The Scent of Crushed Violets

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

~Mark Twain

We’ve all heard that it’s wise to forgive: Forgiveness releases bad energy and, as the Twain quote evocatively describes, transforms it into something positive, because we often learn something profound from difficult encounters with people. These insights become the fragrance that can linger after we feel “crushed” by someone.

But while the “why” of forgiveness is clear, the “how” can be elusive: How do we forgive someone whose choices have caused us pain? Forgiveness can be especially tricky when the transgression reopens old wounds—caused by this person or someone else—that have not fully healed. We need to discern how much of our pain is a response to current events and how much dredges up similar hurts from our past.

Forgiveness also requires safety, time, and distance; it can rarely take place in the midst of a conflict. Forgiveness can also be complicated when we are forgiving a long series of events with this person rather than a single incident.

The pathway to forgiveness can be also be challenging when we want to forgive someone who hasn’t acknowledged (or perhaps even realized) the hurt he or she has caused. In such a situation, we may be left asking ourselves, “How am I supposed to forgive someone who’s not at all sorry?” I have asked myself this question many times of late.

Apologizing with remorse was not a capacity my ex-husband had developed. Mostly, he became defensive and turned the tables. This left me feeling accountable for my behavior and his, and I often apologized for both. While he seemed comfortable with this dynamic, my discomfort with it grew. When his choices directly affected my daughter the day I insisted he move out of the house, I knew he would respond with defensiveness and dishonesty; there would be no apology.

For months after that day, I refused to access my deep anger toward my ex-husband. Life demanded that my focus remain on things like completing the copious paperwork of the divorce, preparing our home for sale, and caring for my son and daughter. I could not afford to be immobilized by anger.

In recent months, however, I have the stability and safety to deal with my anger, which my body is now pushing right out into the open. This morning I woke up with serious discomfort when I opened my mouth. I look up the beliefs that could be connected to jaw pain in Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, and I am fascinated to find that this pain can be connected to anger and a need for revenge. I’ve never had a jaw issue before, but then I’ve never been divorced from a narcissistic, misogynistic, bullying addict, either. As I think of him in these terms, I realize forgiveness is still elusive. I can feel the rage in my neck muscles and jaw. A part of me remains in “fight” mode, ready to spit, claw, and hiss. I know I am safe, but my body doesn’t believe me.

I realize that forgiving my ex would help release this pain, but emotionally, I want to hold my fury and judgments—at least for a while. I was betrayed, belittled, lied to, and manipulated. I found myself powerless in the face of his narcissism and addictions. After the marriage ended, I still had to deal with the effects of his actions on my children.

My son began behaving belligerently at Christmastime, and his second hospitalization happened right before Christmas. This time period—one I normally love more than any other time of the year—involved a series of god-awful visits to see him in the hospital, including one in which he raged at staff and the hospital security guards had to drag him to the isolation room. I don’t hold anger toward my son, because I know he’s young and suffering from addiction and depression. His brain hasn’t fully developed, especially the pre-frontal cortex, the part in charge of thinking through the consequences of choices. I’m furious about the choices of my ex-husband that led to this hospitalization.

My son’s Christmastime hospitalization and the ensuing months in rehab facilities occurred after he was rushed to the ER, having almost choked to death on his own vomit during a party at his dad’s home. His dad—my ex—had gone out of town to visit family, despite knowing his son was suffering from suicidal depression and drinking and smoking marijuana to self-medicate. I get stuck on questions and judgments about my ex’s decisions, such as Who leaves a 17-year-old alone for a weekend? This is what seems to be lodged in my jaw, radiating pain outward. I grieve for my son, who has been in another state for nearly a year.

I am angry about other actions of my ex as well, such as those before my son’s first hospitalization two years ago, shortly after my ex and I had separated. During my son’s suicide attempt, my ex said he couldn’t talk on the phone because he was in Florida and going to dinner with his parents. I seethe about his detachment while the most serious mess in the life of his family was unfolding.

