Forgiveness: Can We Talk?
Bernadette Berardi-Coletta, PhD
When CAPP council members discussed possible themes for this year’s conference, the dynamics of Revenge were unanimously agreed upon as being a seductive and stimulating topic to pursue. But, when we discussed the possibility of including Forgiveness, the discussion took a less unified turn and a lively debate ensued: Does Forgiveness have a place in the psychoanalytic dialogue? Or is it more suited to the realm of religion? While we obviously concluded to include Forgiveness as part of the Revenge domain, those initial questions and reactions that emerged in our debate have remained with me.
First, it seems ironic that Forgiveness provoked a reflexive aversion to talking about it at all, “Forgiveness doesn’t belong in psychoanalysis. It’s too much of a religious concept.” Ours is a profession in which no idea is excluded from discussion and analysis, especially the ideas that are normally considered taboo. Yet, forgiveness seemed to transcend this axiom. It was dismissed, distanced – silenced, “We can’t talk about that….it belongs over there.”
Second, the opinion that Forgiveness was a religious concept seemed to mean that it couldn’t be a psychoanalytic concept – an “either/or” mode of thinking. Psychoanalysis often speaks to the ways in which dichotomous thinking is limiting, defensive, protective. Our strength is in being able to move out of “either/or” modes of thought and expand into “both/and” models of conceptualization. Yet, something about “forgiveness” momentarily shut our analytic minds down and put us in a state of anxiety about thinking further, deeper into this concept. Why?
The psychoanalytic literature on forgiveness is also not expansive. Of the mere 24 articles listed in PebWeb with Forgiveness in the title, all but 3 were written after 2000. Apparently, it took a change-of-the-century for forgiveness to enter into the psychoanalytic conversation. But it has entered.
The concept of Forgiveness is likely to evoke many reactions, memories, and affects for each individual. For me, “forgiveness” conjures up several meanings both psychological and sacred; and so, I humbly open this conversation.
A religious act of confessing one’s sins to a priest or other rituals of atonement to God for one’s wrong doings is a common idea of forgiveness. As a child in the Catholic tradition, I remember the frightening experience of going into a small, dark room to confess my transgressions to a priest who sat in his own, adjacent, small, faintly lit room, his presence knowable only by the sound of his voice and a light coming through the small screened window that connected us. The set up was powerful. The experience was intimidating and austere. I confessed, “I was mean to my sister.” “Are you sorry?” the priest would ask. I would manage a faint, solemn “Yes.” The priest would then instruct me to say some prayers, bless me, and in the name of God, my sin was forgiven. All was reconciled with God, if not my sister.
“Forgiveness” can be distorted when it invokes a false moral high-ground that comes not from a true quality of forgiveness, but one of power in the face of helplessness. This past January, CAPP sponsored a free screening of The Laramie Project as an adjunct to our upcoming spring conference. It is the story of how the town of Laramie, Wyoming dealt with the murder of Matthew Shepherd, a gay college student who was beaten, tied to a fence post and left to die by two other young citizens of Laramie. Many issues came to light in this movie about hate crimes, homophobia, the dangers of denial and false tolerance, righteousness used as a defense for violence as well as a defense against fear of the “other”, and reparation. In one of the last scenes, a courtroom scene, the father of the victim is asked to tell the court whether he prefers the death penalty or life in prison for one of the perpetrators of the murder. He stands up and reads his statement. It is a heartfelt moment. He describes the pain of the family’s loss and his memories of his beloved son. Then, he says that hate has been too much of a focus and it is time for a healing process to begin, “to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy. I am going to grant you life, as hard as it is to do so. And every time you celebrate a birthday, Christmas, Fourth of July, remember that Matthew is not. Every morning when you wake up in your cell, remember you had the opportunity and the ability to stop your actions that night, but didn’t…..”
During our discussion after the movie a question was asked, “Was the father’s decision one of ‘Mercy’ as he said, or one tainted with revenge?” Clearly, he wants to do what he believes is the right thing, but he is rightly feeling too much pain and anger for this to be coming from a place of truly felt “mercy”. Instead he invokes “mercy” from a sense of righteousness. Psychoanalytically, we might see this as a defense against his ego-dystonic feelings of powerlessness and vengeance. Psychoanalytically we understand that his pain, anger and loss will take a long time, if ever, to work through, to reach a state of peace within himself – a state that implies not a morally prescribed “Forgiveness”, but a human “forgiveness” that enables a healing of his own heart whether or not he could (or should? There may be acts for which it would be healthier not to forgive?) ever forgive his son’s murderer.
