We all know forgiveness is a good idea. Like exercise and meditation, you don’t find too many voices speaking up against them. But, do you know how it works? How, on a practical level, does forgiveness heal?
Before we jump into that, I’d like to tell you my story. We can read all day long about what the experts have to say, but it’s the connection we have to others, to seeing ourselves in them, that creates real space for healing.
On April 10, 1979, my father called my mother and asked if I could come to Boston to spend the Easter holiday with him. Despite the request being out of the ordinary, my mother agreed. My father flew to Texas and picked me up the next day. Several days later he left a message for my mom telling her she would never see me again.
I don’t remember leaving the country, and I did not know I had been abducted. My father told me my family didn’t want me, and that my mother was too busy to call. I spent the next three and a half years being moved from place to place, always trying to get my bearings and adapt to my environment. My father was an abusive man with a violent temper and little capacity to care for a child. So, at the age of seven, I started taking care of myself.
On my twelfth birthday, the US Embassy in London called an investigator in my hometown and informed him that I was living in England. My mother flew to the UK in early July that year and kidnapped me back. She arrived at my best friend’s house in the late evening on July 4 and whispered, “Do you want to go with me?” in my ear. For the second time in my short twelve years, I left the life I knew with the clothes on my back.
These events had a significant impact on my family. I came home to a very different life. My half-sister had moved across the country to live with her father and his family. My mother was deeply affected by the years of struggle and emotional torment my father and his family had put her through. Many years later, I came to recognize that I spent the next ten-plus years in a sort of daze. I started using drugs at an early age to manage my suffering and dropped out of high school.
In November 1990, I gave birth to my son. This initiated a period of learning how to trust and love another human being for the first time. Despite my youth and unpreparedness, I was a natural mother, and we were easy companions. I worked multiple jobs while attending college during the first seven years of his life. I found comfort and security in school. Through my studies, I could escape the chaos in my mind and heart. But the relative harmony did not last.
As graduation approached, the fear of not knowing what I was going to do next threw me off the balance beam I had been teetering on since my son was born. I felt lost as a mother for the first time. Zach was becoming a little boy of the age I had been when I was abducted. Not only did I know nothing about boys, I knew nothing about how a seven-year-old might experience life under normal circumstances. These changes stirred in me a paralyzing fear, and I began to self-destruct.
I turned to the coping mechanisms that I’d learned earlier in life. In 1998, I embarked on a four-year journey through hell. I started shooting up in late 1998. The following year I lost everything, including custody of my son to my mother and stepfather, who were willing and able to take care of him. I lived in a car, sleeping in dimly lit parking lots hidden under trees and praying for safety on the warm nights when I had to keep the windows cracked to let the breeze through. I met many interesting characters during this period, souls I will always cherish for teaching me the meaning of true empathy.
Empathy is one of the most important aspects of forgiveness. As human beings, we like to draw lines in the sand between us and them. “I am empathetic but I would never . . .” One of the gifts of this time was my discovery that those lines are illusions. All of the hurtful things we do are cut from the same fabric: suffering and responding to suffering.
In 1999 and 2000, after losing custody of my son, I made two attempts to end my life. On August 10, 2000, ill from drugs, I drove to a secluded spot on the Paluxy River and tried to die. As I lay on the dry limestone riverbed, I saw the clichéd white light quickly moving from the horizon toward me. As it approached my feet and my body began to dissipate, something happened. I had a conversation with someone, the details of which I cannot clearly recall today. As this being faded, in a single moment, I saw everything that ever was and ever would be. I knew why everything was the way it was, and for an ephemeral moment, I experienced no suffering. Everything made sense. My heart filled with love, and I woke up again. This experience laid the foundation for my eventual healing. Knowing the human potential for no suffering is why I do the work I do today.
Something strange and ironic happened as a result of my failed suicide attempts. Rather than being imbued with a deep sense of purpose and gratitude, I felt helpless in my suffering. I felt like I had failed yet again. I continued to try to end my life by placing myself in extraordinarily dangerous situations. I resolved to make the most of the life I was living by getting tougher and meaner. The meaner I became, the more my intuition beseeched me to yield, to soften. I spent the next two years continuing to act out of my suffering and causing unfathomable pain for those around me and those who loved me.
