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Saturday Morning, 10 AM

Justice and Peace meet at the cafe,

Sit together,

Hands folded around steaming cups,

Heads bent over the paper.

 

They are not taking in

The news of the world

With sorrowing eyes

And the clucking of tongues.

 

They are instead planning their

Itinerary,

Plotting their map,

Looking for the places where

They might slip in.

 

Their fingers touch, release,

Touch again as they read,

Moving with the half-aware habits

That come only with long living

Alongside.

 

They have met, parted,

Met again on countless mornings

Like this one, torn and taken

By turns.

 

They put the paper aside

They brush away the crumbs

They talk quietly

They know there is work to do.

 

But they order

one more cup:

there is savoring they must do

before the saving begins.
They lean in,

Barely touching across the table

For a kiss that makes a way,

A world

 

Rev. Jan Richardson

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Estrangement: Journey to Wholeness

 

Most people have experienced estrangement of one kind or another. Estrangements can occur abruptly, like a big fight that ends a relationship (family feuds for example). While other estrangements happen to us, like a job loss we felt was unfair. And some estrangements we initiate ourselves, like choosing conscious boundaries with a dangerous person. Whatever the reason, estrangements may linger in our psyches and some part of us longs for pardon, forgiveness or reconciliation. In our heart of hearts we also, for the most part, put the responsibility for the estrangement on someone else, finding it hard to name our role in it.

 

With all that baggage we bring to estrangement, it is hard to see a way out, a healing journey or even an oasis in the middle of the stress. And if we invite God into the mess at all, it’s usually to take our side or make things right. Or we are deep in our own remorse, shame, anger or hurt. What a tough spot.

 

To add insult to injury, many of us build this scenario: we think that if we just try hard to fix the situation, it will work out to our benefit (and secretly, we will be vindicated). Oh what a heavy load we carry. So we try to be nice, to reach out, to do what the person wants, or to show the other person what they could do to change. We usually get strange and hurtful kickbacks from this effort, or we find ourselves in between people, which is even more exhausting. Our motives may be well-meaning, such as avoiding pain, being a good Christian, wanting to look good or innocent, or wanting everything to be easier. Whatever our motives, we usually get sick and tired after we’ve tried to do all we can to solve the estrangement. And the beat goes on 😉

 

It’s so hard to have compassion for ourselves, but that is just what we need: kindness, honesty and utmost compassion. But how do we find that in the middle of such strife?

 

Let’s start with an understanding of how we got to that place of unrest and stress in our estrangements. It happened largely because of our “efforting.” Here is a model that shows this “efforting” and its side effects.

 

ESTRANGEMENT MODEL

The model has concentric circles with feelings on the outside, actions next, outcomes or results next, then God in the middle. We move from the outside to the inside in this model, starting with our feelings of anger, hurt or shame. Our natural inclination is to try whatever actions we can to relieve, change or fix the situation. The results are often messy or get us more mired in the pain. By the time we get to the middle of the circle to God, we are usually hurt, exhausted and without much hope.

 

MODEL ATTACHED

 

Let’s stop at this juncture of exhaustion. I’d like to suggest a real oasis, a place to pause right in the middle of this chaos and pain: an oasis where we can breathe and reconsider our options. Perhaps this can be the beginning of our self-compassion and love.

 

First we need to listen to our inner selves and bring God more attentively into this process. Put your hand on your heart. Quiet yourself. Sit in a comfortable position. Make your space as soothing as possible. Then breathe in and out slowly for a minute and clear your mind of things that clamor for your attention. Listen to your heart and ask God to be present in your situation.

 

When you have quieted, read over this French pantoum poem several times. First just hear it. Then listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you. As you read it again, let that word or phrase take you on a journey. Where does it connect to your life, to your estrangement? Ask God to show you how this word or phrase speaks truth to you. Write about this or draw a symbol of it for yourself.

 

I Long to Be Free

 

I long to be free loving Lord

My hurt and anger cling

Can I own-forgive-release

I claim the comfort of pain

 

My hurt and anger cling

My heart cries out to you

I claim the comfort of pain

I let you heal my soul

 

My heart cries out to you

Can I own-forgive-release

I let you heal my soul

I long to be free loving Lord

 

You may want to stay with this poem for quite some time, taking your pain and unanswered questions with you back to the poem, to see which words and phrases speak to you over time. Ask God to show you the path to freedom. Keep asking. Then watch what happens in your heart and in your life.