I clench my jaw as I reflect on the formidable trauma of that day. As my estranged husband dined with his parents in another state, there were seven emergency vehicles at our home, where my son was on the roof threatening to jump. Two huge cops worked to get him down and into an ambulance while he screamed and raged and even broke free running for a bridge he intended to jump off. I feel fury as I juxtapose this nightmarish experience with my ex’s disconnection. A not-insignificant part of me wants vindication, which I will not get any time soon—or perhaps ever.

I am working to forgive myself, too, for screaming at him, pleading with him for us to see a therapist, and hoping I could change him as our marriage unraveled. I wanted him to hear how unlovable, lonely, and frustrated I felt, but yelling at him was not going to help. All my efforts were met with silence or deflection. Yet I blamed myself: The entire weight of our marriage fell hard and heavy, flattening me in failure. I’ve worked to grasp that our marriage was not my cross to bear alone, and I’ve worked to forgive myself. Yet what do I do with the anger I still feel toward him?

I struggle to frame things differently so I can release some of my fury right now. Perhaps my ex was doing the best he knew how. I remember reading that some people respond to profound stress in a primitive way, much like a two-year-old who feels threatened. This new way of framing my ex’s reaction actually helps. Two-year-olds might run away from scary news; they don’t know any better. Maybe my ex was in shock that day on the phone and could not respond in a healthy way. And perhaps my ex was avoiding my son’s pain on that fateful weekend, hoping the shelter of his family would leave him feeling less helpless.

I can also reframe my motivations for forgiveness to see it through my children’s eyes. What is it like for them to live with their parents’ resentment of each other, even if they and I have solid boundaries and steer clear of these topics? I remember reading that divorced parents should love their children more than they hate their exes, and I see wisdom in this advice. I also want to model walking a pathway to forgiveness while breathing in the scent of violets; my children will need to forgive people on their own journeys. If this was my last day on the planet—and we don’t always know when we are living that day—I would want my children to know that I loved their dad and that I ultimately forgave him and found peace.

It also helps me to realize that what looks like anger is more complicated: Underneath the anger is hurt, grief over all that I have lost, and love for myself and even for this man, who made awful decisions. Compassion seems to come from this loving part of my being, down beneath the pain. From this softer place, I can access forgiveness more easily and let go of my need to be right about his wrongness.

Part of the process of forgiving the person who stepped on the violets, then, can be reframing the situation in ways that help us see the person and the forgiveness process itself differently.

These reframes seem to be working for me, at least in this moment. I notice a slight release in my jaw.

I have learned from past experience that forgiveness is a non-linear process. I get to a place of some peace and feel “done” working on forgiving the person, but then something hits a trigger and I realize there’s more anger or pain to release. I know that making progress toward forgiving my ex today won’t mean I’m “done” with forgiveness, and I can be patient with the process. I also know that forgiving him doesn’t mean I won’t feel disappointment and sadness for what we have all lost.

I wish the scent of crushed violets could be bottled as a perfume that I could dab on my wrists when I have flashes of anger or pangs of hurt and grief. Instead, forgiving others and ourselves might be some of the most challenging work we do in our lives. As Cheryl Strayed says, “Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill.” Maybe after cursing and struggling on this long climb carrying the old fat guy, I will arrive at the summit feeling greater freedom, peace, and gratitude. And at the top of the hill, I will know that my children, too, can breathe in the scent of crushed violets, knowing that I have forgiven their dad in the most real and honest way I could.

