Skip to main content

Cat's Spiritual Journey, Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

All posts in this series:
Part I: Getting (and Losing) That Old Time Religion
Part II: Coming Home
Part III: The Fool's Journey
Part IV: The Underworld
Part V: Seven of Cups
Part VI: A Letter and a Kiss
Part VII: Morticia Loves Gomez
Part VIII: Nora
Part IX: Felicia Hardy and the Tower of Babel
Part X: When Babel Fell
Part XI: Community 2.0
Part XII: This Forgiveness Stuff

In some ways, what I have written on how my community, my family and I reacted to the divisions in our household seems grandiose to me. In truth, I'm a really lucky woman. In a world where domestic violence, child abuse, warfare and the violence that pits neighbor against neighbor are all commonplace, what, really have I got to forgive? What do I know of betrayal or suffering on any large scale?

Not much, honestly.

I know that my insights on hurt and forgiveness are small ones compared with the insights of a Nelson Mandela, a Gandhi, or many of the survivors of abuse and violence I've known over the years. But it seems to me that honoring my own small learning curve is one way to try to live up to their legacies.

Rather than putting the peace-makers of the world on a pedestal as noble but essentially Other, I have wanted to share with you the story of how a basically very ordinary, sometimes arrogant, rageful, self-absorbed piece of humanity --me-- responded to a very ordinary human conflict.

I know that one of the most maddening things in dealing with the conflicts that tore our community apart was the feeling that no one quite understood what I was trying to say--including myself. Just exactly why did what was happening hurt so much?

I've felt the need to write about this chapter in my life partly for the same reasons I used to compulsively talk and talk and talk about the it at the time with anyone who seemed remotely willing to hear me out. I've needed, myself, to find the answer to that question, why does this make me so angry and afraid?

I'm grateful to all the people who helped me to find language to express why the conflicts in our home and coven were so bitter.

I'm grateful to Maureen, for instance, who put our experiences into the Hellenic context of the ancient duty of hospitality--the sacred relationship between guest and host without which the ancient world could not have functioned. (Sacred, in part, because connections between communities would have been impossible without the mutual care and respect of hosts and guests, given the total absence of Ramada Inns, freeways, and ATM machines.) There was something in that idea that did reflect our experience: there is an intimacy in any relationship between you and any person you receive into your own home that does make both host and guest vulnerable.

This was just one of the ways community members who listened deeply, and reflected back the ways they saw our story, helped us to see it, too, and helped us begin to heal.

Likewise, I'm grateful to those who have lovingly shared with us their perceptions of how difficult it was to be close to us at that time. Brightshadow, for instance, has reflected on how unsafe our anger made him feel. "I kept waiting for that anger to be turned on me," he once told me, "though it never was." Watching us react with such emotional violence pained others, who did not often know how to respond. And when friends reached out to offer their best wisdom--your anger hurts: hurts you and hurts us--we felt judged and rejected.

Sometimes, those who genuinely felt for us and wanted to help refused to listen to us, for fear that hearing us try to describe why we were angry and what we were feeling would just act as fuel for the fire, and make matters worse. Many of our friends felt lost, and wanted us to move into forgiveness (or at least amnesia) without ever finding words for what went wrong.

I see others caught up in this same kind of pain, and I want to offer my experiences as a lifeline, to other Felicias as well as other Cats, Peters, and Two Bears in the world. We need to better understand how individuals find peace with one another, and how communities can help them with it.

Not listening, not helping others find words, is not helpful. Insisting that there are no victims is not helpful. Helping people who feel betrayed to find truthful, clear ways to frame what happened to them, and why it was wrong... that is helpful.

I have written that I don't know what forgiveness really is, and that's true. But I do have a sense of what it isn't.

For instance, in my work as a therapist, I have come across a number of stories like this one: an adult woman, sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood, is invited each year to the family Thanksgiving, where she is seated next to the father who abused her, and who has never acknowledged the abuse, nor sought help for his behavior in any way. She is required to do this as a condition of her family accepting her, and as a token of her "forgiveness" of actions no one has ever publicly discussed.