 

Now for the next steps in the healing journey: I would like to suggest that you use a similar circle model as before but this time start in the middle with God. You probably need support to do this: a spiritual director, counselor, pastor, coach or healthy friends. Start with God, bringing it all to God and listening to your heart, so you hear what the personal healing call is for you on this reconciliation journey. It is all about compassion, first from God and then from you to yourself and finally, in whatever form, to the other person or situation.

 

RECONCILIATION MODEL

God is at center where we start, owning our own issues and forgiving ourselves. Then we move outward, to outcomes—actions—feelings, in that order.

 

MODEL ATTACHED

 

The reconciliation journey consists basically of three steps: own, forgive, release. They may sound overly simple, but they are, in reality, difficult and complex. Remember, with God in the middle of the circle, which is where we now start, we have much more likelihood of finding peace.

 

Owning is perhaps the most crucial part and the first step of the healing process. It is important to take compassion into this phase of truth telling. In this phase, we own our part of the estrangement without taking on too much shame or guilt. This opens our hearts to new insights and truths that we may find painful. Most of us have a lot of baggage to unload. It may be hard to feel our anger at the other person, to give up our feelings of superiority or rightness, to find our newfound voice, to name our own complicity, to stand up to intimidation, to own our codependence, to release what the other person has that we want, or to let go of hurtful memories. After we own our part, we take a deep spiritual step with God, one that is necessary in order to heal our wounds.

 

Forgiving ourselves is the second step. This is the key, to heal and forgive ourselves before we try to resolve our estrangements with others. It is hard, but whatever it is, it is not too big or too hard for God. This forgiveness happens in the center of the circle where we commune with God. It may take years to be kind to ourselves and to forgive, knowing that we didn’t know enough or weren’t aware of what we needed to do or felt we didn’t deserve respect or love. Usually we don’t even realize that we need to forgive ourselves. So growth is available all along this journey. Once we forgive ourselves, we are in a much better position to forgive the other person or situation. And that is what ultimately heals us: forgiving someone whether they know it or not. But that is usually an inside job.

 

Releasing the other is the last step. This happens as you move from the center of this model outward. But you are now focused on God and on your own healing so the next steps take on new and different possibilities. You can now ask, what outcomes are healthy and which are idealistic, vindicating or revengeful? What actions will be life-giving, safe and freeing? And as you choose healthier and more lovingly detached outcomes, you see that your feelings are quite different as a result.

 

When you use the model this way, you can look more honestly at the outcomes or actions that would be healthy for you. If you are dealing with a person with severe mental illness, an abusive person, someone who brings back strong memories from the past, or an organization that has blacklisted you, it may not be safe to expect any reconciliation. Then the finest, most healing thing happens only within you, the healing and forgiveness that only God can provide.

 

Sometimes praying for that person from afar is the only healthy option. In other cases you may write a letter to make amends, meet with the person and a third party, or meet with them yourself. For some, a heartfelt word or touch at a deathbed is a healing gesture. There are many options. But in order to have the best option for the situation, we may have to release our expectations of complete reconciliation. But, paradoxically, once you use this model with God at the center, the options open further than you may have imagined.

 

The results, actions and feelings may surprise you. You may find peace, humor, new perspectives, sadness, calm, love, patience, grief, loving detachment, compassion, caring, loss, self-care, etc. And the best outcomes may include having clear and comfortable boundaries, being content to send love with no contact, or having partial or full reconciliation. Whatever the outcome, you are in God’s hands all the way and you will heal.

 

©Janet O. Hagberg, 2014. All rights reserved.

Poem, I Long to Be Free by Janet Hagberg

 

Reflections on this essay:

What estrangements do you currently carry?

How have you tried to fix them?
What has happened as a result?

Where is God in this process with you?

How have you owned your own part of the estrangement?
What new options do you see for your situation with God at the center?

SCROLL DOWN FOR MODELS

 

This outline and model were developed as part of a workshop I did with Tamie Koehler. Kudos to her for adapting this circle model.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ESTRANGEMENT MODEL

This model did not transfer to the blog so you need to imagine three concentric circles with feelings on the outside of the widest circle, then actions in the next circle, then results and lastly, God in the small circle in the middle. If you would like a copy of these circles email me at Janethagberg@comcast.net

 

  1. Outside the circle, write the FEELINGS you have been experiencing in the estrangement.

 

  1. First circle moving inward, write the ACTIONS you have been taking to deal with the estrangement.

 

  1. Second circle moving inward, write the RESULTS you have been experiencing from your feelings and actions.

 

  1. Center circle write your connection with God in this estrangement.

 

 

RECONCILIATION/HEALING MODEL

This circle did not transfer either so you need to imagine the same set of circles except that the middle circle is much larger than before. God is in this inner circle, then as you move outward, results, actions and feelings reside in the outer circles.

