Forgiveness Is a Process

Forgiving may be the most difficult task in our lives. To forgive, we have to let go of our resentments, our need to be right or to be vindicated or to see justice done. Forgiveness moves us from justice to mercy. But once we have been wronged, our hurt urges us to seek revenge, or at least vindication. It is the human response. Only when we approach forgiveness as a calling, as a holy process that heals our souls, do we find an approach that really heals us.

Writing about forgiveness reminds me of South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, when Bishop Desmond Tutu launched a process that helped heal an entire nation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission’s first step was to listen to the stories of those who had been hurt, even tortured, and to the stories of those who had done the torturing. In any process of healing and forgiveness, this step is essential so we don’t inadvertently skip over the pain in an effort to forgive.

Forgiving too soon or too easily doesn’t work. It just reinforces passiveness. And for some people, passiveness may have some connection to being hurt in the first place.

Telling Our Stories, but Not Getting Stuck in Them

Grief psychologists suggest that we need to tell our grief story many times before we are ready to move on. Grief and hurt are similar, and it is equally important to tell the story of what has hurt us and then to affirm with certainty that we did not deserve it. These are central truths in the healing process.

Sometimes our hurt is from a specific event or a careless word, a slight or a deliberate act of unkindness. Other times our hurt is deeper, as are the debilitating hurts from childhood, divorce, sexual assault, abuse or criminal acts perpetrated against us. Coming to see the truth of what has hurt us can take years, since enormous fear and denial are involved, and we tend to surround our hurts with silence. This process of uncovering our pain most often begins at a time of change in our lives or at midlife, when some seemingly unconnected event surprises us and we start to unravel our secrecy.

I remember watching my own family silence unravel and seeing for the first time the dark side of my family. My first inkling that something was amiss came when I separated from a business partner because of his addictive behaviors, only to see in therapythat his behavior was familiar to me. I traced my history back to other addicted bosses and ultimately back to my father. In my family, I learned to live with addicted men, to apologize for them, to cover for them, to keep the silence and to suffer alone.

A lunch conversation with my cousin left a lasting impression on me and changed the way I viewed my family. He told me that my father was an alcoholic and that he had a religious conversion the year I was born. This explained why there was no liquor in our home throughout my childhood, and it explained his anger and unpredictability—the behavior of the unhealed addict. It was a truth that had been missing from my family story, and without that truth I had no way to heal. The truth will set us free, but finding the truth can be painful.

As important as telling our story is, it is equally important to know when we have told our story enough and are ready to move forward. It is easy to get stuck in the storytelling stage because of the relief we feel when someone will listen. We can become so identified with our stories that we cannot move beyond them and become victims or martyrs, getting our energy from the sympathy our story elicits. We can even get comfortable in that victim place. Our culture seems to feed victimization, even sensationalize it. And being a victim saves us from having to take responsibility for our lives.

Taking Responsibility for Our Part of the Story

Personal responsibility is vital to the forgiveness process, yet it is a delicate endeavor, and it is particularly difficult to write about because asking a person to take responsibility can easily be confused with blaming the victim. Yet we will never gain back our power if we do not see how we could have acted differently on our own behalf.

Claiming our power is central to the healing and the forgiveness process. Let me give an example to illustrate the fine line between blaming oneself and taking responsibility. As a child living with a dry drunk, I could not confront him or ask my mother for help. I did not know enough, nor was I assertive enough to do either, and the culture in those days offered very few resources I could have drawn on. So I don’t blame the little girl I was for not stopping the behavior.

But now that I am grown and have been involved, on one level or another, with numerous addicted men and with a variety of abusive behavior, I do not need to repeat that pattern and then blame the people who continue to hurt me, any more than I need to blame myself for being vulnerable to them. They are repeating their own family patterns, which connect with my family pattern. They are in my life because I attract them subconsciously to play out my father’s part. The gift that having them in my life gives me is that I can now see the pattern and do the inner work of healing from the abuse (which is a lifelong venture), and then recognize and set appropriate boundaries in the future. My responsibility is to see that I am not only vulnerable to these people, but that I am drawn to them because they are so familiar.

The concepts that resonate most strongly with me in this healing process are remorse and compassion. First I need to feel remorse and then let that remorse create sincere compassion. For example, at the meeting with my addicted business partner when he invited me to work with him, he showed all the behavior I know now to be addicted behavior; he was charismatic, manipulative, controlling, suave and a little too smooth.

Today, I can imagine that meeting and stop myself at the point where I am charmed and ready to move into the partnership. So now I can let myself feel deep remorse for the decision I actually made as a younger woman. “Don’t do it,” I can say to my younger self. “Don’t do it. You’ll be so sorry.” But of course my younger self did go forward. So I sit with the remorse of that decision and feel it deeply. It is my responsibility that I said yes. No one made me do it. My intention was to get security and recognition. As it turned out, I paid a high price for those intentions.

Then I move to compassion for the young woman I was. She didn’t know enough. She was vulnerable financially. She wanted to have what he offered her. She had not healed from her family system. She is still a part of me. What I have to do is forgive myself as well as the other person, and forgiving myself first helps me make better decisions about the other person. Then, if I want to complete the healing process, I can reconstruct the scene, either in my imagination or with another person, and say what I wish I had had the courage to say the first time. In this case, I applaud his idea, thank him for his interest in me and sincerely refuse the offer.

