The Unburdened Heart:
Keys to Forgiveness and Freedom by Mariah Burton
(Copyright Harper San Francisco 2000)
MY YEAR OF FORGIVING DANGEROUSLY
I was 14 when
Bruce started molesting me. He was 25, already a father and coach. The abuse ended 3 summers later when my family happened to move across the country. The impact of the abuse persisted for more than 2 decades. Then I wondered, Might forgiveness be possible? Then, everything changed.
and charming, Bruce praised my writing, supported my passion for sports, gave me posters and poetry and while I sat frozen in fear and confusion on the car seat next to him, eased his hand inside my sweatpants. I felt deeply flattered, horribly ashamed, guilty, infatuated, scared and because he was married, broken-hearted.
Bruce called the behavior
“an affair” and complimented me on being “mature enough to handle it.” He introduced me to the term
“statutory rape,” explaining that “other people wouldn’t understand - especially your parents” and warning me that if I told anyone, he would go to prison.
About 20 years
later, while researching the subject of coach-athlete sexual abuse for a book, I called Bruce out of the blue to interview him.
He seemed to welcome the call - our first contact in 2 decades -- saying, “I need to have this conversation too.” When I told him how confused and betrayed I had felt and how ashamed of my own “adulterous” behavior, he begged me to forgive him.
“I think I already have forgiven you,” I told him. But when I hung up I felt enraged. I was still furious about the past, I realized and in a subsequent conversation I rescinded my forgiveness. He called me several more times, “trying to move toward some sort of peace between us.” Mistrustful as well as angry, I insisted he stop calling. I concluded our last conversation with a threat: If I found out that he was still molesting girls, I'd support those victims in any charges they might bring against him.
My book, The
Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, includes a chapter called “My Coach Says He Loves Me.” I quoted
Bruce but didn't name him, still feeling loyal to and ambivalent about a man who had, despite the exploitation, also provided much-needed friendship and mentoring.
Then, in response
to requests, I began speaking publicly about coach-athlete abuse - on college campuses, at professional conferences and on national television. Gradually, I changed my mind about shielding Bruce’s identity. Why should I protect him? I thought. In some of these appearances, I deliberately used Bruce’s name.
Though I wasn't consciously vengeful, one might reasonably interpret my “outing” him as an expression of revenge.
In December 1996, Bruce called me. My public statements had made their way back to his home
town. His marriage had been shattered. His boss had confronted him and ordered him to be evaluated by a psychiatrist. Now
his job was at stake. Again he asked me to forgive him.
“I don’t trust you,” I said coldly. “You probably just want me to stop identifying you in public.”
He told me
that he had suffered for many years with guilt and shame. He said he had come close to killing himself - and that he was now considering suicide again. I made a token effort to talk him out of it (“that would be a cruel thing to do to your children”) but remained wary and distant, suspecting that he was trying to manipulate me.
Bruce wrote me a letter explaining that he'd confessed all to the psychiatrist and
had been cleared to stay at his job. He apologized for having hurt me and invited me to “try to resolve things between us.” I didn’t respond.
Three weeks later he wrote me a 2nd letter, again
apologizing and asking me to consider meeting with him. I read the letters, put them aside and refocused on my work, my
deadlines, my life. I was busy. I was angry. I was wary. Why should I give him what he wants? I thought. Forgiveness is on his agenda, not mine.
deep within, I was touched by his letters. I had to admit, he sounded sincere. He sounded remorseful. Regardless of his motivations, he was reaching out to me, trying to repair a very damaged relationship. It occurred to me: What if I never
forgive him? At age 40, was I facing another 40 years of bitterness over something that had happened in my teens? The wound wasn't healing on its own. I thought, Something has to give. Then I thought,
Maybe that something is me.
Maybe I could
lay down my burden of anger. Maybe, rather than remain forever entrenched in the victim role, I could take responsibility for healing myself. And maybe, in ways I couldn't yet imagine, Bruce
would help me. 25 years after the abuse, the concept of forgiveness began to seem like a remote but appealing possibility.
I called Bruce, saying that “some sort of peace or reconciliation or forgiveness might be possible,” adding bitterly, “but I don’t see how.”