 

 

 

  1. Center circle write your connection/process with GOD as the main focus in healing and reconciliation.

 

  1. Second circle moving outward, write the RESULTS you are experiencing in the reconciliation process.

 

  1. Third circle moving outward, write the ACTIONS you have been taking when God and healing are the focus of the reconciliation.

 

 

  1. Outside the circle, write the FEELINGS you are experiencing.

 

 

v

This video briefly describes a model for approaching estrangement with the intention of healing from the experience. There is also an essay that describes how this model works. I will publish it next week.

 

v

A Beam of Light

My brother died recently. Not a gentle death coming at the end of a life well lived but a tough death at the end of a multi-year struggle with strokes and seizures brought on by chronic drinking. The week before he died he had a major seizure followed by heart failure at his home in a rural area of our state. He was pronounced brain dead after he was airlifted to a regional trauma center but was kept on a respirator until we were ready to release him. A dramatic and sad ending to a difficult life.

My brother suffered from the untreated disease of alcoholism, a legacy from my father. Almost every family has a member with either alcoholism or mental illness that, if untreated, wreaks havoc in the family. And since there is usually shame and judgment associated with both of these maladies, we are not very open about our experiences. In my brother’s case, he did not choose treatment or other recovery options so his disease went unchecked until it killed him.

While my brother was playing out his chaotic role in the family I was almost the complete opposite. It fell to me to be the achiever, the performer, being good and doing well. While I was not conscious of this at the time, I now know that part of my motivation for success was to camouflage the family chaos. I was not much healthier than my brother because I was caught in my achievement script, which took its toll on me as well. But my life of achievement was more rewarded by the culture. Most people would say I “made good.” My brother would have called me the “goody two-shoes” of the family. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

In my brother’s final hours, I went to the hospital to be with my sister-in-law and we were exceptionally present to my brother. We rubbed his face, arms and legs with lotion, told him we loved him (things he’d never let us do when he was conscious), told each other our favorite stories about him, recited the twenty-third Psalm, and told him he could leave and we’d be fine. We did our best to soothe him and send him on his way to the other side where he would be lovingly received and would be without pain or disease.

I was able to be present to my brother at his death because seven years earlier we had a powerful reconciliation. For much of my adult life my brother’s disease caused a major rift in our relationship. Sad stories and harsh treatment were my primary memories, and for several years we had no contact because it was too stressful. But about ten years ago I felt drawn, in prayer, to make a scrapbook for him depicting the first twenty-five years of his life, before his downward spiral. It was good for my soul to do this and it softened his heart towards me as well.

Just a few years later, when he suffered his first stroke and was semi-conscious in the hospital, I visited him and whispered in his ear all the things I wanted to say by way of forgiveness and compassion for him. Miraculously he came to and for one hour he opened the door of his heart to me. We talked about our childhood, his resolve to get help and stop drinking, and about our relationship as brother and sister. It was one of the most amazing hours of my life. What a gift he gave me, that hour of reconciliation. Then his inner door closed and we never spoke of these things again. We were in contact but did not grow closer.

Thankfully, during his last hours, I was able to be present to him compassionately because of that hour we spent together seven years ago. I had a sense of peace at the time of his actual death. We had both done what we could and it was good. I can honestly say I loved my brother and will miss him and the long family history that we shared. And because I knew that he suffered from an untreated disease I could better understand his pain, even though I still had to process my lingering anger and deep sorrow about the loss of him as a brother and how his life affected mine in negative ways.

This all leaves me with deeper questions though. I understand that he chose not to get treatment for some reason and that this decision caused him and others a lot of pain. I can also see in my life the consequences of choosing not to face my pain, so I cannot judge him too harshly. But another question arises for me. How do we find meaning in a life that seems, on the surface, to be wasted? I think of the homeless, chronic addicts, alcoholics, people with untreated mental illness, and those who are incarcerated. Ironically, I’ve worked with “marginalized” people for a long time and I’ve learned some of my best life lessons from them. I’ve learned about generosity, survival, and simplicity. They’ve taught me what is more important than security or even sanity and that is love and community. They have taught me compassion for my own brokenness. So I know you do not have to be well or sane or dry to make a difference.

But these “teachers” of mine were someone else’s brother, daughter or son, not my own brother. I didn’t see the make-a-difference things in my own brother.

In my grieving process, though, I began to open myself to a wider vision of my brother’s life and I asked God to help me see the meaning of his life. I listed my positive memories of him. I asked his best friend from childhood to tell me some good stories of his early years. At his funeral, I saw his colleagues in the military and the police force honor his thirty-four years of public service in which he continually put his life on the line. And from comments people made to the on-line obituary I saw a side of my brother I had not experienced–a humorous and generous people person.

