Contemplating Forgiveness as a Survivor

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Contemplating Forgiveness as a Survivor

Contemplating Forgiveness After Sexual Trauma

“It may be that the part of us that was struck and hurt can never forgive, and that strangely, forgiveness never arises from the part of us that was actually wounded. The wounded self may be the part of us incapable of forgetting, and perhaps, not actually meant to forget, as if, like the foundational dynamics of the physiological immune system, our psychological defenses must remember and organize against any future attacks – after all, the identity of the one who must forgive is actually founded on the very fact of having being wounded.” ~David Whyte

Can we remain wounded and simultaneously extend genuine forgiveness? Is forgiveness something we offer outwards or something that we cultivate for ourselves inside? From what part of our mind, our heart, our unconscious knowing – does that sentiment arise? How do we distinguish the degree to which our inability to forgive, our insistence that we cannot forgive, or our simple lack of impulse to forgive, is impacting our possibilities for healing? What is the practice and what is the process that mentors us along this difficult inquiry to define what it means to forgive? Who is it we need to forgive, are drawn to forgive, and why? Is it forgiveness that rounds out the rough edges of our healing? Is it compassion for Self, and ultimately, Other, that paves the way? Is forgiveness in fact a destination at which we should aim our target as we imagine the long view of recovery?

When we contemplate the sentiment of forgiveness, it feels essential to me that we bring a spacious and humble attitude, as well as a quality of tenderness towards ourselves and others. Forgiveness is deeply personal and our compassionate presence allows us to remain receptive to as many perspectives as there are experiences. This approach is necessary to ensure that each survivor’s inner relationship to their experience can be honored, validated and held safely. As survivors embarking on this terrain, it requires courage – quantifying the magnitude of this concept and how we relate to it will challenge our mind, body and soul. We must be prepared to face our innermost selves, the injuries that linger, and begin to gently nudge the deep grooves of thought and emotion that have settled inside our shapes and complicate our recovery. We as witnesses to another survivor’s grappling with forgiveness must be willing to feel the unspoken horrors of their pain if we intend to understand why this topic is so charged and why its complexity cannot be overstated.

I have had a difficult time – tangibly experienced in the immediate escalation of my heart rate – with casual concepts of a supposed need to forgive the person(s) that committed such pervasive atrocities against my being. Sexual violence is an experience that once known, cannot ever be unknown, therefore accommodating “forgiveness” alongside such embodied memory is hard. I tread cautiously into this realm of conversation with others as questions, upset, and confusion start to stir inside. Since we all operate with our own definition of forgiveness, we are not necessarily sharing in an equivalent inquiry into its meaning and relevance in the healing process. In this setting, miscommunication, along with unnecessary hurt, can abound. I am working this out slowly for myself and contemplating whether and if forgiveness, which feels so very hard for me to grasp, and compassion, something I can more naturally touch into, might eventually collide.

What specifically concerns me when we broach the topic of forgiveness is the implicit message survivors absorb from their environment; that somehow their inability to forgive their perpetrator for the harms they chose to do, is preventing “complete” healing. As if healing can be conceptualized with a word that describes a clear finish? For me, healing feels like an energy that moves in every imaginable direction and has no limits. The massiveness of this journey and the uncertainty that follows a process of that scale and scope is best captured by studying the dynamic expansion and contraction of the surrounding universe. How do you quantify that kind of mystery?

Asking someone to forgive when they are still falling into the rawness of the wound, prior to their landing in the wild darkness that is the surging of justifiable grief and the burning off of necessary anger, or perhaps, without the awareness that their interest in forgiveness is secondary, if not tertiary, to their primary urge to feel safe inside – fails to enforce the essential centering of the survivor’s own experience. Centering survivors after sexual violence is key to their resilience. Instead, insistence on forgiveness steals this singular opportunity for them to rebuild and reclaim their right to exist, and re-creates a painfully familiar scenario where their humanity is squashed. We as outsiders have an expectation and desire, and survivors feel no choice but to comply in order to survive – the culture, the pressure, the family, the media, their own desperation to find any way to be done with this nightmare at last. That premature urging mirrors the silencing of voice, body and soul that one experiences during and after sexual trauma, and runs counter to the self-defined, empowerment process that grows naturally from the inside out. Why would we rush people to be where they are not naturally arriving? What if we trusted their timeline and their way of navigating healing?