As an analytic psychotherapist, the word “forgiveness” evokes for me a subtler, more embodied, more human concept. Rather than an act of pardon, I see it more as a quality of the psyche requiring one’s deepest humanity, an acceptance of self and others for all that we are, flaws and all, and part of a relational sophistication that allows for flexibility, adaptiveness, and complexity to evolve. I do indeed think it belongs in our psychoanalytic conversations. Whether we consider “forgiveness” an explicit goal of treatment or not, we often observe this quality develop in our patients as they come to terms with themselves, their pasts, and the important others and significant relationships in their lives. As Lily Thomlin humorously articulates, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” (Jeremy Bloomfield, PsyD – personal communication.)
The “doer/done-to” dynamic underlies much of what our patients struggle to resolve. Achieving some form of forgiveness plays a role in getting beyond that closed system. Some patients come in believing that they have already worked this out, they’ve “forgiven and forgotten” their psychic injuries and wounds (“My childhood was great, my parents did their best, I’m over it.”) In some superficial, intellectualized way they have managed to put their hurt, anger, and shame aside so that they could “move on”. Our job is often to bring it back, to remember what happened in an effort to work through the pain and anger and get to a place of real healing where meanings can be created and discovered. As the healing process takes hold, patients often begin to accept their pain, forgive their past and, at the same time, to let go of it in a bi-directional freeing dynamic. This is more complicated than “forgiving and forgetting”. Often patients come to see that their parents maybe really did do their best, AND that they were hurt in spite of it.
Other patients enter treatment with a more overt articulation of the doer/done-to narrative. They step into the room clinging to their sense of victimization and are convinced they are either helpless, or that they will one day get their revenge. Again, as treatment progresses, new meanings arise as old ones are let go of. In the aggressor/victim story, patients often begin to see themselves less as just victims, the other less as only an aggressor, and everyone more as human beings caught up in the same human condition. Anger softens and pain can be accepted. In effect, a kind of “forgiveness of the system” occurs. New possibilities of living life with more richness emerge. Pardoning a wrong-doer is not the therapeutic agenda but a quality of forgiveness seems implicated in this process as a natural part of the work that naturally heals the human spirit.
But more powerfully at the core of many treatments is the need to forgive oneself for not being the person one felt he/she was supposed to be. So often patients come to treatment with vague feelings of inadequacy, resentment for not being “good enough”, responsibility for hurting or not healing their parents, and of simply being a disappointment. Believing that their very existence is responsible for causing the abuses or neglect they experienced, they carry shame about who they are at their core – they haven’t done something wrong so much as they ARE something wrong. A patient, Patrick, entered treatment with me with only movie-knowledge of what to hope for in therapy, “You know that scene in ‘Good Will Hunting’ where Robin Williams says, ‘It’s not your fault’ to Matt Damon? That’s powerful.” I wondered if Patrick was seeking some kind of absolution. If so, from whom?
Robin Williams is Sean McGuire, the therapist in “Good Will Hunting”, to Matt Damon, the brilliant but underachieving Will Hunting whose life was stunted by his abusive past. They developed a mutual respect and affection for each other and in the last session, they are discussing Will’s experiences with his violent father. “It’s not your fault,” Sean tells Will. “I know,” Will replies (a superficial intellectualized forgiveness of self). “It’s not your fault,” Sean repeats solemnly. “I know,” Will says again. Sean moves in closer, “It’s not your fault.” “Don’t fuck with me, Sean….,” Will warns. Sean is relentless until his words break through Will’s defenses and reach him deep inside where he is still holding on to his fear that “it” was indeed his fault. Finally, he can let “it” go.
This one session between Will and Sean shows a succinct version of the longer process we work through with our patients, hoping to reach them at the precise place where their suffering resides. Whatever else is going on, some shade of forgiveness seems to be in the mix. For Patrick and I, it’s been a slow 10 year process of reaching that place in him where he hid shame behind a fortress of intellectualized numbness. As the feelings began to re-emerge, we weathered panic attacks, nightmares, and intense self-recrimination episodes. It began to dawn on him that maybe he didn’t cause his mother’s relentless unhappiness and neglect of him; maybe his mother was suffering something of her own. “You mean it’s not my fault?” he asked one day. We’d come full circle, “No, good Will Hunting, I don’t think it’s your fault…” Both of us laughed a little, cried a little, and sighed with relief. He is now more forgiving of his own imperfections, and the imperfections of others (including his mother’s and even mine). Forgiveness of self is a deeply transforming and transformative outcome of psychoanalysis. We might label it self-acceptance, conflict resolution, or “coming to terms” with ourselves and our stories, but some type of forgiveness is surely part of the process.
With our conference we hope to open up a dialogue about revenge and forgiveness that lifts our reluctance to explore this topic in more depth. Forgiveness is no more and no less sacred than any other dynamic we encounter in the human condition. Its transformative properties and power, its vulnerabilities and risks, and the sophistication of the process of forgiveness need to be studied, explored, and discovered across a wide range of human contexts. It is certainly not a concept to be left solely to the religious domain. A psychoanalytic perspective might be the only way to allow the true understanding of forgiveness to emerge from the dark confessional and into the light of awareness.