, they’re still there. And you can find yourself plunged again and again into deep depression. One day, out of the blue, something can trigger it off – and that memory can come back to haunt you, like a ghost from the past.
What forgiveness does is put the hurt in a grave. It buries it dead – so it can’t break out and haunt anyone again. And forgiveness can sometimes bring double healing, restoring a relationship that’s been ruined by some past wrong.
Why forgive? Because we need to escape. The anger we’re directing against someone else – even though it may be fully deserved – is destroying us. We’re the victim twice-over: once, when we suffered the wrong … and now, again, as we dwell on the injustice. Hate is a parasite … but the blood it’s sucking is ours.
As Tracey now realises, “I no longer need to look back and say, ‘Poor me!’ Now I can say, ‘Okay, this happened to me – but it’s over with’.”
WHAT FORGIVENESS IS:
1. Forgiveness is letting go of the past. That betrayal, that unkindness, that suffering is done with. We realise we can’t change it or rewrite that chapter. But we can stop clinging to it. We can turn off the tape-recorder, put an end to those memory re-runs, break the power that the past has had over us.
And then we can begin to write a new chapter …
2. Forgiveness is separating the deed from the doer. It’s choosing to be angry at the offence rather than at the offender.
This is more difficult in extreme cases of cruelty or abuse. But, in other situations, it’s realising that a husband, a wife, a parent, a friend was weak more than wicked. And maybe it’s realising that there are things we all do that are worth forgiving. That’s easier when we’ve been forgiven a few times ourselves. When we realise that we make mistakes too, and are capable of hurting others as much as they hurt us.
WHAT FORGIVENESS ISN’T:
1. Forgiveness isn’t saying it doesn’t matter. It does matter! What Tracey’s father did to her was cruel and horrible And forgiveness is not saying, “Oh, it’s all right.” Forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing what was done. In fact, we forgive people only because we refuse to excuse them. Forgiveness is saying, “It was wrong – full stop! But the time has come to put that wrong aside.”
Forgiving people doesn’t mean we tolerate what they do. And it doesn’t mean letting them off the hook, either. When Pope John Paul visited the cell of the man who shot him, Mehmet Ali Agca didn’t walk free from his prison.
Tracey had chosen not to expose her father to the police. But that wasn’t forgiveness. It was her way of coping with the pain her family faced. It allowed her to continue her life, and her mother likewise.
But Tracey’s decision to forgive her father was something quite separate …
2. Forgiveness isn’t forgetting. It’s easy to forget little annoyances, things that don’t matter very much. And so we should! In a world full of people, we’re going to have our toes stood on occasionally. And we can’t go through life fussing over those small hurts.
But forgiveness is about the real hurts. The things you can’t forget. Forgiveness is remembering … and still forgiving.
Dealing with deep hurt by simply trying to forget it is like hiding it away in the cupboard. One day the pile will all spill out. “It always comes up eventually,” says Tracey. “You can guarantee something WILL trigger it off in the future.”
Forgiveness isn’t forgetting. You can’t wipe out the past. But what you can do is ease the pain. If you want to test whether forgiveness works, don’t ask if the past has been forgotten. Ask if the ache that those memories arouse in you is finally starting to fade.
3. Forgiveness doesn’t mean being weak. When you’re on the receiving end of ugly behaviour, you may ‘shut up and put up’ – but that isn’t forgiveness. Nor is thinking up a bunch of excuses for somebody.
Forgiveness sounds passive, but in fact it’s exactly the opposite. It takes strength to forgive. Forgiveness is a deliberate decision and, as Tracey puts it, “it takes a lot of guts.”
Let’s be honest here: forgiveness isn’t something we humans find easy. What many of us are better at is ‘imitation forgiveness’ …
- “I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed that you could lower yourself to do such a thing …” A put-down is not forgiveness.
- “I forgave you for embarrassing me in front of all those people – but I still can’t believe you said those horrible things …” When you drag up the past, that’s not forgiveness.
- “I’ve forgiven YOU for your foul temper. Why can’t you forgive ME for that harmless flirting at the party?” When you use it to make a deal, that’s not forgiveness.
- “Of course I forgive you! It was nothing anyway …” When it doesn’t cost much, it’s not forgiveness. If you were hurt, then it was something – and you can’t just toss those feelings aside.
HOW TO FORGIVE
Well, okay. Assuming that you want to forgive, how do you go about it? How can you wipe out what seems to be a terrible hurt?
There’s no money-back formula for making forgiveness happen. And it’s doubly-difficult where there’s no admission, no apology, no remorse from the offender. But here are some steps you might find helpful. They may take you a few minutes to work through – or several months. It depends on how deeply the hurt has been carved into your heart.
So don’t rush it.
But don’t wait forever either! There’ll come a time when, for your own sake, you’ll need to begin the process – even if you still don’t feel like it.
1. Begin by facing up to your hurt and hate. Be honest. Admit to yourself just how angry you are, how much you dislike that person. Face up to all that it means to you.
Sometimes the anger is hidden. We refuse to admit we’re hurt, and pretend that we don’t care. Being honest about our need to forgive is the most powerful first step we can take.