Now I think of each life as incredibly complex, wounded and in various stages of healing, some healing accomplished here but total healing only completed on the other side. I also affirm that God gives each life worth, even if we don’t see it, and that there are beams of light that shine from each life, no matter how these lives may appear on the surface. And I know that love and community come in unexpected and unusual ways.

I may never know the full effect my brother’s life had on others. I do know our reconciliation had a profound effect on me. But I did find another beam of light in his life, a beam that helped me to be grateful that he lived. Despite not being able to save himself, my brother saved the lives of three other people; my father, who had collapsed in the water at our lake cabin, a man who had a heart attack at a party, and a man my brother dragged out of the Mississippi River after he had jumped from a bridge in a suicide attempt.

I consider that a beam of light.

Janet O. Hagberg, 2011. All rights reserved. This essay is appearing in the online journal Conversations in Spring, 2012.

Reflections on this essay

Which of your siblings or parents are you most estranged from or at odds with?

How does this effect you?

Who have you known who is like them in some way that you respect?

What one thing is redeeming about your sibling or parent?

What is one beam of light that you see shining out from your life?

How are you healing with your relationship or how do you cope with the estrangement?

Healing From Intimidation

 When any kind of healing occurs; spiritual, physical, emotional or mental, I consider it a gift from God. It is a cause for celebration and gratitude. I want healing yet sometimes I am fearful of it as well. So when I am aware that God gifts me with the grace of healing, I can trust it and be glad.

Healing happens in a wide variety of ways, some subtle and small, others grand. God uses the way that makes the most sense for our souls. It’s as if God tailor makes the healing once we are open to it. One of my dear friends had a healing with her dead father who had died on her third birthday. No one ever talked about him after his death and it left a large void in her life. My friend took a big risk to find out from family members about her dad, even though it was very difficult for her. Eventually she was able to go to his graveside and talk with him, leaving flowers for him as a final amen. She felt healed, and sensed mutual love and forgiveness. When I did a similar thing, visiting my mother’s grave, the first words her spirit said to me warmed my heart.  “Thanks for coming here. I’ve been waiting for you for ten years.”

Healing is hard even though it is freeing. Sometimes we have to release a lot of baggage in order to receive even the possibility for healing. We may be holding onto fear, anger, injustice, bitterness, victim hood, resentment, vindication, revenge, guilt or a host of other debilitating emotions. So our call is to do the work on our side of the issue in ways that are healing for us, even if it doesn’t always occur overtly with the other person. I believe, though, that when we truly heal, the other person can feel it on some level even if they are not fully conscious of it.

I had what felt like a spontaneous healing experience that gave me confidence that I was making progress in my inner life. I have a history of allowing intimidating people into my life and then not being able to detach from them (a story that began in childhood). In this case I had been invited to a lunch with a woman who was interested in working with me on some projects. Over the course of the lunch it became apparent to me that she was very intense and quite opinionated. She was also charismatic and persuasive. I was feeling myself being taken in by her confidence and her way of enveloping the space around us. But then I began to feel a sense of suffocation that was familiar to me. When I gave a suggestion or voiced my ideas, she didn’t acknowledge them and didn’t seem to notice that she hadn’t heard me. I’ve been there before. I tried a few more times to interject some of my ideas but to no avail. I knew she would ask me to meet again and to endorse her work by joining her. I could also sense that this was a test for me. So at the end of the lunch I said, clearly but gently, that I felt her ideas were really good and that she would go a long way but that I would have to work too hard for my voice to be heard if I worked with her. I said I wasn’t up for that effort. We left our lunch and I never heard from her again. I felt free.

A more recent healing from my history of intimidation came to me in a waking dream state near an anniversary date of a sad but freeing event in my life. It was the anniversary of one of the most crucial times in my life, when I had the courage to say no to personal intimidation even though it cost me a great deal. In this recent waking dream a man had invited me to take his class, on a subject that I was not really interested in. I said I appreciated his invitation but “No, thanks.” He pursued me several times to persuade me to come. Each time I said no, that the class just didn’t fit for me right now. Again, in the dream, I saw this man at a professional event and he told my friends who were standing with me that perhaps now that I’d bumped into him I would finally be able to make a commitment to his class since I had been unable to make that commitment so far. I immediately felt intimidated, like my disinterest in his class had strangely become an issue, and that he was falsely suggesting that I was not willing to be committed.