That is not forgiveness. That is tyranny.

And maybe the woman can find it within herself to find whatever it is forgiveness might mean in such a context--but if she does, it will be no thanks to her family.

One of the things I learned, as a therapist, was the importance of discussing the perpetrator with their victim.

This went totally against the grain of what most psychotherapy is about. In most psychotherapy, the therapist is trained to turn discussion relentlessly back to the client's own feelings and thoughts. After all, those are the only part of any social equation we have direct control over. There's logic to that.

But in the case of those who have been battered or emotionally abused or raped--especially by someone they knew--there really is a need to discuss the perpetrator. Because, no matter how clear it may be in the abstract that what was done was wrong, it so often doesn't seem clear when it happens to us. I once knew a woman who had been raped at the age of five, for example, who blamed herself for the incident because the perpetrator took her out and bought her a treat immediately afterward. She accepted the treat--ergo, she had been paid for and had consented to the assault. Such is the logic of the human heart, and we need compassionate help, often, to confirm what another part of us knows: that we have been harmed, that we have been wronged. And, so often, only looking at and discussing the perpetrator and his actions allows the victim to see what another person could see clearly.

But if we won't discuss a perpetrator, for fear of encouraging vengefulness, we're not helping that person work toward a clear vision of their experience.

And I don't think we can "forgive" what we have not yet seen, fully and clearly. I think that's as true with the small things--like overcoming a breach between housemates--as it is with the large ones, like child rape and genocide. First we see and try to understand. Then, and only then, can we hope to move beyond.

Of course, it's possible to speak about our wounds in ways that encourage deepened anger and vindictiveness, and it's possible for listeners, especially those with unhealed wounds similar to those of the speaker, to encourage deepening the spite. That's especially true among those who suspect that, actually, they have done something wrong or even unforgivable--something some of us feel irrationally, and others because we really have committed grave and terrible acts.

I think of this, and I think of the dream of Corrie and Betsie ten Boom, sent to a concentration camp for their role in hiding Jews from the Nazis. The ten Booms dreamed of, after the war, opening a different kind of camp, for reconciliation between the survivors and the prison guards. This dream ultimately failed, and I find it easy to understand why. Not only would it have demanded extraordinary heroism for survivors of the camps to participate fully and honestly in such work, but it would have required a moral courage and self-knowledge almost beyond human capacity for the guards to have done so.

Knowledge must come before forgiveness, let alone reconciliation. Knowing how hard and long a process it has been for me to come to terms with my minor little pains, I have greater respect than ever for the survivors of childhood abuse I worked with for so many years. It truly can take a lifetime to take in what has been done to us. There is no shortcut to forgiveness, and just knowing takes years, even with the most empathic and sensitive support.

As for those who have done terrible things to others, like the camp guards... well, that is knowledge that only the bravest will ever acquire. It is asking so much, this self-knowledge. I understand why so many fail even to begin.

What this means to me, as a member of two spiritual communities, is that I want to urge us all to remember how hard the process is.

It's not that I do not value it--it's that, I think, having fought so hard and so long in what Quakers call "the Lamb's war" to know my own anger, and to open up even a willingness to forgive, I am utterly unwilling to accept forgiveness's counterfeit. False forgiveness, the willingness to pretend to a love and an openness we don't really feel, is an act of violence against truth. It is ugly and it does not lead to healing, to knowledge, or to compassion.

In fact, only the real thing will do, and the real thing does not come cheap. Communities need to hold those of us struggling with forgiveness tenderly, and be willing to suffer with us in spirit as they do so, rather than fortifying themselves behind platitudes.

We need to accept that the road to forgiveness is long and sometimes confusing, and be willing to be patient and confused right along with those who are suffering from hurt and betrayals. We need to be willing to hear painful truths, and not to dismiss what we think is trivial; at the same time, we need not to enshrine a sufferer's current understandings as holy writ, incapable of changing or growing in wisdom with time.