We talked for
an hour. The next day I called again and we talked for another hour. Over the next 6 months we exchanged many long letters,
talked on the phone many times and met in person twice.
I began to
believe that he cared not only about himself, but about me. I began to believe that he was telling the truth when he said he had stopped abusing kids more than 2 decades ago. I began to sense that his request for forgiveness offered me an opportunity: a chance to grow, to learn and perhaps to heal.
considering forgiveness felt dangerous. What if he was still molesting girls? What if his sole agenda was to silence me? I was afraid to tell Bruce how I felt and I was afraid to listen to him. I was afraid to revisit very old, very deep wounds. Expressing anger to him on the phone, I was afraid he would yell at me, threaten me, or even drive to my house and shoot me. When he would make little jokes, I was afraid he was trying to seduce me, at least emotionally. Sometimes I felt guilty, the way I had when I was young, as if I were doing something wrong. Sometimes my whole body would shake, as if I were freezing.
I was embarking
on a treacherous journey but I wasn't traveling alone. Bruce, of all people, was
accompanying me. Eventually I thanked him for that: for his active, empathic listening; for the many times he validated my feelings; for his ultimate acceptance of full responsibility.
interactions were tense and difficult, I began to understand his willingness to listen and apologize as a gift: a form of reparations more meaningful to me than any financial settlement we might
have agreed to, a form of community service more valuable to me than any jail term he might have endured.
I did forgive him. Then I said goodbye and walked away from a new adult relationship that had become surprisingly tender and fulfilling. The entire process was complex, excruciating and tremendously sad. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was also extremely liberating.
If that had been all - one person forgiving dangerously - there would be no book. But along the way, I became a student of forgiveness and learned some things that radically changed my perspective.
affected nothing less than the way I see other people and the way I love. I learned how to confront pain; how to discover compassion for people who hurt me; how to accept people for who they are, even when it’s not who I want them to be.
humility - and a sense of humor - about my own transgressions. I learned how to forgive myself. And I discovered that forgiveness is a path to freedom.
I sensed I
wasn't alone. There were others who knew what I knew and more and I felt compelled to find them. Mark Umbreit, director of the Center for Restorative
Justice at the University of Minnesota,
spends time in prisons and on death row, serving as a mediator between society’s worst criminals and the victims they
have left behind.
that in his forgiveness work, he witnesses “some of the most beautiful aspects of the human experience in the context of some
of the most evil.”
As I researched
this topic, I met beautiful, deeply wounded people who shared with me their brave attempts to transcend evil, to reclaim hope and love and to extend compassion, both to their most hated enemies and to themselves. It was a privilege to witness and only made me more curious about the process of forgiveness: how it happens, and how it affects the forgiver and the forgiven.
my interest in forgiveness paralleled a national and international groundswell of interest in the subject. Almost overnight, forgiveness became a hot topic as political and religious leaders publicly apologized for numerous atrocities; male athletes
from football player Lawrence Phillips (who
assaulted his ex-girlfriend) to boxer Mike Tyson
(who bit his opponent’s ears) to pro basketball player Latrell Sprewell (who choked his coach) made the apology a staple of the sports press conference; the Million Man March and the Promise Keepers’
march on Washington emphasized “atonement” for male sins and requests for women’s forgiveness; scientists began studying the relationship between forgiveness and mental health; Archbishop Desmond Tutu established South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an unprecedented
institutionalization of forgiveness; and President Bill Clinton made multiple pleas for forgiveness in regard to his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
explored the subject, the International Forgiveness Institute was founded, the Templeton Foundation offered grants to scholars, numerous movies and books emerged with forgiveness themes, and columnists in publications as diverse as Time, the Utne Reader, the Wall Street Journal, Family
Circle, and U.S. News and World Report debated the issue. Teachers, therapists, and families began talking about forgiveness outside of religious settings - which had been the primary context for those discussions for most of human history.
fascination with forgiveness is discussed in this book, as are politically motivated apologies. I mention religious doctrine and spiritual
tradition. But this book is not about whether grand-scale atrocities such as the Holocaust are forgivable, nor whether God forgives us, nor whether the United States should
apologize to its citizens for such things as slavery. It’s a personal book, about human beings who seek to forgive other human beings who have hurt or betrayed or violated or simply disappointed them.
this book, I weave my personal story: the dramatic and poignant reckoning between molester and molestee. Along the way I offer
many other stories and struggles, along with experts’ insights about what happens, or can happen, after abuse, assault, neglect, murder, wrongdoing, affront, or simple misunderstandings.
forgiveness books, this book does not advocate a particular religious perspective. Unlike other authors, I do not propose
putting limits or conditions on forgiveness. (“You should forgive
if...” or “Don’t forgive until...”)
