Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Hate Consumes Energy - Forgiveness is Self-Inflicted Freedom

My last post about Getting Past a Rape stirred up more emotion among those who commented than any Dismaying Story has for some time. The responses raised some unresolved issues, so I would like to address them today.

Here is the email response I received from the original letter writer:

Andrew, Thank you so much for your response. It really helped a lot just to hear someone outside my family feel concern and frustration over the things that happened to me. It put me at ease to hear that just because I fear something doesn't mean it occurred already, and to be reassured about my own and other people's reactions to my story. Also, I already have some practice in forgiving people. Seven years ago, my mother and I became estranged from my grandmother. She died two years ago without ever contacting us again. Afterwards, I had many dreams that my house was haunted and that she had come back to life. I read in a dream dictionary that dreaming about haunted houses can indicate "unresolved issues with dead loved ones". One night I dreamt about her as a little girl, and when I woke up I said in my head, "I forgive you." I've had trouble fully doing that and have sometimes still felt anger, but it took me a long way toward peace of mind regarding that relationship! So I will work on forgiving that boy. I don't know about therapy right away, but just knowing that someone knowledgeable believes therapy could help makes a difference. And you're right - it would really be worth almost anything if it worked!

Then, apparently after thinking a bit more, a follow-up email arrived:

But if I forgive him, aren't I knuckling under and becoming his victim again? Can't I be freer if I rise like a phoenix from the ashes of my hate?

This is a natural reaction to my suggestion, especially by someone who has suffered so much for so long because of the actions of her rapist. This was my response:

No, knuckling under is something you do to someone else. When you "knuckle under to someone" you give them their way IN THE FUTURE. You give them your implicit permission to continue on with their behavior. That would only apply if you were in contact with him, so that is not at all what you would be doing.

By forgiving him in your own mind (there is no need to inform him of the forgiveness) you are letting go of the hate.

Hate requires energy to keep it going. It is churning, bitter, and consumes you -- not him ... just you. Since you have no contact with him, your hate has no effect on him at all. Just on you. It eats up your energy, takes up your time and your thoughts, blocks your emotions, makes closeness with your husband difficult to achieve, and makes others perceive you differently (because you act differently on the outside when you are carrying hate around inside). Think of the amount of energy you have poured into this over the years.

By letting go of that, now you free up all that time and energy for other things. You allow peace and tranquility back into your heart, your days, your relationships, your home. You make a choice to live in peace rather than with hate.

You can choose, but don't be hard on yourself if you are not ready to do so, or if it takes time. It is not a trivial step to accomplish.

By holding on to the hate, you continue to be a victim. By throwing it away (i.e. by forgiving him), you finally stop being one.

Think how big and brave and strong you will have to be to say "I forgive him" and really mean it. How could such a display of strength mean you are becoming a victim again?

That brought the following response from the letter writer:

That makes sense. I will work on this - it's something that never occurred to me before, even with all the retreats and Take Back the Nights and seminars on helping survivors of sexual assault. Thank you so much, again! I definitely needed a different solution than all the ones I'd tried before.

Okay, so far so good. But then came a series of comments that pointed out quite correctly there is even more to resolving this type of issue. I'll list the comments here, and then offer a few additional thoughts of my own. Lynn wrote:

I believe it would be very helpful to the rape survivor if you would define the word 'forgive' in very specific terms. The word has been carelessly bandied about to the point where its meaning has become extremely ambiguous. Depending on the frame of reference of the survivor, the advice to forgive (without definition) might be meaningless or even unhealthy, depending on the survivor's own definition. As a rape survivor myself, I can tell you that it is easy for things, even such things as 'universally (mis)understood' words, to lose their definitions in the aftermath of such an annihilistic attack on the cohesion of the self. Some people think forgiveness means to pardon the person who has done wrong. With this definition, the survivor would have to say, "It's okay. I won't hold it against you. Let's just let bygones be bygones. I forgive you." Then, next time the survivor starts crying in the middle of sex, she will wonder what is wrong with her. After all, she has forgiven and should be healed. This would only make her feel more guilty and worthless.

