Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”
When I bring up the word forgiveness to people most greet it with a sigh. The sentiment often embodies something along the lines of “I’ve tried”, “good luck,” or “what a struggle.” To forgive in our modern culture seems to be a mountain to climb, a long arduous road, and in the worst case an unattainable destination. But in my journey of healing, I have found transformation in perspective and persistence. Where so often we take ideas of things such as happiness, love, worthiness, and self-esteem and establish ourselves as other, or separate, the reality is we create greater proximity towards our desired outcomes through our willingness to become a student to the world around us. When we shift the way we see ourselves towards the greater outcomes we’d like to create in our lives, what was once an impossible obstacle becomes a journey that changes us.
“It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.”
~Ralph Waldo Emmerson
As a survivor of Childhood Sexual abuse forgiveness has been anything but easy. The confusion of growing up with my perpetrator and a family who did not protect me left a deep scar of broken trust that has been a difficult maze of unconscious rage and unstable attachment. I learned from a very early age to not believe what I was feeling on a physical and emotional level. Yet each choice and decision to change and take another step forward has created the momentum for me to begin to take full responsibility for my experiences and life. From setting new boundaries, and daily self-care, to trying new therapies and embracing my own brand of spirituality. Bit by bit the incremental shifts allowed the quantum shift of being willing, open, or just considering forgiveness to take place.
“Become life’s student or get schooled.”
So what do I mean when I say take full responsibility?
When we make the perspective shift from “Why me?”, “Why did this happen to me?” into “What can I learn from this?” or “What is this experience teaching me?” we begin to take back control of our lives from the situation/s that we’ve felt helpless and victimized from.
Now I’m not saying this is an easy fix or an overnight transition but when we start to make the pivots toward empowering ourselves personal responsibility is the first ingredient.
- Full responsibility does not mean you are at fault for your abuse
- Full responsibility does mean you are responsible for how you handle it and what you do with your pain.
“One common but mistaken belief is that forgiveness means letting the person who hurt you off the hook. Yet forgiveness is not the same as justice, nor does it require reconciliation, (Worthington). A former victim of abuse shouldn’t reconcile with an abuser who remains potentially dangerous, for example. But the victim can still come to a place of empathy and understanding. “Whether I forgive or don’t forgive isn’t going to affect whether justice is done,” (Worthington). “Forgiveness happens inside my skin.” (Weir, 2017)
When we take ownership of our lives and choose to make the adjustments that our difficult experiences are asking us to make we are not only empowering ourselves to take back control of our lives but at the same time we are releasing what we can’t control and letting our pain guide us through a portal that not only heals us but changes the way we interact with the world.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
~The Serenity Prayer
This looks like having more energy, feeling a greater sense of purpose and connectedness, less stress, having a calmer mind, ease in the body, deeper access to emotions, greater levels of happiness, and more profound healing experiences. These choices to take responsibility for our pain and let go of holding on to blame and victimization are the building blocks of what forgiveness is made from and create the momentum for the greater paradigm shift of healing that forgiveness offers.
My Journey With Forgiveness:
Bob Enright Ph.D. and Co-Founder of the International Forgiveness Institute has identified a 4 stage process to forgiveness.
- Uncovering Phase or (Uncovering One’s Anger)
The uncovering phase constitutes the beginning of awareness and the emotional upheaval and pain that comes with fully understanding and feeling whatever trauma or injustice we may have experienced. (Enright, 2022)
“Until you make the unconscious conscious it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
~Carl Gustav Jung
I had been running for quite some time, not knowing why I felt the way I did or why I acted how I did. From poor grades, mental health problems, and ticks, to vandalization, early-aged drinking, drugs, and theft. I was angry and while I didn’t have the awareness to speak about what happened to my body, my subconscious did it for me. My pain couldn’t be contained. After graduating late in high school, leaving my family with a backpack, and riding freight trains across the U.S. the pain was still there. Not enough weed, distance, or distraction could push it away. The further I got from my family the more I sensed it like an upset stomach gurgling in the depths of my body. It took me going back for a visit all the way across the country. From California where I had gotten a job that winter, living and working on a farm, back to Detroit to remember the abuse. It was a flood of tears and knowing. A voice spoke deep down from inside me, it wasn’t my own conscious voice but an echo from a little boy who had never been heard or seen. One evening in my parent’s house after my family had flown me back for a week at Christmas time, I told my brother and sister what had happened. Our father had molested me. Crying intensely the tears felt as though they had come from out of nowhere a sense of detachment from what I had spoken encompassed the whole experience as many more spontaneous fits of crying would follow throughout the week, still unable to feel the weight or emotional context of what was beginning to surface. It wasn’t till I arrived back at the farm that my friend Andrea looked at me and told me, “Jeff, I don’t think going back there was good for you.”
Back in California, what I had shared with my brother and sister quickly disappeared from my mind as my emotions began remembering what my mind already had. Soon my seasonal work on the farm came to a close and I found myself an emotional mess. Unable to feel much in the form of emotional stability while facing the inevitable prospect of going back to the street. My friend Andrea from the farm had agreed to come with me as he was curious about riding freight trains and completely unaware of how much I was struggling emotionally inside. As we left the farm together I became a pressure cooker of emotional distress. The instability and stress of living on the street coupled with the enormous weight of the trauma that was coming up gave me no outlet or way to cope and all I wanted to do was run.