I do not promise or even propose reconciliation; that’s a separate consideration. And I do not see forgiveness as an end in itself.
In The Unburdened Heart I offer this observation: Unconditional forgiveness, whether inspired by religious beliefs or not, heals. The one who is healed - the forgiver - becomes free from the pain of the past, and also free to love differently, and love more, in the future. That
person may or not reconcile with the person who hurt them, depending on the needs, interests, and level of trust between those two people. Regardless, forgiveness will have widespread personal, interpersonal, and even political ramifications as forgivers begin to treat everyone with more love and compassion.
When I told
a friend that I planned to consult a religious leader about forgiveness, she joked, “What are you going to ask: if he’s for it or against it?”
Of course he would be “for” it. And he was.
one thing to be “for” forgiveness - who isn’t? - and quite another to integrate it into one’s life.
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive,” noted C.S. Lewis.
Usually forgiveness does not happen immediately. It requires time and thought. Usually forgiveness is not easy. Otherwise, more people would do it. Forgiveness can involve confusion and anger and a deep grieving that wasn’t done originally, when the hurt first occurred. Often one must forgive repeatedly, for the same offense. It’s not simple.
essential. “Without forgiveness,” philosopher Hannah Arendt
noted, “we would never be released from the consequences of what we have done or what has been done to us, and our capacity
to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.”
“Without forgiveness,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu,
“there would be no future.”
religions advocate some aspects of forgiveness. The New Testament tells Christians to forgive. The Koran tells Muslims to forgive. Judaism institutionalizes atonement. Buddhism recommends compassion for all living things. The Hindu poem the Bhagavad Gita says, “If
you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.”
Forgiveness is integral to most Native American religions. Seneca Indian writer Jose´Hobday says he learned about forgiveness from his mother, who would say to him when he sought revenge: “Do not be so ignorant and stupid and inhuman
as they are. Go to an elder and ask for the medicine that will turn your heart from bitterness to sweetness. You must learn
the wisdom of how to let go of the poison.”
agreement that we should be “for” forgiveness, how and when and what to forgive is widely debated and disputed. Jews and Christians disagree. Feminists and psychologists disagree. And most
experts disagree with the dictionary. So when President Clinton asked for forgiveness, it wasn’t clear if he was asking people to pardon his behavior, as the dictionary indicates, or to “decrease
resentment toward and increase compassion toward” him, as International Forgiveness Institute founder Robert Enright defines the term, or simply to reward him with political absolution so he could remain in
office, as many cynical constituents suspected.
There are those
who say that regardless of apologies and contrition and other offerings, we must not forgive Clinton, or many other people, because to forgive is to condone reprehensible behavior. According to this view, forgiveness sends the wrong message: Your behavior wasn’t wrong after all.
believe that forgiveness should be granted only if certain conditions are met, including any or all of these: admission, apology, atonement, reparations,
and contrition. Hence President Clinton’s speech
admitting an “improper relationship” with Lewinsky was criticized as insufficiently contrite. News accounts noted
that he did not utter the words “sorry” or “apology.” In his subsequent requests for forgiveness, he used those words repeatedly.
But forgiveness should not be used as a bargaining chip to control someone who misbehaved: If you jump through these hoops, I’ll forgive you. We shouldn’t relinquish control to them like that, leaving our forgiveness in their hands.
forgiveness be seen as synonymous with pardoning, except in the sense of forgiving someone for a financial debt. Forgiveness and justice are separate issues, and not incompatible. You can forgive someone and still press charges against him or her. If you want to prevent them from hurting others, lock the door to the jailhouse, or lock the door to your own house. But keep the doors to your heart open.