An anonymous abuse survivor responded:

I agree with Lynn. The concept of forgiveness is often misconstrued. To forgive is not to condone, or accept or validate. To forgive is to release yourself from bondage. I grew up in a very abusive home and it was not until I forgave my parents for who they inherently were, was I able to stop defining myself as an “abuse survivor.” Instead I was able to finally declare that I am a writer, and artist, a teacher, a husband, a father and a good man…I also happen to be an abuse survivor and I use that label only as a way to help others who had the same experience. What I came to realize is the physical, sexual and emotional abuse I lived through was not about me, but my abusers. When I realized this I was able to heal. I pray this woman has the same realization. Beside, the boy apologized, was remorseful and wanted her to know he was sorry for what happened. For her to want him to die and go to hell after all this time shows me she needs to realize that was then and this is now. Now can be wonderful, I know because now my life is blessed. I still feel the sting of the past every once n a while, when I do, I call someone less fortunate and share my compassion. It frees me.

To which Lynn wrote:

I read the comment left by Anonymous, which was very courageous. He said, "To forgive is to release yourself from bondage." I rejoice for the well-deserved peace that anonymous has found. To be released from the bondage is ultimately what rape and abuse survivors want. Anonymous then said that it was not until he FORGAVE his parents that he was able to stop defining himself as an abuse survivor. By the definition he previously supplied (to release ONE'S SELF from bondage), it would not have been possible to "forgive" another person. This is what I mean when I say that this word is so ambiguous as to have lost its definite meaning entirely and has instead become an abstract concept open to interpretation not merely by each individual, but even with each usage of the word! If you like you can read the comments of this post to see what the various commenters had to say on the topic of forgiveness and you will see what I mean. I hate to even use the word, but if I may say, sometimes people rush to "forgiveness" to spare themselves the grief of having to truly confront what was done to them. For me, this premature, fake "forgiveness" did not work. I grabbed onto it anyway, because forgiveness is supposed to make it all just go away. Who wouldn't want that? I don't have the answers. I can't give advice, I'm currently working on my recovery and sometimes I'm a train wreck and I'm well aware of it. For me, I have realized very recently that I can no longer minimize what has happened, and no apology from any perpetrator would end the suffering. That's just magical thinking. I was beaten, neglected, tormented AND raped and I'm angry about it. I'm not in a 'forgiving' mood. I'm furious and I make no apologies for it. Funny, when I allow myself to be angry, I feel some things starting to move. Perhaps, forgiveness, as defined by Anonymous, "to release yourself from bondage", is not the method of healing, but the result. It's very kind and compassionate of you, Andrew, to take on the topics that cause human suffering.

Wow. Thank you all for your heartfelt and honest input.

You are right when you say that words can be misconstrued, and that well-intentioned attempts at healing can fall short, leaving people feeling distraught all over again. Unfortunately there is no silver bullet that guarantees healing, and any suggestion that making an effort to forgive might be considered a magic, instant solution would be misguided.

The suggestions I made -- working toward regaining self-worth, and defining yourself as something other than someone else's victim -- these are not events in your life. These are not things you do once and then say, "There! I'm healed now." You can't say, "I forgive him" and expect everything to be better all of a sudden. Just as pain has had years to work its insidious effects on your spirit, you will also need time to learn a different way to see the world and to react to it.

Healing is a process, not an event. It takes work, persistence, determination, constant support from yourself and those around you, and it takes time. That is one of the reasons I suggested the letter writer could use some help from a professional. Such a journey is much more difficult when attempted alone. Even friends and family are often unable to provide the depth of help required, partly because they lack the distance and objectivity to be credible in the eyes of the person attempting to heal, and partly because they may not have the depth of understanding to continually steer the process back in the right direction.

So, as Lynn suggested, it is certainly possible (probable, even) that the letter writer could do her best today to forgive her long-ago rapist, only to continue to have the same fear reaction tomorrow when faced with physical intimacy. Such deep-rooted reactions almost never change that quickly. Part of the reason is they are multi-faceted. Your body has learned to react physiologically to sex as a threat. Your pulse quickens, you tense up, your breathing becomes shallow, you start to shake -- these are not voluntary responses. You can't forgive them away any more than you can wish them away. It takes time and repeated exposure to the beginnings of intimacy in a safe, nurturing, healing environment.