The mission is the same wherever we are. It differs in difficulty, certainly. My task has been easier than the task of a homeless Untouchable in New Delhi, or the survivor of genocide in Bosnia. It's a long hard job, forgiving. And it's a long hard job, supporting one another through betrayal, anger, and fear. It only looks easy from a distance. Up close--I gotta warn ya--it's gonna be harsh, painful, and rough.

But it's our job.

As a Friend, I have come to understand that forgiving one another--seeing each other and ourselves clear and whole, in order to love one another properly--is our work. We are all called to it, without exception, though it will not be easy. I am no kind of master of it--my story makes that clear.

But this is my notice to the world: I will try. Even knowing I have little talent for it, even knowing how much I flat out suck at living rightly and acting in love, I will trust in the Spirit of Peace to lead me. And I will try.

(You try, too.)

Afterward: It should be obvious by now, but just in case it isn't, let me repeat myself. The fact that I make connections between my small experience of hurt and forgiveness and the process of forgiveness for victims of criminal or global acts of violence is not in any way a comparison of Felicia's very ordinary human failings with acts of violence or abuse. That is not the quality I am comparing, and any implication otherwise reflects my failings as a writer. (I sure hope that's clear!)


Regina said…
These testimonies of your journey have been inspiring (to say the least), Cat. Thanks for sharing your story because in this sharing is a healing- for all of us, I think.
I know for myself, always thinking I have to be a peacemaker (self-designated I might add)... I want people to forgive and get on with their lives... but it doesn't work that way at all. I think deep down inside, it makes me uncomfortable when I see someone holding onto past hurts and so, to make my own life more comfortable for me, they better forgive and quick! It's very selfish of me. I have seen so many times now just how hurtful that is for the person and how I am hurting them all over again!
There is no time limit on forgiveness or timeline- and it may never happen for some people.
I seem myself to forgive easily, but I wonder... maybe I am just pushing it away or down deeper because I don't want to deal with it and it's easier just to say the words and not think about it anymore. Maybe I congratulate myself as well, on being a good "forgiver"- I may just be a big hypocrite!
I've always wondered, too, if forgiveness is somehow a hierarchical thing, something to be held over the person, in other words, are we somehow saying we are better than our perpetrators because we forgive them (I absolve you) and by not forgiving them, are we giving our power away to them, over and over and after the fact. Or even possibly that they are "unworthy" of our forgiveness...
I don't know if this makes any sense... and I hope I am not stepping on anyone's toes. I don't usually get too deep in my comments because I am afraid of doing just that!
However, I do think
forgiveness is a tricky thing albeit well worth the effort, I think, in some deep, deep place inside us all.
Thanks again, Cat. I have really been enjoying your blog. I have added you to my blogroll- I hope that's alright.
Anonymous said…
This is exactly the sort of thing that made me bookmark your blog in the first place.

Thank you.
Thank you both!

I hope I haven't given the impression that I consider forgiveness to be unimportant, Regina, nor that I think it's anything but good to be able to forgive gracefully and quickly.

But I learned that I'm less forgiving by nature than I once would have thought, and I've learned that it can be difficult. Since I see lots of communities struggling with the aftermath of conflict, I hoped that sharing my clay feet would be helpful to somebody else somewhere. :)

And of course, I'm thrilled to be in your blogroll, Regina, and honored to be bookmarked and read, Karen. I'm glad my words connected!
And for those interested in exploring the topic a bit more, I just ran across an interesting post on the blog Noli Irritare Leones, on Denying the Shadow, on what may happen when we work too hard at avoiding the long, hard, look in the mirror that I think both giving and receiving forgiveness may sometimes entail.

