Fr John McKinnon...
For peace to be fully regained after the experience of anger, it is necessary that we either honestly excuse or forgive the person or persons with whom we are angry. Like love, forgiveness is something of a mystery! It is easier to say what it is not than to say what it is. It certainly involves more than to say, "Forget it!". That is to by-pass forgiveness.
It also means more than to excuse. Excusing is necessary where it is appropriate. It is certainly helpful to realize that we sometimes contribute to the hurts that others inflict on us by our own unjust treatment of them, deliberate or otherwise. However, forgiveness really starts where excusing stops, since strictly there is no need to forgive what can be excused. We forgive what we cannot excuse.
Among other things, forgiveness means the decision to love the person in the same way we would if he or she had not hurt us. Forgiveness involves our readiness to reach back in love to those who have hurt or are still hurting us. Ideally it would involve the effort on our part to communicate our forgiveness. It would mean, where possible, trying to re-establish community. This, in turn, may mean a determined effort to discover the "common ground" beneath the differences that may still persist between us. Certainly it means a decision never to store away in order to use again the memory of the hurt, either to accuse the person concerned, or to bolster our own self-pity.
In all this we may still feel awkward, and even hypocritical. Our choice to love may necessitate our keeping away from the ones who have hurt us, at least temporarily, until they have changed their attitudes. And, since love does not mean that we cannot try to change a situation, neither need forgiveness paralyse us or prevent our trying either to stop others hurting us or to counter their aggression.
It may help us to understand forgiveness if we observe the way that God forgives us. God does not deny our sin nor stop trying to get us to change our sinful ways nor pat us on the head as though our sin were nothing to be concerned about. In fact God continues to love us and to leave the way open for our repentance and return, continuing to respect our own responsibility and refusing to coerce or to manipulate our response.
There seems to be a mysterious power in forgiveness. It stretches our sense of personal wholeness; and when it leads to reconciliation, the intimacy that it makes possible is somehow stronger and deeper than what existed before. Perhaps it is in the mutual recognition of weakness and vulnerability that human persons transcend their selfishness and actualize depths of their own being that would otherwise have never been touched.
When anger is not integrated and hurts are not forgiven, the anger turns into resentment, and the resentment in time becomes bitterness. Both have the effect of poisoning our relationships and preventing our experience of inner peace.
It is something of a mystery why people refuse to forgive because the alternative, bitterness, is not really enjoyable. Perhaps in a twisted way the hurt and anger are used to give a perverted sense of self-worth and identity. It may be a little like the attitude of the hysterical child for whom any notice is better than no notice at all, even if the notice takes the form of punishment. The twisted self-esteem of "martyrdom" may seem preferable to its surrender through forgiveness. Or it may be that people wonder what would be left of their self-esteem, their principles, their loyalty to their friends and everything else they stood for if they were to let go of their hurt and their anger and choose to forgive. Forgiveness can seem like a real death, a real dying to self. But it is the condition for finding self and experiencing the freedom that was so much part of the life of Jesus.
As with depression, so too with forgiveness. A sound self-love and a healthy self-esteem are almost indispensable factors for true forgiveness to happen.
Healing Accumulated Hurts…
If someone has habitually repressed or suppressed anger, it can be quite difficult to uncover it. Yet it is important that it be uncovered and eventually integrated because it persists all the same and is destructive both to the person who denies the anger and to others.
There are ways that help this discovery and lead to eventual integration.
Healing Buried Memories: When a person feels guilt and depression, the hurts behind them can sometimes be brought into awareness by a determined exercise of memory. It is important that the originating hurts be allowed to be felt again and observed, and that any feelings of anger that may have been directed at the self be diverted towards the persons associated with the hurts in the memory. If only part of the hurt is surfaced, only part of the anger is released. To feel the hurt and anger again can be quite difficult.
Especially when the anger is not clearly felt, some people have found it helpful to try deliberately to express the vague anger in a safe way, imaginatively or through some kind of action, in language or gesture. They may, for example, scream loudly or punch a pillow. Sometimes the anger can be unearthed by noticing any pain or tenseness in the body and concentrating on it until the feeling that is triggering it comes into awareness. If and when the anger eventually comes into focus, it then needs to be looked at and owned for what it is and allowed to remain until its energy has dissipated and the feeling integrated.
Because the readiness to allow the hurt to be felt again can be a very painful experience, it may sometimes be helpful and, in cases where the feelings are strong or the person's own self-love and esteem are low, it may perhaps even be necessary to have somebody else present as a source of reassurance, support and love.
A number of people have found that a prayerful atmosphere is very supportive and healing. Some allow their imagination to fuse with their memory in such a way that they revisualise the hurtful experience and allow Jesus to enter imaginatively into the scene. After all, since he lives in each of us, he was present to the original event. His presence was a loving presence that in the trauma of the hurt was not realized and sometimes indeed could not have been. But had it been known and experienced at the time, its power would have been enough to neutralize the destructive power of the hurt. Since categories of time, of past and present, have no relevance to the risen Christ, the power of his past love can be drawn on in the present to counteract the hurt kept in the memory.
After the owning of the hurt and the anger the decision to forgive needs to be faced. Forgiveness ties up the loose ends; it removes the destructiveness from the hurts and angers, and it leaves nothing but bad memories that no longer generate anxiety and fear.
It may be important at times eventually to communicate the anger and forgiveness to the persons concerned, not simply imaginatively but in fact. This may not always be necessary; but when it is not done, it is helpful to know and own the reason why not, even if the reason be the fear of being rejected or otherwise hurt again. This fear can be a quite reasonable fear, but it too needs to be recognized, owned and integrated.
Preventing Build-up: A helpful exercise for people who are frequently out of touch with their anger is to review their activities at the end of each day and search for the various experiences of hurt, disappointment, irritation, frustration etc. that may have occurred. When these have been noted, the next step is to find out what happened to the angers that presumably were associated with the hurts. Where did they go? What was done with them? If they were not integrated, then the integration can be begun there and then. Once they are integrated, the decision can be made about expressing them appropriately should the occasion to do so occur in the future. Making a deliberate choice to forgive can conclude the process. The whole exercise can be situated within the context of God's presence and God's desire to love each of us fully into life.
We may fear at times that the expression of anger will endanger the development of relationships. The contrary is in fact the truth. The constructive and respectful expression of anger is a condition of mature friendship. True intimacy supposes that each party be real to the other. "All that I am, just as I am, relating to all that you are, just as you are." When people do not relate to each other on the basis of intimacy, inevitably they relate on the basis of power in one or other of its myriad forms. This is ultimately destructive of true human dignity.
The experience of anger comes naturally. How we deal with it, however, is a skill that has to be learnt. Much of that learning is done spontaneously by observing how others behave. In our present culture some of that learning has to be unlearnt, and new skills consciously developed. But for the sake of intimacy and of living life to the full many of us need to learn how to get in touch with our feelings again and how to express them in ways that are constructive and respectful.
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©2008 John McKinnon