2. Separate the hurt from the person who did it. Tracey was cruelly abused. No question of that. What was done to her is not forgivable. But she finally decided that her father was!
Forgiving is finding a new way of looking at the person who has wronged you. It may help if you can list things about this person that you appreciate. It may help to finish this sentence: “(John), I hate what you did, but I realise that you …”
In some extreme cases there may be nothing left but to say: “There’s no way I’ll ever understand what drove … (the offender) to do this thing, but I’d now like to put that behind me and start afresh …”
3. Make an ‘act of forgiveness’. It can help to make a special event of your decision – and to put your forgiveness into words. For example, write the words on paper. Read them to yourself every day for a week. Then, at the end of that week, seal the paper in an envelope and burn it.
You may feel you can go to the person who wronged you and let him or her know that you are laying the resentment to rest. If that’s not possible, ask a friend to witness your decision.
If the pain is buried too deep, a trained counsellor could help you understand the extent of the hurt – and guide you in leaving it behind.
One counsellor we spoke to uses this personal way to make it easier: “I kneel with my fists clenched and hold them hard against my chest (like clutching the hurt to myself) while I think through the pain it has brought me. Then, when I’m ready, I hold out my arms and unclench my fists with palms raised, telling God that I hand the hurt to him.”
That’s how, in the end, Tracey made her breakthrough. She began praying that God would somehow help her forgive her father. And a week later she realised that it was beginning to happen. “It slowly dawned on me that I no longer had such harsh feelings towards my father. I guess that it was finally working out in my own life.”
4. Behave in a forgiving way. Where possible, change the way you behave towards this person who wronged you. Decide that you’ll never bring the issue up again – and then deliberately start doing the things you’ve refused to do in the past. Be friendly. Be cheerful. Show those usual small acts of kindness.
Does it matter if your heart isn’t in it yet? No – because your feelings will learn from your behaviour. Author/counsellor Joyce Huggett claims that deciding to forgive often has nothing to do with emotions. “It has everything to do with my will,” she says. “It’s deciding with my head that I’ll let go of my anger and resentment. It’s saying, ‘I’m going to!’
“The emotions usually catch up later. At the moment it feels like hell, but I know that later I’ll be glad about it.”
“We can’t decide to feel forgiving. But we can decide, first, to be willing to forgive and, second, to act in a forgiving way. We can’t tell our emotions what they must do, but we can tell our will. And when we do, we usually find that forgiveness filters through to our feelings eventually.”
5. Keep repeating your decision to forgive. Forgiveness grows, and not many of us have the magic to make it grow quickly.
Tracey was lucky. For her, when she finally got around to it, it was almost a relief. But that’s rare. Forgiveness breaks the laws of nature and fairness. And you shouldn’t expect to produce it overnight.
It can be a bit like giving up smoking. You may need several tries before you discover just how big a hurdle it is.
Most of us, when we’re first learning to forgive, will find the old feelings re-surfacing and attacking us again. Our heads may say we forgive … but our hearts will tell us we don’t! However, that’s normal. And the trick is to make the forgiveness real in our lives by repeating it whenever necessary.
Let’s face it, the hate-habit is hard to break – and the longer we’ve lived with it the harder it is. For a while at least those old feelings will return. But that doesn’t mean forgiveness “didn’t work”. It just means that negative emotions are slow to lose their power.
However, take heart. One day you may be surprised to find yourself wishing your ex-wife well in her new marriage. Or genuinely wanting the friend who bad-mouthed you, or the parent who betrayed you, or the child who rebelled against you … to be happy! Gradually you’ll come to realise that you’ve
actually done it.
Like Tracey, you have forgiven!
FREEDOM FROM THE PAST
Forgiveness is a miracle. And it’s for ordinary people – not just saints! Do you think you can’t forgive? Well, think again. Lots of ordinary people do manage it. And in the process they heal themselves of hurts they didn’t deserve.
Forgiveness is a miracle. But it has its limits. While it can free you from your private history of pain and stop you torturing yourself, it can’t change everything.
Chances are, two lives may have gone in different directions. A divorced husband or wife may have remarried. An abusing father or mother may have died. And even when two people can get their lives back together, the lost years can’t be restored.
Tracey is an adult now, a 26-year-old office worker living in Auckland. She’s been freed from her hate – and she’s found her father again. But she’ll never remember him as the kind of daddy that a little girl likes to welcome home … crawl into his lap … and feel safe in his strong arms. Nothing she can do will ever rewrite the past. She can’t “make it all better”.
Your forgiveness may be received as a welcome gift. It may be the act of love that sparks off healing in the person you’ve chosen to love again. But there are no guarantees. Maybe your abuser or false accuser is dead, or long gone out of your life.
Maybe he’s unrepentant, and doesn’t want to be forgiven. Maybe she doesn’t think she’s done anything she needs to be forgiven for. Maybe they still think you’re the guilty one.
You don’t have the power to heal the other person. It takes two to restore a relationship, and your forgiveness may not be enough to break down the barrier in someone else’s heart.
But whatever happens, forgiving is still worth the effort. Why? Because it’s for your own good.
When you forgive, you set a prisoner free … and you discover that the prisoner was you!