Forgiveness does not mean condoning, though many people think it does. To condone is to excuse, tolerate, overlook, or disregard
an offense. It implies that the offense is trivial or harmless. But when someone is considering forgiveness, they’re doing so precisely because they do not excuse or minimize the offense, and do not perceive it to be trivial.
They have suffered. Otherwise, forgiveness would not be necessary.
Forgiveness does not mean martyrdom. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness does not guarantee trust or reconciliation. After forgiveness, we shouldn’t continue getting abused or betrayed or used or mocked or insulted. We can forgive and also say no. We can forgive and file for divorce.
The word forgive comes from Middle English words meaning “before” and “gift.” So maybe it’s a gift in response
to what came before. Or a gift before any such gift is expected. Many people have said forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, because you’ll feel better, and that’s true. It’s primarily for you. But it’s
also a gift to the person who hurt you, because you can relieve them of some of their guilt or shame. And it’s a gift to your friends and family and acquaintances
because when the doors of your heart open, they open in all directions, freeing you to become a much more loving, compassionate person.
Forgiveness is a choice. We can’t necessarily forgive just because we want to, but even asking the question Might I forgive? can subtly open possibilities. We can also choose not to forgive. Framing it as a choice helps bring it to a conscious level.
Forgiveness is empowering. Many of us believe that our own happiness cannot be achieved until someone else comes crawling to us on hands and knees, or learns their lesson,
or promises to be different. But our happiness is not really dependent upon the behavior of other people. The forgiver changes her focus from “if only they would” to “I wonder if I could...”
Forgiveness is a skill. Like shooting basketballs through a hoop, it gets easier with practice. Some people recommend practicing first
on the easy stuff: forgiving a grumpy child, an incompetent receptionist, a nosy neighbor. But sometimes the “hard stuff” becomes the training
ground because it demands attention, as Bruce demanded mine. Either way, the key,
as with any skill-building process, is practice. Like athletes, forgivers improve with repeated efforts, with a commitment to learning every detail of how the process works, and with the application of forgiveness skills to new situations.
Forgiveness is a journey. It requires endurance and a willingness to face the unknown. The key is “to begin and to continue,”
says author Clarisa Pinkola
Forgiveness is also, it seems to me, a sixth stage of grief. Elisabeth
Kubler-Ross identified denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as the five stages of grieving (or dying, or loss).
Forgiveness is what you do after acceptance, when acceptance is not enough, when you’ve lost something important - a relationship,
a dream, a self-image, a physical ability - and you still feel empty or bitter inside. You start forgiving the other person for having died or having left you or having injured your elbow or having said those mean things many years
ago. You start forgiving yourself for not having been a better friend or spouse or daughter or employee. Forgiveness completes the grieving process, allowing one not only to “move on,” but to become stronger and more generous
and more loving.
I take this
radical stance: forgiveness is advisable even if offenders never admit culpability, never offer reparations of any kind. Even if they don’t admit
that they hurt you, or don’t care that you’re hurt, or pretend the incident never happened. Even if they blame you, or won’t talk to you, or have long since died. Forgive anyway, regardless of what the other person says or does. Forgive when you’re unsure, or afraid, or resentful, or wanting to exact revenge. Forgive when the other person doesn’t apologize, or doesn’t
apologize correctly. Forgive them for that: for their inability,
unwillingness, stubbornness, fear.
I’m proposing a departure from the usual ways of dealing with
pain: unending blame, anger, bitterness, and quid pro quo: “I’ll only forgive you if...” I’m advocating what Jesus, the most radical of forgivers, was advocating when soldiers were hammering huge pointed spikes through his hands, then hoisting his cross. “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they’ve done,” he said. His murderers had not apologized. They didn’t
use the word sorry. Yet even then, in the midst of his own execution, Jesus had forgiveness on his mind.
how unconditional forgiveness works: When the forgiver hears no apology, she recognizes the other person’s limitations, remembering how difficult it can be for many of us
to take responsibility, even for small transgressions. When she hears an apology but it doesn’t sound sufficient, she
imagines how hard it must be for someone else to apologize in just the way she wants. She forgives them for what they did and also for what they cannot or will not do. She stops waiting for her offender to do anything at
all. She stops blaming someone else for her unhappiness. She stops focusing on the past and starts taking responsibility for the future. She stops singing the “you done me
wrong” blues and starts vocalizing her own plans. And she stops feeling superior to others and remembers her own frailty
It is possible
to heal without forgiveness. “Letting go” is the process of allowing one’s negative feelings and attachments to abate. The offender
need not be involved, in actuality or in one’s mind. The wounded one uses prayer, or meditation, or determination, or sometimes simply the healing power of time to get past anger, bitterness, vindictiveness. For some people this works, and for some people, this is enough.