But then there was a shift inside of me. Right there in the dream, right there in the moment, I took the time to go inside my own psyche, in front of the people standing around us. I knew that intimidating me in public was a way to up the ante, to deepen the control, because it is harder for me to disagree in public. When I went inside I found a different version of the story; my version, my truth about his intimidation. So I told my version of the story to the people around us and to him directly. In my version he would not take no for an answer even when I repeated it respectfully several times. So when he saw me in public he took the chance to shame me and to intimidate me into taking his class, thus gaining more power over me. I said I was not interested in his class and that it had nothing to do with fear of commitment. It had to do with my truth. I was clear, respectful and honest. He was shocked and he literally melted away, fading from the scene, leaving me with my friends.

I was quite amazed by this dream, particularly because I took the time, right in the moment, to go inside. My version of the story was so clear when I listened to my inner voice. I had clarity and courage right in the moment. It was another confirmation that I would recognize intimidation in the future when I experienced it and that I would not be as vulnerable to it as I had been in the past. I might be confronted with intimidating people but I knew I could trust my truth and my story—and take care of my needs. I felt as if I had been given an invisible gift of freedom from the tyranny of control. Since then I’ve had a chance to try out that newfound freedom whenever an intimidating person enters my life. I usually orchestrate an early exit or establish very clear boundaries. It works. What an incredible gift.

I wonder what other invisible gifts God has in store for me?

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When have you experienced a spontaneous thawing or reconciliation of a conflict?

What work had you done on your side of the issue in advance if any?

How have dreams had an impact on your relationships or your work?

How do you deal with intimidation or control, either yours or others?

What is a chronic vulnerability you are working on healing?

What impact does this healing have on your life?

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:

Dear

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,

Janet

Waking Up to Shame

When I am going through a rough time in my life and I am vulnerable to my inner demons, their most opportune time to attack is either when I am going to sleep or when I first wake up in the morning. Usually the morning furies are the worst. I may have had a bad dream or I remember something I am afraid of or something difficult I need to do. I start feeling inadequate, hopeless or unlovable in that early morning corridor to the day. When I start down that path I am more vulnerable to depression or anxiety. It can easily spiral downward in a dangerous descent.

I’ve learned to recognize this toxic place now and call it by its name: shame. When I am in a tough place I know I am more vulnerable to attacks of shame. Shame is not just about having a bad day, it is about being a bad person. It is a mistaken belief that I am inadequate, misshapen, unlovable, or beyond repair. We all carry shame, although some of us are not conscious of it. We usually try to conceal it with false self-esteem, or by trying to please people, work harder, blame others, or control our lives.

We connect with our shame when we have experiences that remind us we are not living up to expectations or when we are compared to others. For example, we are not good enough parents, we are not loved or lovable, not smart enough, not slim enough. I felt enormous shame when I was running an organization that focused on healing people and marriages and I could not heal my own marriage. I felt I did not deserve to be leading this organization. When I left the marriage and later was asked to teach a course at a seminary, I was invited to first interview with the dean to discuss my divorce. More shame. Since I had felt that God was instrumental in leading me out of my marriage, this interview compounded my shame.

Where do we get this shame? Oh, its insidious tentacles come from many sources. Our culture prescribes who and how we are to be in order to be successful. So if we do not measure up; if we are not as healthy, athletic, or wealthy as the image projected to us, we can feel shame. If we are compared to anyone else, especially siblings, and we come up short, we can feel shame. If we are parents and our kids do not perform well or they are estranged we can feel we’ve failed. Or if we do not adequately provide for our families shame can cripple us. A quick way to connect with your shame is to observe when you or others might say, “You ought to be ashamed,” or to think of the parts of your life you would not want publicly known.

Unfortunately the church, where we might want to go for solace in our shame, many times either does not address shame or adds to it, in some instances, by harsh teachings on sin and inadequacy. My healing of this religious shame came when I experienced the Extended Ignatian Exercises, an inner journey through the life of Jesus developed by St. Ignatian in the 16th century. In his wise counsel with God, Ignatius started the exercises with the Principle and Foundation, upon which he based all of the rest of the teachings. Principle and Foundation is essentially that we were created to find ourselves in God. And God loves us unconditionally. God created us in God’s image, and knew us in the womb. We can release all else that we cling to because our souls are drawn to God.

Yes, like Adam and Eve, we have fallen from that grace; we sin, we disappoint. But God is always there to heal and reconcile us. When I began to experience that love I was fortified enough to approach my shame. I felt that deep love directly when I was in a dark time in my life and I would awaken consistently about three o’clock AM. God attended sweetly to me, gave me images of hope, brought angels to soothe me, and built up my courage to make difficult choices.