From the moment of the first attack, our physiology served us. Our innate defenses rose up, responded and allowed us to survive. Days, years, decades later, that same system alerts us, protects us and most importantly, its efficient functioning can work to heal us. If the notion of forgiveness sends a signal of internal distress, with no judgement and no expectations, our duty is to listen and validate our own response. We can choose to turn within, and concentrate back on the only truly essential work required of us after sexual violence – fortifying our internal resources and practicing patience with our soul.

In all of my interactions, I try my best to follow a survivor-centered lens and empower individuals to make choices that will support their healing, based on their own unique story, the fullness of their identity and in alignment with their intuition. This is an imperfect process and I too am still learning to discern my vision of healing from another’s. Each survivor is a world unto themselves and while my primary practice is learning to listen with all my organs of perception, and importantly my heart – it is simply one approach. I know that my philosophy of healing serves me for now, and I deeply value that another’s serves them, and that perhaps the only parallel thread between us in our journey is that each of us chooses to follow what internally feels true. Of course, that’s the only thread that matters.

If one person senses that forgiving their perpetrator would release them from a burden they carry, I applaud them in gently following that path, while reinforcing their inner strength, self-confidence and non-attachment to the outcome of such an endeavor. Should another survivor exclaim, “I will never forgive my perpetrator!” I would shift towards accompanying them in their exploration of all the things, people, places, images, activities and arts that bring them peace, nourishment and grounding. I bring it back to them. Our intuition speaks and will tell us in myriad ways what heals us and what harms us. The pressure to forgive one’s perpetrator can be felt like an impossible, sinking weight that spreads like lead, numbing the tiniest corners within our shape. The memories of the many “shoulds” we have heard, far too many to count, tend to soar around our minds and sneak up after decades of trying to let the hardest thing go.

The external, societal and familial pressure to forgive the one(s) who harmed us feels like a convenient, albeit unintentional, way of blaming the victim – even though the person drawing correlations between forgiveness and healing doesn’t hold this attitude consciously. Our loved ones want to see us free again, their unexpressed hurt sometimes magnified and mirrored by witnessing our ongoing anguish. Perhaps they cannot relate to the mind/body/soul split and therefore cannot fathom the delicate tethering back together of the self – the immeasurable length of time that re-integration requires and deserves. Sometimes though, our pain and our willingness to express it – messy, explosive and uncomfortable to watch – stirs up their own unexpressed pain, their loss, their anger, their own quest to understand forgiveness.

Survivors are not singular in their wounding. The pervasive reach of sexual violence leaves a bruise upon our families, it dampens the flame in the hearts of our dearest companions. Every relationship is changed, everything is changed – nothing remains the same. Yet, somehow it falls upon the shoulders of the survivor alone to negotiate a deal that lets everyone else move on. This “ask” suggests that a survivor accept an unwelcome experience inside. The potent emotions that encompass false forgiveness touch like salt into a still wounded soul. If we encourage any phase prior to the survivor having been able to establish enough internal resourcing to welcome it, the body, the mind, or the spirit will reject it and push it out like a toxin. This too, is the wisdom of our physiology.

Growth of an existential nature simply cannot happen from the outside in. Like well-churned soil, born of the elements – water and heat, light and darkness, love and tears, and the constant pull of the moon, we cultivate a nourishing earth at our core where that exquisite seed of healing can grow. Sometimes that healing includes a conscious intention towards forgiveness – not necessarily of the perpetrator, but perhaps of one’s self, their loved ones, the ones who knew but did nothing, the ones who said the absolute most unkind thing, the ones who totally disappeared from us when we told our truth aloud.

