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