While you are working on forgiveness, here are some actions you can take to create serenity and safety in your psyche as well as your physical space:

  • If you are not yet safe physically or emotionally, give yourself a break if you don’t feel ready to start forgiving. It can be hard to forgive when we are still experiencing trauma or living in a state of hyper-vigilance. Work on getting physical separation from the person.
  • If you are experiencing depression, anxiety, or anger that is affecting other areas of your life, work on addressing the trauma lodged in your nervous system. Seek any professional help and guidance you need.
  • If a relationship has ended, give yourself permission to let go of some or all belongings associated with this person, if this feels right. This purge can clear space for you to breathe and contemplate your next steps. When and what you purge depends on the nature of the relationship and the transgressions you are forgiving, as well as the way you handle transitions. If the relationship involved abuse, betrayal, or toxic behavior, you may want to create a powerful sense of safety in your home by removing “emotionally loaded” items. In more benign situations, you might keep items that inspire you and that hold pleasant memories. If you are uncertain about some items, such as gifts from the person or photos, you can store them temporarily and see how you feel in a couple of months.
  • If you are purging belongings associated with the person, take it in small or large steps, as you sort out how you feel about these things and what gives you positive and negative feelings. You might want to get rid of items right away and feel some closure about them, or you may opt to move gradually.
  • If an intimate relationship has ended, change your bed in some way. For instance, move it to a different room or a different place in your bedroom. If possible, get fresh bedding (or even a new or different bed) to create a fresh start for yourself. Also, move into your bedroom artwork that relates to who you are and what you want in the future, and remove items that remind you of the relationship.
  • In your living space, create or add things to nourish you, such as a work of art, a delicious meal, a collage, a pleasant gathering with loved ones, and an accent wall in a color you love.
  • If it would be helpful to you, write down affirmations that reflect your intentions with regard to forgiveness, such as “I am willing to forgive,” “I am forgiving,” or “In forgiving, I find peace and love.” Place them on your mirror, by your bedside, or in another place that you will see each day.
  • Recognize the progress you are making in forgiving the person who has wronged you. Forgiveness can be an incredible accomplishment, even when it’s not complete or perfect. Also, notice the ways forgiveness is imparting benefits—the scent of crushed violets—to you. You may find yourself becoming more loving, strong, free, resilient, or compassionate.


Laura Staley
Laura Staley
The founder of Cherish Your World, Laura Staley passionately helps people thrive by guiding them to a holistic transformation of space, heart, mind, body, and soul. Laura knows that there’s a relationship between the conditions of our homes or workplaces and the quality of our lives. Trained and certified with the Western School of Feng Shui and seasoned by almost two decades of working with a variety of clients, Laura uses her intuition and expertise to empower her clients to produce remarkable results in their lives. Her trifecta of serving people includes speaking, writing, and compassionate listening. As a columnist, Laura writes personal essays focused on self-discovery, feng shui, emotional health, and transformations from the inside out. Laura is the published author of three books: Live Inspired, Let Go Courageously and Live with Love: Transform Your Life with Feng Shui, and the Cherish Your World Gift Book of 100 Tips to Enhance Your Home and Life. Prior to creating her company, Laura worked as a fulltime parent and an assistant professor at Ohio Wesleyan University. She earned a Ph.D. in political science from The Ohio State University. Her joys in life include laughing with loved ones, dancing, reading, meditating, running, being in nature, and listening to music she loves. She resides in Black Mountain, NC with lovable dog, Layla. Laura is a contributing author to the inspiring book Crappy to Happy: Sacred Stories of Transformational Joy

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  1. This is very potent Laura! You have come a long way. It’s a miracle to survive the narcissists grip. We find the hope that gives us the power…our children who need us and we find the way. Self forgives was key in my journey for me. After so much abuse you believed what they say.. it takes time to build up and time to forgive. You’ve written some stories and this surely helps. The anger will dissipate, it’s not worth the ride. Thank you for opening up your heart and being the brave person that you are, stay strong, keep writing and never look back at what brings you down.. we don’t live there anymore! Gods blessings! ? Paula

    • Thank you for all your meaningful reflections, Paula. No, we don’t live there anymore. Thank goodness. Rich learning, indeed. Your words lift my heart. So incredibly grateful for you.

  2. Laura, this is raw and powerful. When we think of and discuss forgiveness, it’s easy to spout the platitudes and know what we “should” do in the abstract. When the situation is fresh and new, and the pain and sting are still painful and stinging, there are so many ways that trying to attempt to forgive might go wrong. It’s a process, it has be done almost incrementally, and your heart is truly the only barometer of when the time is right, or when you might be ready. Forgiveness is an external act, but it requires you to be the active ingredient – it’s about taking it in doses that can overcome your gag reflex, at times. Your perspective on it being an incremental process is so good.