Moving Forward through the Challenges of Forgiveness

One truth about forgiveness, which I’ve learned the hard way, is that, no matter what you do, there is no guarantee that the person you forgive will change. This means that the most important part of the process is what you do with yourself. It is the only part of the process you have any control over, and what you do for yourself makes more of an impact on your psyche and your soul than on anyone else’s. So if you are writing a letter or meeting with someone who has hurt you and you are assuming that telling your story will earn you an apology, you are likely to be disappointed. But if you do it to heal your soul and take new responsibility for your life, it will make a lasting impression on you.

I have been in the habit for the last several years of writing letters to people with whom I have unfinished business, people I need to forgive, people I want to forgive me. It is a spiritual process for me, involving prayer and soul searching. I try to write what I call clean letters, not blaming or expecting a response, not jabbing at the person, however subtly.

My letters are made up of four parts: The first part is a statement of my purpose in writing; the second part is a positive and true statement about our relationship; the third is a summary of my part in the problem or what I brought that was part of the misunderstanding; and the last part is an expression of my gratitude to the person receiving my letter and a reminder that I don’t expect a response. These letters take me quite a while to write and I usually have a friend read them to spot subtle jabs that I did not see. (see sample at the end of this essay)

I send most of these letters, but some I don’t. In those cases, it is just enough to write them. It is the process of writing alone that frees me and helps me to forgive. I’ve found that acknowledging my own part in our difficulty, even if I don’t name it directly, is a public statement of forgiveness for myself.

When I can acknowledge the good in our relationship and my own part in the difficulty, the other person’s heart is often touched and opened, and when people do respond we stand a good chance of healing, and the other person often talks about his or her part in the problem.

In the case of my business partner, I had moved through the process of forgiveness, even acknowledging my gratitude for the issues between us that had started me on a journey toward healing my family issues. Several years later, we happened to meet at a wedding. We chatted for a few minutes and he said, with a smile, “There’s been a lot of water over the dam since then.” I smiled and agreed, and in my heart I knew we had forgiven one another. We were not friends, but we didn’t need to be. I felt the issue was closed.

Forgiving Too Soon

Some people wait eons to consider forgiveness and others forgive too soon, perhaps wanting to be back in relationship, or to overcome shame or guilt. They risk their own safety or self-esteem by reaching out too soon. We can be more interested in reconciliation than in our own safety and so give up our very essence to our relationships. This seems especially true when we deal with family members.

Parents are vulnerable to the estrangement of children, and the road back from estrangement can be as difficult as the original estrangement. To heal these disconnections with our children, we have to relinquish our identity as parents only to see it resurrected in a different way as part of our new, healed identity. It takes time, support, compassion and wisdom. And it is a journey worth taking.

Relinquishing is necessary if we are to get to a healthier place. I call it offering up the relationship on the altar of God’s unconditional love. It is a deeply spiritual process in which we trust God more than we trust ourselves and we let go of what we think will make us happy or what we think will make us look good. We look carefully at our underlying intentions—and we either laugh or groan. We just ask to heal, no matter what we have to give up in the process. It is excruciating but freeing, since we have to face up to our own inner, unhealed places in the process. But it brings the healing we are seeking, and that healing sets us free.

The End Results of the Forgiveness Process

Forgiveness will not always result in full reconciliation. Sometimes when we forgive, true compassion means not being involved in each other’s lives, either for the time being or ever. It can be the healthiest thing to do, the most loving to do. At other times, we can see one another and be civil, even friendly, but not be as close as we were before. This is the level of involvement former marriage partners usually reach.

In some cases, we can be family or friends again but agree not to talk about issues that we know are painful and unlikely to mend. The best-case outcome is that we both work on our issues internally and no longer project our pain onto the other person. In that deep healing stance, we may be able to transform the old relationship into something new and mature. This takes work on the part of both people and is a long-term process. It is a miracle and a graced experience, a distinct inner change that both people feel. But forgiveness short of this is also a graced experience, and one to be cherished.

Any level of forgiveness is deeply satisfying and eases physical symptoms as well as mental, emotional and spiritual distress. Forgiveness is a gift that, once received, is contagious. Forgiving even once makes us want more. But forgiveness lasts longer if it includes self-forgiveness, just as compassion for ourselves allows us to feel compassion for others.

Forgiveness is a spiritual process, and praying, seeking the assistance of a friend or a spiritual mentor and listening to our own hearts will all help us know when and how to forgive.

Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2005. All rights reserved.

Reflecting on this essay:

1. Do you have any ruptured relationships that you are drawn to heal? Who? Why now?

2. What step in the process seems the most difficult for you? Why?

3. Have you been able to tell your story, forgive yourself and feel compassion? Explain.

4. Have you ever written an amends letter? If you have, what happened for you? For the relationship?

5. What is your wish for yourself in this healing process?

6. Where is God in your healing process?


Sample amends letter:


I am writing to you because I think enough time has passed and enough healing has occurred since our difficult supervision experience so that we both have a broader perspective. I’m imagining that the situation was as difficult and stressful for you as it was for me.

 I am most sorry that we could not find a way to work out our issues within the supervision relationship. For my part, I know that I was quite vulnerable at the time so I did not bring my best self to the situation and for that I am sorry. I realize we may both have experienced more stress as a result. Please forgive me for that.

Within the larger context of my life, this experience and the subsequent events were an incredible learning experience and a key ingredient in my journey towards interior deepening. That is not to say that I would want to repeat the experience but that I am grateful that it precipitated a turning point on my sacred journey. And because I believe that nothing is coincidence I have come to see this experience as a God moment, or as my spiritual director would say, “it reeked of God.”

 All this to say that I am sorry for whatever pain this whole experience caused you and I pray that you felt the presence of God in the midst of the situation and God’s grace subsequently in your life.

 I am not expecting a response to this letter. It just seemed time to share these sentiments with you.

 All my regards,