Preemptive forgiveness, or even the expectation of eventual forgiveness, is a nearly unbearable pain to manage when a survivor does not want to do so, or when they might wonder why it is somehow their duty to make this right for the rest of us? Yet, like healing, our society implies an arbitrary timeline suggesting that eventually, the end goal of this transpersonal journey, is to arrive at a state where one forgives their perpetrator(s). Having a society-directed destination looming over your head that tells you how to heal, invalidates a survivor’s experience. It may also risk bringing greater external pain into the survivor’s life, while removing them from being in control of their own destiny.

This is no small thing. Feeling a sense of power in deciding and creating, visioning and building, and yearning for a future that speaks to you from your bones is the magical elixir that the arduous process of uncovering, collapsing, breaking down and giving up everything, eventually sends trickling back into our blood. This restorative energy brings life-force into our bodies and widens the spectrum of color we can see and feel in the world surrounding us. It beings to gently widen everything.

However, as survivors we learn time and time again with the inevitable cycling through the highs and lows of healing, that somehow, after we’ve moved through something big and shed a heavy burden, there is always the next layer. At times, the non-linear journey can feel like a stormy ocean where the sets of waves come far too close and you simply cannot catch your breath. Your own gasps sound like thunder inside your head and calling out for help is trumped by the duty to use each break to find an ounce of oxygen. At other times, knowing that just like the constancy of those waves, something else will follow, may just save us from locking ourselves up inside the unbearable and seemingly permanent feelings that memory and anxiety provoke.

Whether it is the sadness of your shattered heart, an impossible anger that burns in your gut, or the endless emptiness of the unanswerable “Why?” – the persistent nature of our pain and of our healing, reminds us that this moment will not be where our story ends. Perpetual change on an unpredictable path becomes a life-jacket throughout the tidal swells of recovery. Nothing is truly stagnant, there is infinite motion. Our bodies reflect that constancy with their conscious and unconscious processes that keep the vital fluids flowing, support the beating of our heart, digest our food and nourish every cell in our system. We are a microcosm of the world around us, a cycle of disintegrating matter leading into relentless regeneration. We need not rush.

When we finally realize that we are resilient against all the supposed odds – that we are in fact more like the antelope surviving the cheetah’s attack and running free again through tall, willowy grass – we start to see that we can make space inside of ourselves for almost anything. We can be flailing and rising, embodying the full range of feeling, anguish and relief, while relating to our history and this very moment, without clinging.

In our center, we remain both rooted and relaxed. We begin to revel in the nearness of the mystery of life that swims through our veins. Understanding why ancient yogis described the heart as the primary seat of the mind, we find ourselves elevated and guided by love. Not romantic love, but the love that deepens your breath and makes the moment feel like a miracle when you feel total connection with the self, another, the Earth, a supreme being – that which makes you feel vibrantly alive.

Considering our wounding and also our healing – whether the visceral tragedy of sexual trauma or any other great loss, as there are so many – there often exist spoken and unspoken expectations to “move on”, “forgive” and “let go”. The outside pressure to be somewhere you are not yet, to embody something that feels so foreign, can alone cause people to freeze, withdraw, self-blame, feel like a failure, and may lead to them totally giving up – on themselves and on their future. Instead, we must encourage people to be free of everything that doesn’t feel true to their journey – mindful of course of the delicate line between untrue and uncomfortable – but trusting more often than not our systems will communicate their needs and their boundaries around this singular process.

Learning to wade into the discomfort of what happened to us, how it made us feel or stop feeling, and how it shows up 2 years, 15 years, 3 decades later, is important. It is necessary. In the reflection upon our discomfort mixed with the realness of this very moment, we remember that we can survive the details of our own story, and more importantly, that we can learn to tolerate the slow or strong surge of sensation that wants to finally be released. We carefully and methodically lift the curtain that divides the residue of our past from the reality of our our present, enabling our systems to fully process, and eventually return to rest.

