Monday, 3 February 2014

Acceptance is not Approval

Trigger warning: this blog deals with my personal journey through childhood trauma to forgiveness and may bring up some difficult issues - if this is likely to affect you please give this one a miss

"You know what your problem is? You've never learned to forgive."
For a start, when someone's opening gambit is to tell what your own problem is, you know the conversation is not going to be going anywhere positive. Secondly, the person speaking had never actually talked to me in sufficient depth to know if I had anything to forgive at all, let alone the real story. The reality is that I am learning to accept that I suffered physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse from a number of people in my childhood. Because it has been my journey, it has taken me a long time to accept that what I took to be a 'difficult childhood' actually was full of traumatic events. When you are the one living through and surviving trauma, then 'normality' very quickly becomes a distortion of other people's reality.

Forgiveness is a huge subject, for me it is central to my overcoming my past. However, no matter how I have found the process of forgiveness I don't believe that I can prescribe the 'how to' for anyone else, no matter how closely our stories may resemble one another. That is because I have learned that just as my experience of emotional and mental instability is unique to me, so my journey to forgiveness is equally unique.

I would say, though, that forgiveness is a crucial process on the road to recovery from trauma caused by other people's abuses. I do not believe forgiveness to be a single act (or determination) of the will, but it is a long and, often painful, process.

First, I have to acknowledge that I have been the victim of a wrong done to me by someone else. For me, that meant allowing that at the age of 4 or 5 I was not the author of my own physical and emotional scars. I have had to learn to view myself with compassion, often the same compassion I usually reserve for the pain of others. For some traumas this has taken me my whole lifetime, due to the depth and extent of the scarring.

It does not help to compare my wounds with those of others. I do not know what someone else has had to endure or is able to tolerate compared to me. I am not able to feel the physical pain of another person. In the same way with emotional scars and pain, I can never truly say 'I know exactly how you feel'. I may be able to say 'I think I can understand where you've been....' No one has lived my life, or survived what I have survived, so no one can know what I feel I need to forgive. It is only I who can decide who and what to forgive. And only I know when is the right time for me to forgive and 'let go'.

Second no one can decide what Justice means for me. For some, there is a need for retribution, for the validation of going through the full formal justice process. I am not able to tell another victim or survivor of abuse what Justice is for them, I only know what my need for justice is and whether I feel I need to go through a formal court process for me to feel I have achieved it.

A number of years ago I decided that I would not pursue any formal charges against those who had hurt me, because I did not have a need to protect any others at the time from abuse, and because to do so would have caused enormous hurt to others who mattered to me. I believe that there is a natural justice which has meant that I have been able - in time to leave Justice in other hands than my own. This sense of letting go has not been easy, there has been an ongoing process of recognising the wrong, acknowledging I have the power to choose which path to justice I follow and being prepared to leave the wrong doers to God/fate or natural justice, call it what you will.

I have not been able to confront any of my abusers directly and therefore, there has been no restorative process of them asking and then me choosing to forgive them. Rarely, are victims offered this opportunity, simply because of the complexities involved in the relationships between perpetrator and victim. Forgiveness, then becomes an important part of my healing process, which allows me take control and without any reference to the perpetrator, to be able to choose to forgive. This has been necessary in some instances as I have decided to maintain some kind of relationship with some who have abused me. In this process, there has had to be a radical acceptance of the fact that often those who are closest to us, may never be able to acknowledge the wrong they have done to us. Therefore, for me to move forward I have to recognise that I am the one who is capable of recognising the situation as it is and either accept it or change it. Ironically, I have found that in accepting that I can forgive without seeking retribution or justice, I have also changed my attitude to the relationships involved and therefore I have allowed myself to move forward in my own emotional healing.

The most important thing for me to say is that acceptance is not approval. Just because I accept that I was a victim, and that my abusers will never acknowledge the wrong they did to me, does not mean that my forgiveness is some form of tacit approval of the actions which caused the wounds.

Rather, I have accepted that I cannot change the past, I have accepted that there is an inner strength which has been a result of surviving my past and finally, and most importantly I have accepted that those who have hurt me, as well as the wounds from the past do not have to keep me chained up for the rest of my life. Ultimately, forgiveness and acceptance of the past frees me to enjoy the strength of character my life's journey has created in me and to stop those from the past from continuing to hurt me in the present. I am free to be myself, with all my colourful complexity, in the here and now.