In 2001 and early 2002, I experienced the “dark night of the soul”: a crisis of faith in which I felt utterly abandoned by God and life. During this time, existence became meaningless, hopeless. I had no sense of what was true and what was an illusion. I often regressed into a state of repeating “Everything is as it should be” over and over again as the only anchor I could find, but I did not believe the words, nor did I understand what they truly meant. I experienced love as suffering. My spiritual and psychological pain was the only thing I could see or feel.
In late 2002, my unwitting wish to no longer suffer almost came true. In the early evening of a fall day, I argued passionately with the man I had been dating. The scene turned to slow motion in my mind when a rage I had never seen in another human being arose from him. His violence, which very nearly killed me, created a shift that shook me from the trance I had been living in. This was the beginning of the end.
In October 2002, I rolled out of bed in a darkened room with only the light from under the bedroom door seeping in. I heard voices on the other side of the door and moved quietly toward the sound to listen. As I crept past a large mirror hung over an old oak dresser, I noticed something drawn on my back like a large, intricate tattoo.
My mind flashed to a memory of the man I had called my partner for the past year drawing on my back with a magic marker. As I turned to look over my shoulder, I saw the words “Treat me like a Queen” sketched across the width of my tiny, frail frame. In the other room, the voices grew louder, shifting my attention from the inexplicable words I was reading on my own body as if I were reading them on an advertisement for an animal shelter adoption program. On the other side of the door, I heard the man I loved say, “How much will you give me for her?” An unfamiliar voice on the other side of the door responded, “Nothing. She’s not worth it.”
I speak about this moment metaphorically as an awakening that spurred a change that the many tragic events leading up to it did not. At that moment, I saw my life from afar. I realized I was going to die having only lived a tragic life. My family was going to bury me, and the only thing they would have to say was how sad my life had been. At that moment, a compassion for self I had never felt emerged. The darkness pulled back, and an awareness of my torment peeked through. Then and there, I resolved to survive. I determined to liberate myself from suffering and live a life filled with the joy and gratitude that broke free in me.
Everything began changing in my life very quickly after that day. I left the city I was living in, got a job and a place to live. My son came home to live with me. I began studying spiritual and religious texts. I studied the well-known recovery books and practices. I implemented the concepts that were consistent with my core beliefs about non-resistance and our inherent divine nature. And, I started systematically forgiving everyone who had ever caused harm in my life, including myself.
Now, I wake up grateful almost every day. I know that there is nothing to forgive because every moment leading up to this one has made me who I am: a perfect expression of my own divinity. A perfect expression of Emily-ness in the world. I believe I am as responsible as every other living soul for the evolution of human consciousness. In fact, I believe we are all responsible for the fate of humanity.
So, what happened? How did I get from a series of tragic events to the blessings of gratitude each day? What transformation took place to change the way I see my life and the story I have about it so fundamentally?
One of the many gifts of my suffering and my stubborn resistance to feeling my psychological and spiritual pain was that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the only way to heal was to allow my suffering to move through me. This is the essence of forgiveness. Forgiveness takes place when we embrace our hurt and respond with compassion and self-love. Jesus said, “Love heals all wounds.” The Buddha said, “Love transforms suffering.” I believe they meant this quite literally. That in the presence of love — the experience of it, not the concept — we transform our suffering into gratitude and joy.
This non-resistance to our hurt is the first step in the healing process. From here, we learn the power of non-judgment and empathy for other human beings, including the harm-doers in our narrative. We recognize that as we heal our story will change. With compassionate eyes, we will come to see the difficult things that have happened as the very foundation of our strength and our peace.
The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness offers a framework we can all use to become more forgiving, compassionate people. It is a comprehensive and practical guide accessible to all who are willing to see their part in the unfoldment of their lives.
This story is adapted from the book, The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness.