Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Forgiving the seemingly unforgivable

This will likely be an polarizing post. Many will disagree with me, but I ask that you hear me out just the same. I am in year 39 of this journey. Forgiving is something I had to do, and I did it only for me. In this post I will tell you about forgiving two rapists- one who raped me at age 6,  the other at age 14. 

I recently read a series of unrelated tweets about forgiveness, and one in particular caught my attention. It stayed with me, echoing in my head, causing me to reflect on my own experience.
               You absolutely do not have to forgive your rapist. Don't let anyone tell you that you should forgive him.
Fascinating. I have never been given permission to not forgive before. And not only that, the writer is adamant in his point. It's said with authority. Absolute. It's command-like in its tone.

Another blogger I read this week put it this way; you don't owe it to your rapist to forgive him.

And that is when I understood the problem; why some victims believe forgiveness is not necessary or even possible. They believe that forgiveness is about the rapist. It isn't. Forgiveness is about the victim, and the victim only. For that reason I believe that the above advice is incorrect. I believe you owe it to yourself to forgive.

I'm not going to sugar coat this. If you are a believer like I am, you are commanded to forgive. The gospel does not give us a list of sins which should or should not be forgiven. The bible doesn't exempt certain groups from this mandate.  It's a heavy burden to bear, but the bottom line is this, God tells me to do it. And I know one thing about God, if He tells me to do something, it's ultimately for my own good. I don't always understand why or how I'm supposed to do what He says, but I know that when I do, blessings follow, so I try to obey.  Many times I fail, but I try.

It took me a while to work through this forgiveness thing, and my path was anything but linear. I was not given time and space early on to properly, and therapeutically, work through the wounds the rapes created. But over the last twenty years or so I have, quite by happenstance, been given opportunities to share with others in the healing process.

As a young adult I found myself working with teens and young women. I was drawn to them.  I identified with their ambitions, insecurities, and hurts. I saw patterns in these women, patterns of abuse and self-harm. 

As I listened to their stories I realized rape and sexual assault were far too common. The amount of anger in their voices resonated with me. I understood that anger. Over time I realized, though, that their anger was also the root cause of their self-destructive behaviors. I watched them enter into unhealthy relationships, engage in risky sexual behaviors, numb pain with alcohol or drugs, cut, or attempt suicide.  I realized that they continued to think of themselves as victims, that all of their relationships revolved around being a victim. In essence, they were stuck in a pattern of behavior that victimized them even more. 

Was I any different? Not really. On the outside I appeared to have overcome the trauma in my life; I was married with children and a good job. I looked  like I had it all together. I was respected by my work and church communities and often asked to take on leadership roles. 

But I continued to play the victim card with those around me. Being a victim was an easy, familiar role to play. Whenever something went wrong I defaulted to an angry outburst followed by deep depression. I forced those around me to yield to my quickly shifting moods, and it seemed to work. 

As a result I felt stuck. My relationships were superficial, built around walls I put up myself. My marriage was OK, even good at times, but definitely not great. I was not the mother I wanted to be. I was distrusting of people. I would get hurt or angered by others very quickly. I still felt, just as I had felt in my teen years, invisible, disposable, unimportant. I refused to be vulnerable because I thought being vulnerable is what caused me to get hurt.

I was angry, and I was righteous about my anger. I did, after all, have very good reasons to be angry. I was raped. That makes people angry. But there was more to my anger; I allowed that anger to seep into every relationship I had for years after the rapes. When something happened in a relationship that made me mad, I believed that in order to be right, I had to stay angry. I did not want to forgive anyone because I didn't want to have to admit that I had done anything wrong. 

I didn't learn about forgiveness all at once. It was definitely something I had to learn in chunks over time.  I've researched the etymology of the word, its definition, and how it has been used in the bible. I've listened to scores of sermons on the topic. You see, forgives is a hot topic in the church world because so many of us have such a hard time with it. The definition of forgiveness is actually quite simple- it means to let go of anger. That's all, but I think we tend to think it means more than that. 

Here are some things forgiveness isn't:

Forgiveness is not forgetting.

No one, God included, thinks for a second that you will ever forget being raped. Memories of trauma are seared into our subconscious whether we actively think on them or not. Memories are a receipt of sorts; a mental proof of something that occurred. There are repressed memories; I know two events happened to me because someone else witnessed them, yet I do not remember them at all. I have had dreams of events in my past. I can not control them any more than I can being triggered by a smell wafting in the air. Forgetting isn't a reliable measure of healing or forgiving. (See more at this post about forgetting)

Forgiveness is not condoning. 

Forgiving someone does not equal approving of their actions. And it also doesn't mean accepting excuses for the behavior. While I recognize and accept that there are certain circumstances surrounding and leading up to the fact that I was raped, the fact remains that I was raped. If rapist #1 was abused prior to assaulting me, he needs to deal with it. If rapist #2 misunderstood me and the way I communicated my crush on him, he needs to learn some things about relationships. Neither of these circumstances are about me, nor do they excuse the crimes committed to me. I do not condone the actions of either rapist. Both of them took something away from me that didn't belong to them, and that can never be repaid.

Forgiveness is not letting him off the hook. 

Your character drives your actions, all actions have consequences, and consequences can affect your character.  The character of the rapists, not mine, led to me getting raped. And since all actions have consequences, what consequences are possible?

Well, obviously there is legal justice. I wanted to pursue legal action as a tween, but was not afforded the opportunity. I had thought that the statute of limitations ran out long ago, but it hadn't. (you can check your state's statute here.) I have been criticized by some for seeking criminal charges 36 years after the fact, but the framer's of my state's laws obviously felt that the crime heinous enough to allow me to do so. In three years the case has gone nowhere. We've been in court a dozen times, but I have not yet gotten to testify. And while his attorney is confident that this will all just go away, I know it is a heavy mental and financial burden for him. He's has to be in court, he has to pay his attorney, he has to explain to his wife what is going on. He took twenty years of my life. I have taken three of his so far.

But what if legal justice is not an option? I know how that feels too.  I have to trust that first statement: Your character drives your actions, all actions have consequences, and consequences can affect your character. If rapist #2 still has the same character, then his actions have not changed. Yes, that means there are other victims out there, but I hope that if there are, one of them has taken legal action. If there aren't, and his character has changed, then I accept that as well. This is the hard part, accepting something that is beyond your control. BUT- know in your mind that forgiving him is not releasing him from the responsibility of owning up to his actions, should the opportunity become available.

Forgiveness does not minimize the pain. 

I did not ignore the pain when I forgave. If anything, the process of forgiving made the pain all the more real. I think the worst part of the pain of rape is the way it affects how you interact with others. Essentially two decades of my life went in the direction set by the rapist. Hurt people hurt people, I was no exception.  I had long lasting emotional baggage from the first rape. The pain he inflicted on me reached way beyond me. My husband, my children, my friends; those closest to me have been affected in one way or another by my pain.

Forgiving them meant I had to repair relationships with those I love. I had to own my own pain as well as own the pain I caused others. Once I had done that, I could move on to rebuilding trust with those people, and eventually get to the point where I could allow myself to feel vulnerable with them.

Forgiving is not confronting.

Here is my absolute- you absolutely do not need to involve a person while forgiving him or her. Forgiving in absentia is necessary for a number of reasons. Maybe the person is already dead, or you don't know where he is; or maybe seeing the person is just plain too painful. That's ok. You can still forgive, because forgiveness is all about you, not him.  It is an action you take, in your head space, to redefine you. 

Forgiveness is not trusting. 

Let me make this perfectly clear; I am commanded to forgive. I am not commanded to trust. In fact, Jesus himself advises us to be wise in gentleness, to be shrewd even. Astute. Discerning. I am to acknowledge evil and recognize people who intend me harm, but I don't have to let them hurt me again. 