We begin to feel God’s love when we allow God to penetrate our center, our souls. We can start by noticing any moments when we are in contact with that someone beyond ourselves. Then we can let God take root in our daily lives. If I can imagine God loving me like a wise grandparent or an adult friend, I can develop the courage to come closer to my own wounds and ask God to heal me from my shame and self-neglect. It gives me hope for my despair and a new way through my shame.

This slow change, from shame to love, was difficult because I had gotten used to shame. But I found that naming and embracing shame, by speaking and writing about it, slowly turned it into honor; honor of my truths, honor from my creator, honor of my life path of healing. It no longer ruled me or controlled my life. A deeper truth prevailed.

I still feel shame and I still wake up vulnerable to it when I am in a tough place. What helps me most in those early morning hours, is to invite Jesus into the shame with me. When I embrace myself in bed and rest my hand and wrist on my sternum, near my heart, it feels like Jesus is embracing me. I ask myself, “Who loves me?” I start with God and move to those whose faces light up when I enter a room. I often hear God speaking soothingly as I finish that list. Then I slowly recite Psalm 121, which I have now memorized, so I don’t have to get out of bed to read it. By the time I’ve completed that ritual, I’m usually calm enough to get up and my demons are usually weary enough to go back to sleep.

The Psalm goes like this: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let my foot be moved. He who keeps me will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is my keeper. The Lord is my shade on my right hand. The sun shall not smite me by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep me from all evil; he will keep my life. The Lord will keep my going out and my coming in from this time forth and for evermore.”

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
Psalm 121 is from the NRSV

Reflections on this essay
When are your demons most active during the day?

What issues arouse your shame?

How does this affect you?

How do you experience God’s unconditional love?

How do you counter your shame?

 

Anatomy of Estrangement and Reconciliation

This essay is longer than usual, but I think it will be worth reading:-)

Estrangements can occur in any relationship. Within my friendship circle, I know people who are estranged from a child, a sibling, parents, grandparents, spouses and friends. The more people I talk to, the more I realize that family estrangement is far more prevalent than I imagined. It is so shaming to be estranged from a family member that many of us don’t talk about it. Yet I believe that estrangements are the family system’s way of breaking open—sometimes in very painful ways—so that healing can begin. If we see it that way, we don’t need to dwell on the shame but can rather see the potential for healing. Working through estrangements in a healing way may be one of the most graced experiences in our lives.

Let me tell you the stories of several families with painful estrangements.

Karen and her daughter:

Karen’s eldest daughter announced that she no longer wanted to be associated with any of the family, especially during holidays. Before that announcement, she talked with Karen on the phone for two hours to tell her everything Karen had done to ruin her life. Then she and her grandchildren stayed away (and allowed Karen no contact) for six years.

Joy and her sister and mother:

Joy’s mother and sister send her hate mail periodically, including a snake skin in a bag, delivered to her door, because they say she has neglected them and has not provided for them. But her sister works full time at a job she’s held for twenty-five years. The two lived with Joy for several years because she felt responsible for providing them with a home, but the constant conflict drained her emotionally and financially and she finally asked them to leave. Her mother became preoccupied with blame, shame, hatred, anger and the need to punish her daughter. Two of Joy’s other siblings have committed suicide and Joy feels her mental health depends on not having any contact with her mother and sister.

Lou and her brother:

Lou’s alcoholic brother has not been involved in the family for more than twenty years. He was the oldest and the only son among five children. Lou’s mother favored him and when he began to stay away from the family after high school, her mother supported him and took his side against the rest of the family. He married four times and a few of his former spouses are friendly with the family. When Lou saw her brother at her mother’s funeral, she had not talked to him for ten years.

Sharon and her daughter:

Sharon thought she and her daughter had worked through the problems that came from a boyfriend of Sharon’s having inappropriately touched the daughter when she was a teenager. But now, as her daughter enters midlife, she is accusing Sharon of many other things that she says happened during that time. Sharon went to counseling with her only to be attacked by two ardent therapists, one of whom said she was there as Sharon’s advocate. Sharon believes that her daughter is being set against her.

Ned and his brother:

Ned’s brother is homeless in a large metropolitan area. They have several other siblings but the homeless brother does not see any of them often. Their mother feels a lot of guilt about the loss of this relationship and their father goes to see Ned’s homeless brother whenever he can find him. Occasionally the homeless brother shows up at family events and wants to be involved, but his behavior is disruptive and makes for hard feelings among the siblings. The homeless brother has tried to deal with his multiple issues but nothing seems to improve the situation.