Thought provoking, at least.
Regina said…
Hi Cat-
"I hope I haven't given the impression that I consider forgiveness to be unimportant, Regina, nor that I think it's anything but good to be able to forgive gracefully and quickly."

Oh, quite the contrary... I never got that at all from your post! I think I was more musing in my comment than I meant to be. Forgiveness is just such an interesting topic and I think no two people have the same views on it- except perhaps that forgiveness is important to one's growth as a human being. I was just thinking today about the Nickel Mines, PA school shooting... I was home in PA when it happened and had just lost my dad nine days earlier. I was angry with God for taking my dad from me and then... these little Amish girls are brutally tormented and murdered. I was completely at a loss... I felt I was unable of forgiving anyone, most of all, God. I still can't get my head around either events, but deep in my heart, I think I am on the way to forgiveness. Sometimes I wonder if forgiveness of God is really the hardest of all...
Again, I am just musing. :)
I am so happy to have found your blog, Cat.
Regina said…
Oh, and what I forgot to say in that last comment was the incredible response from the Amish after the shooting- it floored all of us who lived there but at the same time, we knew who and what the Amish were all about.
But how could they forgive so quickly? I don't think it was easy but they did it, enough to ask after the shooter's wife... that is where I would like to get to...
Anyways... I think I'm done now...
Daisy said…
I've been up late reading your whole saga! You are a fascinating person! I feel like I've just finished a very cool existential novel.

It's wonderful to find your blog, indeed!
Anonymous said…
So important to look at an issue like this in depth and I have found it fascinating. Cat, I'm from South Africa and you might want to look at what happened with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with forgiveness and restitution for human rights violations during apartheid. Who has the right to forgive on behalf of the dead? Are certain atrocities ultimately unforgiveable? Can a government rather than individuals be forgiven? What happens to us when we refuse to forgive and cannot allow ourselves closure over the past? When we are forgiven by others but cannot forgive ourselves? When a nation tries to forgive itself but with the proviso that we shall never forget?

The work of the Quakers in South Africa, by the way, has been inspirational.

Love & thanks

Anonymous said…
I admire you so much for holding out for real forgiveness and not settling for counterfeit forgiveness. It is one of the things that I respect about you.

I do wonder if knowledge is necessarily the precursor to forgiveness though. It seems to me (and I'm no expert on either compassion or forgiveness) that empathy is the catalyst. That knowledge may trigger empathy, but it is really insufficient.

I'm thinking back to a lay service at our church given by a man whose life is being a therapist to addicts and previously to clergy sex offenders. His sermon on forgiveness (unfortuneately not in the archive) was extremely powerful. He read Thich Nhat Hanh's Please Call Me By My True Names -
and spoke too it and the radical empathy that was behind it - not forgetting, not faking it, but truly putting oneself in the place of the perpetrator.

Anonymous said…
Thank you, once again, Cat. Your ministry here speaks to my condition -- not so much the details of the story as the warm glow of the Light that I sense behind your words.
Yewtree said…
I find that forgiving goes in fits and starts; I think I have forgiven something on one level and then I get to a deeper level and find I have to do it again. In that sense it is a bit like grieving; and perhaps the process of forgiveness is partly about grieving the loss of connection.

I am glad I don't believe in an omnipotent Divine being, it would make the whole existential thing much harder.

I also think the need to be heard is important; that's why the Truth & Reconciliation hearings had to involve the whole story being aired for each case.
Thanks, all, for your support, your compliments, and your direction to new resources on the subject.

Though the events that inspired this post are mostly long ago now, it has been surprisingly difficult to write about--the most difficult writing i've ever done for this blog. But also, given the kind things that you've passed along, among the most rewarding.

Blessed be.
Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,

The most heartfelt response I can give is:

This Friend speaks my mind.