That means your husband or boyfriend should say to you, "It's okay. I know you're scared and I'm here for you. We don't have to do anything you don't want to. We'll take all the time you need; months, years if need be. We can just sit here with all our clothes on and talk for a while, and we can do that as many times in a row as it takes. I'm not going anywhere and I'm not going to judge you. I know this is hard and I think you're incredibly brave. I love you and I'm proud of you. You're safe with me."

And guys, just a hint. This one won't cut it: "I wish you'd hurry up and see a shrink and get that fixed so we can have a normal sex life." No way Jose. She's going to need a MUCH more supportive attitude from you than that.

I agree with the anonymous commenter that forgiveness in this context has nothing to do with condoning or excusing the actions of the rapist. At the root of it, it's about saying, "I've decided I'm tired of hating you and what that does to me, so I'm not going to hate you anymore." Whatever word you want to use, whether it's "forgiveness" or something else, that is what has to happen if you are to move past the hurt and stop defining yourself based on the painful past.

Lynn, I mentioned in the Dismaying Story that the letter writer has to make a decision. She has to decide she is sick and tired of living like that, and that she wants to be done with the hate. You say you are not ready to make that decision yet and that is absolutely understandable. You don't have to justify your reactions to anyone but yourself. There is no "right" way to react to such devastating emotional trauma, and you obviously need time to feel like you are feeling right now. Take that time, and you're right -- you don't need to offer any apologies for doing so.

I sincerely hope for your sake, though, that you eventually get to a place where the hate has served its purpose and you are ready to set down that burden. Many people describe the experience of letting go of the hate as if a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. My wish is that you have that experience some day ... when the time is right for you.

With warm wishes for a healing future,


  1. I happen to be blog friends with Lynn, and maybe someday, since we live about an hour away from each other, we can meet in person. I wanted to thank you for all your help that you give people here and at their blogs. I have written about anger and forgiveness towards my parents and family. I have also written about forgiveness to other bloggers who attacked me for my stating that others live inside me.

    I don't hate anyone, but I think that many of us have a right and a need to be angry. That anger though can consume and destroy unless channeled to healing.

  2. Good morning, Andrew. How are you today ?

    I read your last post -- and this one -- with such a lump in my throat.

    So much of your advice -- and the feedback from some of the other posters -- applied to my current feelings of trying to heal the emotional abuse I have experienced...

    I am going to read it, over and over and over again, and use it as comfort when I am trying so hard not to hurt and not to hate -- and feeling lost as to how to recover...

    Thank you again, Andrew, for the thoughtfulness, gentleness, patience, understanding and loving wisdom in your approach.

    May all of us in pain know this healing for ourselves...

  3. Dear Andrew, though we disagree on some points, I very much appreciate your concern for the survivors of sexual violence. Thank you very much for your last comment on my current post. It is much appreciated.

  4. To forgive someone does not mean you condone what they did. And forgiveness leads your heart to be less heavy with the burden of hate and anger.

    Trust me on this. It took years for me to come to terms with this fact with the man who haunted me for so many years.

    Now I can't even picture his face... Not sure if that's a good thing or not, but I certainly FEEL better...

  5. Still Traumatized (but working on it!)12:53 PM

    Thank you so much, everyone, for all the comments. I talked to my boyfriend about this advice and started crying with relief that I was finally doing something new that felt like it would help change things! He has always been so supportive and wonderful. He is the first person to ever say to me "I don't want you to have sex with me if you don't want to." And he actually means it! He also does what I need, like making sure I can see his face or stopping whatever we're doing if I'm scared. I want to get over this so we can really enjoy ourselves together and so that I can feel like my wants, needs, and fantasies aren't embarrassing and unladylike, and so that we can be free together. We had sex last night and I was nervous a little bit, and he responded the same way he always does: he stopped until I was ready to continue.

  6. Still Traumatized (but working on it!)2:41 PM

    Just wanted to point out one thing. The boy DIDN'T apologize, he said it was a "bad relationship all the way around" and pointed in a circle at both of us. He was trying to make nice, but he wanted me to take half the blame! In my inner dialogue toward forgiveness, I have acknowledged that he was young and that he is probably not a habitual sex offender. But I just wanted to set the record straight - he didn't apologize.

  7. wow doc -- this sure hit some heart-strings...

    i like the redefination of be it has come to mean that i no longer hold in my heart the grief for loss of my innocence - i let it go to fly free