This is obviously a practice and a difficult one at best – and every single ounce of it is worth it because the Universe begets our healing and it will magnify our most humble intentions. Simply learning to sense inside your own shape for two minutes of slow methodical breathing paves the way for healing and everything about you organically gravitates towards growth. The liberation of realizing your next phase of life is a blank canvas for you to paint and the rising feeling of your own wisdom can bring you back to you – solidifying the core of your recovery, again and again and again. This is a practice supported by lifetimes.

Healing is a path of remembering, or for some, discovering, all that we are amidst this darkness. We identify the spark that still glows, however faint, and let the air we breathe whisper on the burning flame of our desire, fueling our faith and enlivening the action of moving forward. Ultimately, this becomes a circular series of questions and answers:

Who are we in all of this? Who is underneath all of this confusion, this sensation, this immeasurable grief? What does this mean to me and what will I do with it?

This self-inquiry becomes a ritualistic process and every aspect that follows, each inevitable collapse along the way as well as the brilliant moments when our hearts take metaphorical flight, they all become equally part of the web of our divine integration. We are climbing the internal mountain and every tool, all of our sustenance, the belief that we can summit, the fortitude to endure inclement weather, the trail map and the covered refuge to take rest along the way, this is all waiting, growing, and found, like a treasure – anchored deeply within our heart.

While I will always remain cautious with forgiveness, I am clear that integration is exquisite and that resilience is our birthright. There are days, experiences or instances where I am certain that this survivor’s path is the only route I was ever meant to follow. When I feel connected to my internal strength, I believe firmly in this process of having had to peel back everything I thought, knew, felt and dreamed, in order to discover the answers to questions I never knew to ask: Who am I? Why I am here? What is my purpose in this incarnation? What are the limiting beliefs about myself I am learning now to release? What are my gifts and how can I be of service?

At times, which I celebrate because they are fleeting, the exact perfection of where I am in my life takes my breath away. These essential moments usually arise when I am immersed in nature or moving on my yoga mat – away from society’s script and instead, mesmerized by the bigger picture of the delicate space I inhabit on this spinning planet. I am a witness, enthralled by the landscape where I live – its natural, rugged beauty, or the particular landscape of the body I live within – allowing me to be nowhere else but in the quiet majesty of now. Others find this spark in the middle of a symphony they are playing, in the solitary space of an empty dance studio, when they move back from the canvas they’ve been hypnotically painting and find themselves awed by what they see – the unintentional insights of how our exquisitely, unique experience takes shape inside of us serve to bring us back to life.

For me, the quality of this feeling is soft like gratitude and reminds me to remember the miracle it is that I survived. It is here, amidst the rise and fall of my breath, the subtle movement of wind through trees or the song of a bird calling out, that I glimpse what it would be like to fully embrace my own reality. I think to myself about the ever-looming question of forgiveness, and realize that for me, it will be an evolving, slow churning, revelation. This inquiry crawls out from beneath peeled back layers of pain, and demands I pay attention to the feedback of the sensory realm inside. It begets that I stay, that I look again, and that I attempt to hang out with this remarkable, albeit unsettling, invitation. I am inching closer, I am less afraid, I am trusting that which will never make logical sense. I am less and less interested in things “making sense”.

Unburdened by external expectations for where my healing path will lead, I can discover the realms within me that in their depth, survived unscathed. It is here I wonder: Is this what forgiveness feels like? A question so specific to my heart, my loss, and the cycles of my own relapse and resilience – that its perfectly imperfect answer, its preciously shy glimmer, is one that only I will ever fully know. I am the only one who needs to know. The tears that start to fall carry with them a mixture of the memories of that which has been my wounding, and importantly, that which will be my cure.


Contemplating Forgiveness After Sexual Violence was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence. You can read about Molly’s work teaching trauma-informed yoga for survivors in Portland, Oregon by visiting her practitioner page.