I am in my 40’s now, firmly in middle age somewhere between the “mother” and “crone” stages of life. One would think I would be wiser, more practiced at the processing of grief and pain and anger and forgiveness. I am a witch, after all. That implies wisdom. And people who have heard my story often state that I have lived several lifetimes in this one. But I struggle still with forgiveness. Oh, I struggle! I am an expert at holding grudges.
I think back to all the times I was hurt. Intentionally, unintentionally, selfishly. And all the times I’ve had to rebuild my life and move on. The last incident, the one that has prompted this deep exploration into the idea of forgiveness, is still too fresh to elaborate upon. Let’s just say it shattered me to my core. Again. And I know it won’t be the last time I will be hurt or wronged.
I need to find a better path of recovery for next time. Because there’s always a next time.
But let’s start at the beginning.
The first time I was severely hurt was when a man who was a friend of the family murdered my six year old handicapped brother. I was nine. The world as I knew it, the proverbial rug I was standing on so securely, was in one motion ripped out from under me. Child Protective Services was involved. I never again saw my friends, my home, my neighborhood, and even lost my beloved little dog. Not to mention my only sibling at the time. In addition, I was removed from the closed religious community of my mother and placed into the secular world of my father. Culture shock in every way possible.
How does one survive this and go on? Being a child, I had no choice but to go on. I was enrolled in a new school. I was given new clothes to wear (pants for the first time!). I grew into a woman without my mother around. My father was harsh and militaristic. Although he had the best of intentions and I know he loved me, he had a funny way of showing it.
Later, after I was a mother myself, my dad made amends with me. He truly apologized and meant it. We healed and had a close relationship until he died suddenly at the age of 59. I am so glad we were in a good place when he died. If there’s an example in my life of true forgiveness, it was between me and my dad.
My mom and I have both tried to repair our relationship as adults. She is not the person she used to be. I had to set boundaries, including a ten-year period where we did not speak at all. Although I love her, I still keep her at arm’s length. Is this true forgiveness? Not really. It is tolerance for the sake of love and doing the right thing.
Next was a twenty-year marriage that ended in divorce. The marriage started well enough, with love and hope and promises of a good life together. And then I became a stay at home mom of two kids (one with medical challenges). I don’t think he could adjust well to this. He coped by going back to how he was raised. He became rigid, controlling, and emotional abusive. I found myself a woman in my early 40’s with two kids, starting over. Again.
And then there is this most recent thing that happened. I entered into a situation with pure love, great trust, hope, and the best of intentions. Then a problem emerged that took on a life of its own. I thought love would be enough to overcome it, but it was not. This one hit me hard. I was caught off guard, emotionally open to all the love and pain. I loved fully. I grieved fully.
Just when I would think I was over it, it would hit me again and I’d spend more time being heartbroken and angry. I wondered when the pain would end.I would be angry at myself, that I “should” be over this by now. That I “should” forgive.
As I was having another depressive episode triggered by this situation, I remembered years ago when a friend pointed her finger at me and commanded, “Witch, heal thyself!” Indeed, I am not helpless in this situation. I don’t have to carry the victim’s burden and pain forever. I walk the Witches Path. It is a path of shadow work, finding truths, and then casting those truths into the bright sun. Step by step, I make a new path.
Step 1: Examine the meaning of “forgiveness”
As a child, I was taught that in order to be a good person, I was required to forgive, even embrace and love, my enemies. I was taught: Colossians 3:13: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” And Matthew 6:15 “But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Merriam-Webster says forgiveness is “the act of forgiving.” It’s something that is done actively. It’s a conscious effort. It’s hard work (damned hard work!). To forgive is to “to cease to feel resentment.”
The main problem I have with “forgiveness” in the definitions above is that it requires the victim and perpetrator both be involved in the process of healing, even if only in the mind of the victim. The victim must forgive (let go of resentment towards) the one who caused so much pain. Maybe they just want to focus on healing their wounds instead of thinking of the one who caused them.
There is guilt factor here, too.If the victim continues to have occasional thoughts of resentment, it makes the victim feel they have failed in the act of forgiving. It also denies them permission and room to be angry.
Step 2: Allow anger to happen.
Anger can be a good thing. It validates feelings and allows me to express them. I am still learning to be comfortable with anger. A good fire has a purpose. It should be allowed to blast up to the heavens, and then burn down to glowing coals. I think those coals are those of resentment, and it’s okay to let them glow a bit. They are living reminders of the lessons learned, the wisdom earned.
It is hard for me to let anger die down once its ignited. Sometimes compassion towards the wrong-doer tempers resentment: they had good intentions that went poorly, they were not being mindful of my feelings, they were immersed in their own problems. But big infernos are directed towards the person who hurts me with intent: who knowingly manipulates me, lies to me, abuses me! This burns my heart! Especially if this person is someone who supposedly loved me, who hurt me when my heart was open to them. This shatters me.
Step 3: Seek the support of friends and community to witness the pain
In the rebuilding of my life, I embraced– and was embraced back by– a beautiful community of friends and spiritual companions. And I did a difficult thing. I reached out to them as I felt myself retreating into the darkness of grief. I suffer from depression, always trying to put it in its place on my good days. On my bad days, it takes over and pulls me down into a dark spiral.
This time I started to reach out to my community in my desire to heal and be pulled out of the spiral. Sometimes I told them I was having a dark day. Other times I just started a chat with them about neutral topics, or checked in with them on their problems.
At one point when I was in the deepest throes of my anger and pain, I reached out to my inner circle for help. I needed to be heard. Many were shocked by the intensity. I even shocked myself! I allowed my tears to flow freely. My friends, my tribe, they lovingly witnessed those tears. They held me, and protected me, and offered healings. They helped me bank the fire.
What was left after the healing was a strange kind of indifferent nothingness. This created space for wisdom and joy to return. It created space for me to breathe.
Step 4: Let go of the expectation of an apology.
This one is so hard for me. Probably the most difficult step of all. I was raised that people who hurt others should apologize and make amends. That’s what good, decent people do.
In childhood the teacher would make the perpetrator say “I’m sorry” and then the victim would have to say “It’s okay” when neither of them really meant it. The best part of this for me as the childhood victim was knowing that my perpetrator was caught and people saw what they did. In real life the perpetrator often gets away with it and even continues to hurt others with no regrets.
I realize now I would rather have no apology than an insincere one. And that expecting one stops me in my path of healing, and makes me dependent on the actions of the person who hurt me. I need to stop giving them power over me.
There is power in letting go, walking forward.
Step 5: “Walk forward, always forward”
What came out of the most recent heart-breaking situation was the ability to truly express my full anger for the first time in my life, and being truly held by my community and friends.
In exploring this topic of forgiveness and healing, I asked several people in my life what worked for them, and what it meant to them. One friend’s words became my mantra when I started to look back and feel pain again: “Walk forward, always forward.”
I know my journey is not done. The answers I have found are not wrapped up nicely with a bow. They are messy answers, uncertain, not fully or satisfactorily defined, imperfect. As is life.
As a Witch who walks the Path with all its shadows and light, I accept this truth. And I keep walking.