Forgiveness is the art of releasing resentment in life and in 12 Step Fellowships.
One day, long after their abusive father died, Kate asked her brother Kevin how he felt about their painful childhood. “I can’t condone how we were treated,” said Kevin, “but I’ve finally forgiven dad.”
Kate was astonished. “Not me. I’m so consumed with rage and hatred, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive him.”
“But don’t you see, Katie,” Kevin said, hugging his sister, “then dad is still powerful. He’s still beating you up. . . .”
Kevin was not telling his sister to simply “forgive and forget.” If we forget our personal or our world’s history, we risk having cycles of abuse and injustice repeat themselves. “Forgiveness is not forgetting or denying the effects of a wrongdoing, and it is not pardoning or excusing,” explained Rokelle Lerner, a psychotherapist.
The Big Book of “Alcoholics Anonymous” says resentment destroys more alcoholics than anything else because deep resentment leads to futility and unhappiness and shuts us off from the “sunlight of the Spirit.” Authentic forgiveness takes time as the hurt party works hard to let go of resentment and the need for retribution, said Lerner. But our ability to forgive can’t depend on the reactions or actions of another, she said.
As people recovering from addiction often discover, genuine forgiveness is an internal process that can occur with or without anyone else’s knowledge or participation. When you practice the art of forgiveness, you may reconnect with another person or community, or you may reconnect with parts of yourself that get shoved aside when bitterness takes over.
Most alcoholics know guilt, shame, remorse, and self-loathing intimately. To rid themselves of those feelings, they come to accept that they are imperfect beings worthy of forgiveness. Understanding that we are more than our transgressions helps us see beyond the transgressions of others.
Kevin discovered that he could forgive his father, yet still be mad at him for abusing his sister and him. As Lerner pointed out, forgiveness can exist simultaneously with anger, just as joy can exist in the midst of grief.
Someone once said that forgiveness is letting go of the idea that you could have had a different past. When we forgive, we surrender the burden of hurts and resentment that so easily weigh us down and keep us from living a full and joyful life.
Real, healthy forgiveness is hard and contemplative work that we practice one day at a time, one experience at a time. It is a path to healing and serenity that begins and ends with compassion for ourselves and our feelings. Perhaps rather than “forgive and forget,” our new adage should become “forgive and live.”
Alive & Free is a health column that provides information to help prevent substance abuse problems and address such problems. It is created by Hazelden.