Forgiveness, by contrast, involves thinking about the other person and wondering why they did what they did. You won’t necessarily
comprehend how it happened. You won’t necessarily ask them or tell them about your process. That person might not be
available to discuss it with you. But the offender is taken into consideration. In that way, forgiveness always involves more than one person. It’s a relationship. It’s the generous act of welcoming an offender back into your heart.
How can I propose
unconditional forgiveness when, in my own experience, I placed certain conditions on Bruce: you must apologize,
you must take full responsibility, and you must convince me you’re not currently molesting girls? Am I suggesting to readers that they should forgive unconditionally, though I did not?
suggesting that we all could forgive unconditionally -- and that it’s often our only choice. Of course apologies and other indications of remorse and support are preferable to denial, blame, or silence. But I’m less concerned with what’s preferable and more concerned with what’s real: imperfect human beings stumbling along, hurting each other, and seeking ways to mend. In reality, many people never receive the kind of apology they seek.
In my case,
Bruce gave me many things, but he didn’t give me everything I wanted. For instance:
he refused to “come out” in public as a child molester, as I requested, claiming that his community would never
accept him if they knew. He refused to read the chapter I had written on coach-athlete abuse, claiming that he wasn’t
strong enough to withstand seeing my anger at him in print. He complicated matters by threatening to commit suicide, by telling
me about his unrelated family problems, and by implicitly asking me to fulfill some of his emotional needs - all of which had the effect of eliciting both my sympathy and my anger. I ended up forgiving him for all of that too.
Early in my
research, the father of a murdered child asked me, “Do you think the forgiveness process is the same for small things and big things?”
seemed obvious, at first: Only a fool would equate a paper cut with a knife wound, a fender bender with a fatal accident.
Surely the forgiveness process must be slower, more difficult, and more complicated when the scale of pain and loss and injury is great.
But now I’ve
met people who have harbored hatred for decades over simple slights, and I’ve met people who have instantly forgiven criminals for felony offenses. I’ve noticed that some people are more easily and more deeply hurt than others, regardless of how small or large the transgression. Some feel more incensed by an arrogant sales clerk than others might feel after being mugged.
is that huge offenses sometimes raise the question of forgiveness in a way the tiny offenses do not. If your neighbor argues with you about where you park your car, you can hold a grudge
against that person all your life, recounting the story of the dispute to anyone who will listen, but unless you’re
an unusually sensitive person, that level of anger won’t affect your ability to love others or celebrate life or sleep
well at night, at least not in ways you’ll notice. However, if that neighbor sets fire to your house, your level of
rage and your sense of violation may be so tremendous that your pain might consume you, destroying all hope and joy, until
you ask yourself, Might I be able to forgive?
In this book I include stories about everyday annoyances and almost
unimaginable crimes. These offenses are not the same, of course. Nor do I mean to equate anyone’s forgiveness process with anyone else’s. Those of us who forgive each do so in our own unique way. Yet I hope to provide guidance for anyone who wants to forgive, regardless of the magnitude of the offenses committed against that person and regardless of the magnitude of his or her pain.
In the five
central chapters of this book I offer five keys to forgiveness and freedom. Originally I thought of them as simply keys to forgiveness, but now my goal has changed, along with my sense of what’s possible. I had thought that forgiveness was the destination, but now I see that it’s only a vehicle that carries us to the destination, which is freedom.
five stages of grief, my five keys to forgiveness and freedom are not linear and not necessarily within conscious control. Some have emotional components that cannot be rushed or forced. How or if they happen might vary according to one’s
motivation to stop hurting, assistance from the perpetrator, and other individual factors. In some situations, only a few of the keys are necessary;
other situations require all five. But these seem to be the essential keys:
The first defense
against pain is denial: it didn’t happen, or it wasn’t important, or it didn’t affect me much, or they didn’t
mean it, and therefore I shouldn’t be angry. It’s much more comfortable, often, to stay in denial than to face what actually occurred. Yet forgiveness cannot take place unless one decides who one is forgiving, and what one is forgiving that person for. What happened?