 

Steps on the Path of Estrangement and Reconciliation

One of the first steps in the process of reconstruction, for an individual and for a relationship, is owning the estrangement. Many families try to keep these estrangements a secret, perhaps out of pain and shame, but also hoping that by not mentioning them they will somehow go away. But in acknowledging the pain and telling the story to a person we feel safe with, we allow the pain out into the fresh air of healing for the first time.

It helps to use a wise and trusted professional—a therapist or a spiritual director—in the process of healing. And if we make our spirituality a part of the process we stand a better chance of healing and making amends than if our soul is not involved. Praying, writing about the issues, doing rituals of forgiveness and making amends are all spiritual in nature. This is Holy ground and the courage it takes to do this work can be supported and encouraged by our faith. Forgiveness and healing are part of a process that changes us, even though the timing of each step is different for each person.

 

The Hard Times in the Middle

Choosing not to be codependent: It is especially hard for “good mothers” not to overwork the process of reconciliation with their children. Our culture has so much pain and shame around this issue that we rush to make amends and we work much harder than the other person does. And if we get either no response or a negative response, we work even harder to restore the relationship. It may be helpful to reach out to the estranged person in love during an estrangement but discernment is key here. What is a genuine compassionate act of love and what is our need to be redeemed. If we find we are consistently overreaching toward the other person, we may be dropping into codependent or addictive behavior.

Choosing self-care and safety over premature reconciliation: The pain of estrangement is so great that often we try to reconcile to ease the pain rather than to heal the cause of the estrangement. We give up ourselves and sometimes even our own emotional safety. So it is essential to take good care of ourselves during a time of estrangement. This includes body, mind and spirit. A team of supporters—friends, a doctor, a spiritual director, a pastor, and a therapist—can be helpful.

The pressure on children whose parents are estranged is enormous, especially as parents grow older and need care. Resentment of older adults is a growing issue as baby boomers’ aging parents become dependent. We face so much pressure to be responsible, to be good sons and daughters, that we get caught in an excruciating vise—sometimes at the risk of our own safety or well-being. It is not an easy road nor are there simple answers.

A lot of physical symptoms are related to resentment, unhealed relationships, revenge and remorse. One way to enter into the healing process is simply to watch and read your own physical symptoms, using a guide such as Dr. Chris Northrup, Carolyn Myss, Wayne Muller or Louise Hay, who all attach emotional and spiritual issues to bodily symptoms. For instance, jaw problems like TMJ may be associated with anger, resentment or a desire for revenge. Dry eye may be associated with anger, spite or a refusal to see with love. These symptoms can alert our psyches to a deeper meaning, a deeper need, and help us look more deeply to the healing that is available to us.

Finding your role in the estrangement; remorse and compassion: Many people who summon the courage to tell their estrangement stories get stuck at that stage. They find relief in telling the story, but the next step is still hard. Acknowledging guilt, anger and resentment is difficult, especially when family members are involved. But each of these feelings, once acknowledged, leads to new awareness and potentially to healing. For instance, the other side of guilt is resentment.

So when you feel guilt, ask, “Who or what do I resent?” That gives you another way to unwrap the situation causing the guilt. Just learning to name feelings is a long-term process for those of us who were not given permission to feel in our families. The process is like unpeeling an onion. Every layer reveals yet another.

At some point in every healing process is an opportunity to step back and look at the part you played or still play. What did you do that you are sorry for now? What choice did you make that you would now want to change? Was there someone you needed to stand up to and didn’t? Was there a point at which you decided, usually subconsciously, to keep going in a direction that would be unsafe or unwise for yourself or for others. In the essay “Forgiveness as a Process,” I’ve written in more depth about this step.

It is a healing moment when you feel compassion for the person you were at an earlier time, the person who couldn’t make a decision to change the course of a relationship. Compassion allows you to act on your own behalf and to be more of the person you want to be. It also allows you to have more compassion for the other person if you choose to.

Deciding to Make Contact with the Estranged Person

Knowing when and how to make contact: If you choose to make contact with the person you’re estranged from and you have done as much of your own inner work as you can, you have a number of ways to move forward, but premature contact may be unwise. However, mistakes that occur with premature contact may also be good teaching experiences.

These mistakes help you to be clear about what you really want to do and what is wise for you to do. My therapist asked a good question as a guideline: “Who are you making this contact for, yourself of the other person?” Let prayer undergird anything you do and provide a way to listen for the best way to make contact. Several ways to make contact are possible, depending on your comfort level and the willingness of the other person.