Exploding at Andrea and pushing him away with quiet anger our friendship began to fray. There on the beach in L.A., his patience had run thin. Telling me he planned to leave once and for all. I had no clue that the intense emotions I had been feeling overwhelmed with, nor the push and pull behavior I had with him had anything to do with what I had remembered about my father. As Andrea stood up and turned to leave, something from inside me erupted once again. Through tears, I found the familiar words I had told my brother and sister without conscious thought. It felt as though I knew he was my only form of safety or hope. Sitting down he waited till I stopped crying and looking at me told me he would make sure I got help.
2. Decision Phase (Deciding To Forgive)
The Decision Phase happens when the person realizes that continuing to hold onto whatever trauma or injustice will ultimately be more damaging and that the choice to forgive has become an option to work towards. (Enright, 2022)
Fuck Everything And Run
Face Everything And Rise”
It had been two years since I had gotten off the street. Settling in Asheville North Carolina I had gone through a series of unstable housing situations, a hospitalization for suicidality and now finally I had a job, a home, and a therapist. Sitting in her office one day she told me about how she had gone through a similar experience with abuse when she was younger. I was amazed as she seemed so stable and strong, it gave me hope. Looking at me from her chair she asked, do you think one day you might be able to forgive? Something inside me knew that it was an important piece for me and my experience but I could not let go let alone relax with the memories and trauma I sat with. “Maybe one day,” I told her.
3. Work Phase
This includes the willingness to look at and understand why the perpetrator of the injury may have done what they have done and begin to develop empathy, not to excuse but to humanize the transgressor. This phase also includes acceptance of the pain in order to take responsibility for the pain felt from the injustice and not avoid it by passing it on to others or giving it back to the transgressor. Goodwill may be offered to the transgressor while maintaining appropriate safety and boundaries depending on what is deemed safe and healthy by the individual. (Enright, 2022)
As I pushed on, my life became an ebb and flow of normal life stuff, negotiating bills, work, and friends but always dealing with my trauma. The pain would not go away and it consistently colored and showed itself in how I interacted with the world. I had so much rage toward my father and my grandfather. I would work on it in therapy trying everything I could find. From breathwork and core energetics to even having a session where I acted out killing my father and the perpetrators. It was healing to let out the anger but as my therapist warned it is best to get it out and move on, not sit in it. Finding more help with off-the-beaten-path therapies like Network Spinal Analysis, I found myself losing the charge of anger and resentment that had built up over time. The distressing anger and emotional discomfort I felt when I thought of my father slowly began to diffuse. My body began to feel lighter, I had less tension I was holding onto, and with that sense of ease, I could relax into a more neutral place. I wasn’t my trauma, I wasn’t what happened to me and while I had no desire to have a relationship or reconcile with my father in the physical world I began to see the situation for what it was and who he was.
4. Outcome / Deepening Phase
The Individual begins to see relief and progress from the pain and weight of trauma. May find purpose in the pain experienced. May discover a new direction in life. Understands the paradox of Forgiveness: When we give to others and love others we in turn are healed.
“When you stand up to the pain of what happened to you and offer goodness to the person who hurt you, you change your view of yourself.” (Weir, 2017)
Slowly I began to find myself going deep within and beyond the pain, I felt. I was a different person. It was true I couldn’t take what happened back, but now I wouldn’t even if I could. I knew that who I had become was far better, more whole, and happier than who I had been or where I had come from. I was grateful for it. So often it’s not the destination but the journey where we heal and change. I saw my father for who he was, a wounded person who had not taken responsibility for the things that happened to him all while he passed it on. Yes, I was angry. Yes, it hurt but now I was empowered because I chose differently. I made the choice to stand in my pain, own it, and not pass it on. No longer could he intimidate me and no longer did I need to hide what had happened. Instead, I chose to transform it. In 2021 I sold everything I owned and bought a one-way ticket to Italy. Since then I finished writing a book about my experience with my traumas and time on the street. Setting up a speaking program I’ve begun sharing my story with youth here in Europe. The more I share the more I realize how connected we all are and the more I realize the trauma was a trauma of shame and isolation. When I speak to the pain the mask I wear dissolves even more and the unspoken between me and the rest of the world thins. In this, I have found we truly are a reflection of each other and my forgiveness has been a choice to no longer let what has happened to me control who I am.
My anger is so red
I douse it with water
And watch it drain from my heart through my eyes
Our anger we carry around as our armor to protect us
Fighting a world we are apart of
I feel it breaking
I feel the fragments of a mirror falling to the floor
And I no longer see a broken reflection
But a whole world I’am apart of
A whole world I’am
Jeff Spiteri is an author of the unpublished book ‘The Bridge Within’ a memoir chronicling his experiences as a homeless young adult riding freight trains around the United States and the childhood trauma he uncovered along the way. Jeff is proud to use his voice as an instrument of influence, guidance and impact with young adults and educators sharing his experiences and tools for resilience and healing.