Blessed Be,
nadine said…
Hi Cat - I have only just recently become aware of you and this blog - through the quaker pagan yahoo group list - I spent most of yesterday reading your spiritual journey posts from start to finish, with breaks for cups and coffee and use of the bathroom, lol, thank you so much for sharing from such a deep heartfelt place - the observation I would like to share in return and a question if your inclined to answer -is this, a number of years ago I participated in a workshop on forgivenss and it was offered to us that the act of forgivenss is not really something we decide to confer on another, it is something we decide to give over to God/dess or whatever spiritual entity we believe is bigger than us or more than us - to forgive is to give over - to let go of the personal burden of what to do or not to do - in recognition and in trust that the being/entity/spirit we give it to will know what to do even when we don't and will do what is right - it seems that you very poignantly wrote about this early in the series when you stood at the edge of the lake and gave over to Herne what to do about/with Affagdu - you struggled with what to do personallly and then you let it go and you entrusted Him with that responsibility. And from your protrayal, He handled it quickly and appropriately.

So my question is, why with Felicia are you holding on so long to this percieved personal responsibility of whether to forgive her or not or how to come to that place, I would suggest to you to hand that on over - to Herne, to Rosie, to the Light, to whateve He/She or It you believe in - and I guess I would ask you, do you still believe in that something greater than you and do you trust that being to do what is right or what is needed?

I can see I probably need to read more entries to see how or where you made the shift from pagan to quaker or to a combination or amalgamation - but, do you still believe in the possibility of divine intervention? In Christian terms do you think/believe that grace can descend on Felicia or on you or on both or all of your community if you were to let go of the need to control this outcome?

tone in typing is hard to convey, I do not put these questions to you as a chalenge - but simply want to share with you the profound impact that I recieved when I got that forgiveness is about giving over - not about getting back

blessings Nadine

Popular posts from this blog


(Note: there were so many thought provoking comments in response to this post that it generated a second-round of ideas. You can read the follow-up post here .) I have a confession to make. I want to be famous. Well, sort of. I don't want to be famous, famous, and ride around in a limousine and have to hire security and that sort of thing. I just want to write a book, have it published by somebody other than my mother, and bought and read by somebody other than my mother, and maybe even sign a couple of autographs along the way. Mom can have one autographed, too, if she wants. It has to be a spiritual book. A really moving and truthful book, that makes people want to look deep inside themselves, and then they come up to me and say something like, "It was all because of that book you wrote! It changed my life!" And I would say, no, no, really, you did all that, you and God/the gods --I'm a little fuzzy on whether the life-changing book is for Pagans or for Quake

Peter on Grief and Communities

Well, that was unexpected. For the last year, ever since my mom's health took a sharp downturn, I've been my dad's ride to Florence Congregational Church on Sundays. That community has been important for my dad and the weekly outing with me was something he always looked forward to and enjoyed, so I didn't mind taking him there. It meant giving up attending my own Quaker meeting for the duration, but I had already been questioning whether silent waiting worship was working for me. I was ready for a sabbatical. A month ago, my dad was Section-Twelved into a geriatric psych hospital when his dementia started to make him emotionally volatile. I had been visiting him every day at his assisted living facility which was right on my way home from work, but the hospital was almost an hour away. I didn't see him at all for three weeks, and when I did visit him there, it actually took me a couple of seconds to recognize him. He was slumped forward in a wheel chair, lo

There is a Spirit Which I Feel

I was always a "rational use of force" gal. For most of my life I believed that the use of force--by which I meant human beings taking up arms and going off to war to try to kill one another--was a regrettable necessity. Sometimes I liked to imagine that Paganism held an alternative to that, particularly back in the day when I believed in that mythical past era of the peaceful, goddess-worshipping matriarchal societies . (I really liked that version of history, and was sorry when I stopped believing in it as factual.) But that way of seeing reality changed for me, in the time between one footfall and the next, on a sunny fall morning: September 11, 2001. I was already running late for work that day when the phone rang; my friend Abby was calling, to give me the news that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. So? I thought to myself, picturing a small private aircraft. Abby tried to convey some of what she was hearing--terrorists, fire--but the mag