One is to write a letter of amends (the essay on forgiveness as a process contains an illustration of this) which you either send or simply write for its own sake. This works best when you write it as a vehicle for your own amends and not as a way to get the other person to make amends.

Another approach is to do a ritual of forgiveness that you do not tell the other person about but that will have an affect on the relationship because it releases something in you. Some people reconcile in the presence of therapists, one for each member of the conflict, representing that person but having everyone’s interests at heart. Others meet alone with the person they are estranged from, although this can be risky if either party is not healed enough to be responsible for his or her own feelings.

Still other people do something special for the person, or give something special, to show that their heart is open. A genuine act of love with no expectations in return is powerful for the giver and the receiver. But again, this works best when people do it for themselves and for its own sake, not with the expectation of a response. Sometimes it takes years before an act of grace is acknowledged, and it may even heighten the friction in the short run.

Once you make the first step, a waiting time occurs, and this is when you have to release the other person. If there is to be any contact, it will come in time and within a process. You have done what you could and that is enough. Just keep reminding yourself that you have done what you could. Reconciliation is wonderful when it happens, but it is not an all-or-nothing experience. People often find only a hint of reconciliation, or find nonverbal reconciliation. A reconciliation event may last a few minutes or an hour, and then the relationship may resume with much, but not all, of its previous dynamic.

If any kind of mutual reconciliation has occurred, both of you will know that something is different. Some relationships do ultimately heal, and they are transformed in the process. Any level of reconciliation is sheer grace. And sometimes reconciliation means that you acknowledge what happened, make some kind of amends and have no further contact with the other person. This too can be a deeply healing experience.

So reconciliation is complex, but just being on the journey of reconciliation is so vital to our emotional and spiritual health that any level of change adds to our lives.

Stories of Ongoing Reconciliation Are Rarely Ideal or Complete

Karen and her daughter: Karen had almost no contact with her daughter or grandchildren for six years but kept them in her prayers and worked on her own issues and feelings of loss. They later experienced limited reconciliation; Karen sees her daughter infrequently and works to maintain boundaries, since her daughter still flings barbs occasionally. For Karen the relationship is healthier and she is grateful for what she has learned about herself and her daughter.

In addition, Karen was given a deep and loving relationship with her stepdaughter during her estrangement with her own daughter. Her stepdaughter became a surrogate daughter and offered her the love and closeness that Karen was missing. It was like a gift from God, acknowledging the hard work she was doing, both inside herself and with her daughter.

Joy and her sister and mother: Joy has chosen to complete two degrees in psychology since the break with her mother and sister, and she is deeply aware of the mental health issues in her family. She did not react to the hate mail or the phone calls and viewed the situation from a healthy distance, even though it saddens her. She finally made peace with the fact that she would never be in contact with them again.

When Joy’s mother was dying, though, she had a chance to break through the silence and go see her, avoiding her sister, delicately, in the process. Her mother slowly opened her heart to her and they were much closer when she died. Since then Joy has also had much easing of tension with her sister and gradually they became friends. Joy is good at taking care of herself and still knows her vulnerabilities with her family. The experience has been a source of deep healing for her.

Lou and her brother: Lou’s brother is still not back in the family but he did appear at his mother’s funeral a few years ago. He seemed depressed but he was no longer drinking. He is in declining health and maintains contact with his father but not the sisters.

Sharon and her daughter: Sharon is in the middle of the turmoil and is asking what she can do to understand the situation and act in her own best interest. She loves her daughter but feels defensive when they meet. She has good support through her recovery community, so she will be able to cope, but she is still reeling from the shock that this could happen to her and her daughter.

Ned and his brother: Ned’s brother is still on drugs and homeless, and that has caused the family to turn inward a bit. Instead of just reacting to him and his situation, they are starting to understand his role in the family. They still have to set boundaries on his behavior when he is high, but they are finding ways to be with him when he’s not high.

They have also acknowledged that he is the family scapegoat—the one who carried and acted out most of the family pain. This knowledge is bringing them to a new recognition of the family dynamic and has given them more compassion for themselves and for their brother. He may never be cured but the family may heal at a deeper level.

 Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2005, from Living Into the Light, a e-Book available at http://www.janethagberg.com

 

Reflecting on this essay:

1. Would you consider moving more deeply into the healing process of an estrangement in your life? Why? Why not?

2. What would healing this estrangement ask of you?

3. What would your family think or how would they act if you were to move forward to heal a family estrangement?

4. How would that affect you?

5. Have you ever had an experience of making amends or healing from an estrangement? What was it like? How did it change you?

6. How is the Holy involved in your reconciliation effort? What difference does it make for you?

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