Who was responsible? What were the consequences? How did you
feel about it then, and how do you feel about it now? What impact did it have on how you see yourself and the world? This
process of remembering and acknowledging exactly what happened can take courage, since it can rip apart old wounds.
Answers to these questions can be surprising and unwelcome.
Maybe, when you really think about it, what you remember wasn’t quite the same as what happened,. Maybe the person who
seemed to be at fault really wasn’t, or not entirely. Yet without directly addressing the problem, its consequences, and the emotional repercussions,
forgiveness has no meaning.
We are a species of story-tellers. It’s through talking
and listening to each other that we grow, heal, and understand ourselves and each other. After becoming aware of what happened - or as part of that process - the potential forgiver generally
shares her story with someone else. This simple act of talking, and feeling heard, can help ease the burden of anger. If the offender will listen sympathetically, that’s ideal. If not, friends, therapists, support groups, email
discussion groups, or other sympathetic people can validate that something hurtful happened; that it was not one’s imagination; that the injured party is not wrong to be grieving or enraged or afraid or simply hurt.
Though initially inconceivable, compassion for the offender seems an essential step toward forgiveness. Compassion for oneself comes first: taking care of one’s wounds and seeking help from those who can validate, listen, nurture. Then, when one can begin to inch beyond one’s own pain,
seeking compassion for the offender becomes key. People hurt others because they themselves are hurting - or confused or ignorant. Thus offenders are candidates for compassion: for their own pain, confusion, and ignorance, present and past.
Even murders, rapists, terrorists - perpetrators of crimes
so heinous they stun the rest of us - these people, too, could be said to “deserve” compassion for the simple and obvious fact that they have suffered. Otherwise, they would not have done what they did. South Africans
call this process seeking the humanity in others. As one seeks someone else’s humanity, one rediscovers one’s
Somewhere along the way, as the rage
subsides, we remember that we’re not only victims. We have also hurt other people, whether through insensitivity, misguided intentions, or malicious acts. Humility helps place our own injuries into context, locating them somewhere in the broad range of human
experience. As we take stock of our own frailties, faults, and failings, we begin to feel less victimized, and less different from the offender. Once in touch with our own shortcomings, the question arises: Can we forgive ourselves?
This is the
process of giving ourselves permission to be who we are. Like forgiving others, self-forgiveness is a gift, a demonstration of compassion for the person who often needs it most. It’s essential for people who believe they somehow participated in getting
injured, it’s good practice for learning to forgive others, and it’s perhaps the most important aspect of forgiveness, since many of us are more critical of ourselves than we are of anyone else.
Awareness, validation, compassion, humility, and self-forgiveness are keys that open the doors to the heart. Once your heart is open, you’re free from carting around old gripes and grudges. You’re free from the past. You’re free from the person who wounded you in the past, and free to let go of the identity of victim or martyr. You’re free from the long wait to hear “I’m sorry.” You’re free to rebuild a relationship with the person who hurt you, or not. You’re free to love more, and to receive more love.
This is what
freedom looks like: a place beyond ego, where you realize that what other people are doing is not really about you at all. Things
that had seemed unforgivable affronts to your dignity and self-respect become pitiable, but no longer personal. You feel injured and insulted and offended
and betrayed less often, so the whole struggle with hurt and anger and vindictiveness and forgiveness becomes moot.
Well, not entirely.
Even people with airy, wide-open hearts still get their feelings hurt and blame people and grow resentful and need to forgive repeatedly. Forgiveness is not an idealized, divine virtue as might be preached from the pulpit, but a messy, painful, awkward, difficult dance between fallible and wounded human beings.
message of the book is this: Forgiveness is a viable option for people who want to stop hurting and hating. It takes work; it generates pain before it eases it; it’s scary; it involves acknowledging one’s own flaws and failings; it’s not always politically popular.
But it’s freeing.