The Path to Forgiveness is Through the Pain

This weekend, I had a long conversation with a friend about forgiveness. He is new to recovery, and he is frustrated. I understand why. I have sat through my share of discussions regarding the topic of forgiveness, and I have realized that the way we talk about it, the way we strip it down and simplify it, is not all that helpful for a person who is honestly trying to deal with the burden of their past.

I have not had access to every recovery community in the world, so my thoughts here are just based on my own experience, but my sense is that we tend to jump the gun when we talk about forgiveness. We skip straight to the experience of being free of anger, of existing in a place of reconciliation with our past. We talk about all of the joys we experience having arrived at forgiveness, about how wonderful it is to be free of anger, how we wouldn’t be sober without it. But we rarely talk about the process of getting to that place. We don’t confront the real complexity of having come through some seriously traumatic shit and the need to find a way to live in the present.

When I listen to discussions about forgiveness, I often hear this kind of narrative: “I was just tired of being angry, so I decided to forgive so-and-so, and I let it go.”  When I hear this, I suspect 1 of 3 things is happening:

  1. The person has not really given much thought to what this process actually looked like for them.
  2. They have not truly dealt with the past in a way that is going to give them ongoing relief.
  3. They are just one of those rare people who can just make a decision with regard to their emotions and magically it happens.

I am not sure number 3 really even exists, but I believe in grace and I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. Either way, what I think is missing from our conversations about forgiveness is a focus on process.

Early on in my own recovery, hearing people’s experience of “just letting go” was immensely frustrating, just as it is for my friend. Believe me, I tried to forgive. I wrote it out. I said it out loud. I prayed for the people I was angry at every day. I really wanted to just be there the way people talked about being there, but I couldn’t make it real for myself. I couldn’t be somewhere I wasn’t; no matter how bad I wanted it. And the thing I am confronting nearly 10 years in is that I still have not arrived, though I have come a long way from where I started.

My problem began with the way in which I framed the precursor to forgiveness—that dear old friend of ours—resentment. We talk about resentment with disdain because it really is a dangerous place for addicts and alcoholics. It is dangerous primarily because it stunts our growth. It keeping us tethered to old ways of thinking and being. Resentment is regressive, meaning it drags us back to psychic spaces that no longer align with our present realities. Emotionally, we return to less evolved versions of ourselves. Things that no longer exist objectively, but are very real subjectively, begin to color our perceptions of the world. Ultimately, resentment brings us back to the thing we know best, which is active addiction. Despite the real danger of resentment, however, I have begun to suspect that way we approach resentment may actually be getting in the way of our process of getting over it, and in turn, keeping us from arriving at forgiveness.

When I first started getting familiar with the idea of resentment, I was under the impression that resentment was no different than anger. I thought the two were one in the same, which ultimately created an unhealthy understanding of anger, and a too simplistic idea of resentment. I had to distinguish the two in order to make any movement toward forgiving anyone. I have come to understand it like this. Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions its purpose is to provide information about a situation and allow us to act in ways that preserve our wellbeing. Resentment, on the other hand, is the act of continually returning to old and unpleasant emotions—anger being just one of those many emotions—even though nothing in the present necessarily calls for the emotion. And here is where the problem lies. By equating anger (a normal and necessary human emotion) with resentment (a counterproductive act of returning), we actually compound the problem.

I think it is a big mistake to demonize anger or any other emotion. I mean, even Jesus, who was all about peace and love and forgiveness, flipped tables in the temple in Jerusalem and whipped the merchants out the door. Anger is built into our DNA to serve us. And like all emotions, it must be felt. We feel it now or we feel it later, and the experience of “feeling it later” is the very definition of resentment. See, if I am so afraid of experiencing anger because I am confusing it with resentment, I never actually escape the experience of resentment because I don’t properly deal with the anger. It's a catch 22 in the truest sense of the word. 

The message my friend has been hearing—that getting over resentment and arriving at forgiveness is just a matter of choosing not to be angry anymore—is counterproductive. It sounds wonderful, but it makes no sense. In my experience, this is just not reality. Furthermore, to suggest that the solution to the pain and trauma we have experienced is “just getting over it” is reductive and dismissive.

So, what is the alternative? Well, I am not totally sure, but I know it is not “just getting over it” or “choosing not to be angry”. What I can say is that my own process began by confronting that fact that that the shit I have lived through was and is hurtful, that it has impacted my life in very real ways, and that the harms I’ve experienced were not ok. Until I reached this most basic point, call it what you will—acceptance, truth, reality—I made no progress with forgiveness. Once I began to see my experience for what it was, however, I could begin to feel the emotions that I never allowed myself to feel. I could allow myself to be angry and afraid and sad and ashamed. I’ve felt these things, and by feeling them thoroughly, I don’t have wallow in them anymore. And let me tell you, this has gone a long way in bringing me toward what I know of forgiveness.

What I realized during my conversation with my friend is that he just needed to feel angry, and my job in that interaction was to give him permission to do so. I reminded him that any normal person would be angry about what had happened to him. Of course I want him to be free of anger, to arrive at a place where he can forgive the people who have harmed him, to feel release from old emotions, to have peace, but I don’t know any other way to get there other than going through the shit. So, my entire role in the interaction was to normalize his negative emotions and give him space to feel what he needs to feel.

I’ll admit I don’t know much. I am just a guy who is trying to figure out how to walk his own path, but I believe we might do a service to others if we can start talking about forgiveness as a process as opposed to a decision. When we talk about forgiveness, we might talk about feeling our way toward it. We might normalize negative emotions, and offer a space for them to be felt in whatever way is necessary. We can talk about feeling shitty, and encourage each other to lean into the pain. And as we do so, we can always remind each other that no matter what we feel, and no matter how long we have to feel it, we never ever need to get loaded over a feeling. All we have to do with our feelings is feel them.