On the other hand, forgiveness is:

Forgiveness is agreeing that he acted in a way to hurt you. 

Agree? Agree with whom? Start with yourself. This is when you get rid of the coulda, shoulda, wouldas; the self-doubt, the self blame. Even though I was a child of 6 when I was raped the first time, I still asked myself "why did I let him do those things to me?" This is the voice with which I needed to agree. 

When you forgive someone you bring to light hurt and harm done to you, and you admit it to yourself. This is hurt that you did not invite, you did not ask for. You accept that someone did something to you which was beyond your control. That can be very difficult to do. Control is something most of us like, it makes us feel safe, it lessens the pain. But let me repeat: something happened to you that was beyond your control. You assign blame to the perpetrator of the action and recognize that you are a victim of his actions.

Forgiveness is choosing not to get even. 

This is my personal favorite. I was listening to Charles Stanley on the radio preach about forgiveness. He said "You know you have forgiven someone when you no longer wish that person would be run over by a truck." Oh how I wished for bad things to happen to the monster living next door. I daydreamed of him being trampled by the herd of cows his father raised, or falling off the tractor while setting tobacco, or me telling his fiance of the things he did to me and ruin his wedding plans. I hoped his ship would sink while he was stationed in Sicily. And later I had similar daydreams about a basketball player in my high school. I was consumed with getting even. This obsession led to a series of incidents of self-harm, including attempts at suicide, the ultimate revenge. I planned for everyone to blame him for my death.

My plan failed. There is no way to get even for rape. There is no action that would come close to causing the pain they caused to me. At some point I realized that I had to be thinking of the rapes more than the rapists were; and the time I spent thinking about it only robbed me of positive energy. 

Forgiveness is disconnecting. 

I'm not sure if you've noticed this, but I will twist my sentences around the block in an effort to avoid using a personal possessive pronoun with the word rapist.  

Rape was an act done to me. They, the rapists, do not belong to me. When I forgave the rapists, I severed the bond I had forged with them. And yes, it was a bond I held. As long as I referred to them as mine, the trauma continued. I know it is simply semantics to some, but by being tethered to the rapists in the words I used I was unable to move forward. Letting go was crucial to me as part of healing. Using articles (a, the) instead of personal possessive pronouns depersonalizes the rape. It offers a degree of separation, it gives me freedom to leave him behind. "The rapist" assaulted "my body" which affected "my mind and spirit." My area of control is limited to what belongs to me, and the rapist certainly doesn't belong to me.

Forgiveness is loving yourself.

Let me ask you something, do you love yourself? Twenty years ago I would have answered this question differently than I do now. Like most abuse victims, I struggled to love myself. I had been demeaned and degraded so often; my cries for love and acceptance met by denial. It is hard, no, impossible to love yourself when you view yourself as worthless.

By forgiving  I have told myself that I am more important than anyone who hurt me is. I let go of the anger I harbored so that I could love myself. That is why I had to forgive, and I had to love myself enough to not allow them to hold any space in my head any longer. You see, the anger I held on to came with self-doubt, self-loathing, and fear. When I let the anger go it made room for love. It made room for the positive things people had been saying to me all along but I couldn't hear. It made room for me to be able to see myself in a different light, and as I have recently found out, a light in which others have always seen me. I've got to tell you, I look a lot better in love than I do in anger.

I will not tell you forgiving is easy. I will not try to convince you to forgive in a certain time frame. I won't even tell you that you have to forgive. But I will tell you that forgiving the rapists is what I believe took me from survivor to over-comer. There is a peace on this side that I wouldn't trade for anything. And while I am still in the struggle legally, I know that the battle is already won. They may have taken a part of me when they raped me, and they may have set my path in a direction I wouldn't have chosen on my own; but I don't have time to be angry. I have too much going for me, I have too many things to do, too many people to love.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts. What do you think forgiveness is? What is it not?

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