    We might keep telling ourselves that “time heals all wounds…” but those are only words, not the real balm of distance, and calm, and silence and healing. All the changes that you suggest give you and your heart that realization that you have and are moving on, and where you are going is a place that you need to prepare for, you just can’t go there at some random time because other people think that “it’s time…” So those preparations of purging and cleaning and rearranging are part of cleansing and doing the dirty work of moving on from the pain and telling yourself that you are in a new place.

    And as a passionate and heart-strong empath, you might arrive at the place of forgiveness in due time, yet you bear the scars of the pain and damage done to others, and sometimes that type of forgiveness is hardest. You may have healed enough, but the collateral damage is sometimes the obstacle to true and full forgiveness. Thank you again for wearing your heart out where it can do the most good, by shining its full content into the lives of others. Peace on your journey, you are so much richer and freer and stronger now, and there can be no doubt about that the peace you have is real, and tangible and yours.

    • And I’m currently not registering as me, Tom Dietzler… I got a new hard drive in my computer last week, and had to sign-in to everything all over again. I just realized that I am not signed into BC360 as me yet, and it won’t let me sign in. Just thought that I would fill in that gap, Laura, so you know it is me rambling like I do, not some cyber stalker who uses a lot of my words, phrases and prattles on endlessly… sorry about that, but for the time being, I shall remain nameless, as BC360 is not letting me sign in.

    • Oh, Tom, thank you for all your reflections on this piece, the topic of forgiveness. I deeply appreciate your thoughtful, meaningful insights as this topic can often be filled with platitudes. Yet, as you indicate -the process can really be quite messy. While I have no contact with my ex, I do hear by way of my daughter, that she and her dad are sorting themselves out in a positive way. As you shared-the distance, quiet, no contact, has made a positive/important difference for my healing/cleansing. From this distance and the actual internal work I engage, I can honestly say I wish him the very best life can offer-I wish for him loving relationships with both of his adult children-And I know those relationships are their responsibility-not mine. When either of my adult children choose to share about their dad, I know I’ve become more centered/free because I notice I feel great peace/compassion in my heart. During these three years since I penned this essay, my ex lost both his parents. Being a heart-centered person, I could not ignore the impact this had to have on his life. Death continues to be such an amazing teacher of how we want to live. I mailed condolence cards each time with no expectation of hearing anything back (which I didn’t). Sometimes you do the “right thing” with complete detachment.
      Please know your words don’t ever occur like ramblings. Not ever. I’m grateful for all your thoughts as they lift my heart, deepen my appreciation for you, the way you think, feel, and write. Thank you, my friend.

  3. I love this. I always tend to move past conflicts yet that doesn’t mean I forget or even forgive. It just means I walk past it and focus on the present. Back in 1973 I was in a band and I grew up with the Guitar player. He got in a bad way with alcohol and we parted ways just when we were on the tipping point of making it. I lost touch with him as I moved forward but always remembered him any time I saw a good band. Recently Someone found him and gave me his number, he got straight, went to a monastery, became a priest and later got married. I look at his number often, I stare at it but I am yet to call him. Maybe I should, maybe I will. Thank you for post that hits very close to heart

    • Thank you so much, Larry, for letting me know that this piece “hit very close to heart.” especially regarding the situation with the former guitar player of your band. What I’ve learned about making difficult/uncomfortable phone calls is that I must be completely detached from the “reaction/response” of the other person-rather stay focused on cleanly -from the heart-speak what I need to say with great compassion for myself and the other. When i know that my “out bound” words from a place of love in my heart-can cleanse, then I muster that brave and go for it. You just never know what could shift.

      And I also know we can forgive people even if they’ve died. Forgiveness remains our own unique internal work. I wish you greater peace no matter what you choose. You are doing the best you know how at this juncture, my friend.