I often work with people who have been seriously harmed by someone else. They often struggle with the idea of forgiveness. They have a sense that forgiving the other person is something they should do, but they have concerns that doing so will leave them vulnerable or discount the harm they have suffered. This is especially true when they have left a violent relationship. The issue gets very muddled.
The following metaphor has helped clarify the idea of forgiveness for many of the people I have worked with.
If you have been harmed by someone imagine that two angels show up and offer to help you. The first angel says “I can help you heal.” The second angel says “I can help you make the other person suffer.” You can only work with one angel, not both.
Forgiveness is choosing to work with the angel of healing.
This leads to some interesting points:
- Forgiveness is an ongoing process. The healing journey takes time and we may have to continue to make the choice to put our energy into our healing and avoid the temptation to punish the other.
- Forgiveness is a commitment to act for healing. It is not a verbal formula that needs to be said.
- Forgiveness is empowering. In particular, forgiveness does not mean making ourselves vulnerable to continued harm since that would inhibit healing. We seek out effective ways to protect ourselves and grow stronger and wiser.
- Forgiveness foregoes revenge. When we disengage from our desire to punish then we have more energy for our own healing, and less exposure to further injury.
Forgiveness requires discernment rather than judgment. Knowing we are “right” because we have been hurt does not give us insight on how to heal. Our sense of being “right” may lead us to want to punish the other which will waste our energy and increase our risk of further injury. On the other hand our healing process may require us to be firm or even forceful to protect ourselves or others. Discernment can help us do that effectively without mistaking punishment for protection.
As we deepen our understanding and insight we can expand the circle of healing to include others who may also have been hurt. Eventually we may even be able to offer healing to the one who hurt us without compromising our own healing.