Many of you know the story of my assault. You can read more about it in my book, and you can watch me discuss it (and more) with Julia Maddox on Queens Public Television, where I also read the poem I wrote my attacker.
Often, well-meaning people say things like, “You’re a better person than I am” or “I don’t think I could be so forgiving”. I’ve heard similar comments about the family member who emotionally, financially, and physically abused me much of my life—at least before I had to put a protective wall up earlier this year.
It’s not easy to forgive someone who hurt us, yet many trusted sources tell us:
“To err is human, to forgive, divine.” ~ Alexander Pope
“Forgiveness is the gift we give ourselves.” ~ Unknown (but this article sums it up)
“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
So, we try. We tell ourselves to be bigger than our circumstances. We pretend we are no longer hurt by the harm and that we are not afraid of our abusers. But this often subjects us to more harm and greater fear. We can’t “fake it until we make it” without putting ourselves at risk, in most cases.
Maybe you’ve heard a variation of Anne Lamott’s quote: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” I drink enough poison inadvertently and sometimes stupidly, so this often reminds me not to do it willingly. But it has taken me many years to learn now to do this. Not surprisingly, it almost always starts with the Seven Choices.
Then, I can take the Five Actions, which help me focus on my attacker’s hurt, look for what’s missing from their lives, and love them unconditionally—even if I don’t feel safe having them too close. That might be the hardest part for people around me to understand. I can love someone, including the family member who abused me, and not want to talk to her, accept gifts, visit him in jail, or attend events where we might have to interact. My love is unconditional, and I’m learning to give it to myself, too.
In the case of my assailant, I pressed charges and gave my statement to the grand jury, not because I am vindictive. It was the most loving act I felt I could take for everyone under the circumstances. Somewhat naively, I believed that this 14-year-old black boy from Newark would be given sufficient opportunity for rehabilitation—and that he would take it. I wanted him to be held accountable, but I didn’t want to ruin his life, especially after I saw his Facebook (“FB”) page. Like nearly everyone’s FB page, his showed him as he wanted to be seen. He apparently wanted to be viewed as a tough gangbanger who had easy access to a lot of women, money, and marijuana. Yet, when he was on the ground with his hands behind his back and in the police station, I could see the hurting child. I didn’t know the full details his story, but after I looked past my own hurt, fear, and confusion, I could relate.
I kept thinking where I would have been at age 14 on a Sunday night at 10 PM. It certainly wasn’t across the river, looking for an easy target to rob or injure. I was probably at home with my mother, doing homework, painting, talking on the phone, or playing video or board games. Even with the chaos of an unstable and sometimes violent family member, I was lucky to have an environment that nourished and cultivated me.
I wondered whether the boy who attached me had a similar home environment. Did he feel safe? Was he wanted and loved?
Although my mother struggled for most of my young years to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead, I didn’t feel poor because she spoiled us with laughter and love. Did he have that? Was it enough to balance the hatred and racism he likely encountered due to his skin color?
My mother was an example of feminism and courage. She took chances in the Catholic church, and she stood up for her human rights. She raised me to do the same, so I wouldn’t be as surprised when boys would ask me out with the intent to have sex with me, when men at work would expect sexual favors in exchange for giving me the opportunity to do a great job for them, when male mechanics tried to overcharge me for car repairs, etc. She coached me to be a good athlete and mentored me to be self-sufficient, so I would never be left as depleted as my dad left her.
Did the boy who assaulted me have any of this support? I still don’t know. Yet I know that hurt people do harm to others, often thinking this is a way to “even the score” in a game they don’t understand, or maybe even know they are playing.
It became clear to me that I would be as imprisoned as he is, if I did not forgive him and wish him well. It was somewhat easier than forgiving a long-term abuser, who continues to lash out when I do not submit to manipulation. That one will take longer, but I keep forgiving, hoping, and (most importantly) loving. This is truly a gift I give myself. It’s a bonus that it has exponential growth potential.
On the day of my assailant’s sentencing, the prosecutor read my statement and my poem. Although I was advised not to attend due to the additional violent crimes the boy had committed since he fled before the first sentencing hearing, I was advised that everyone in the courtroom was touched by the sentiments. In a tiny way, they learned to listen more deeply, too, because I was willing to “listen” to someone who hurt me, through his utterances after being apprehended, on his FB page, and through the people who spoke for him when he could not find the words (or actions) to express himself effectively.
I am committed to listening with my third ear and discovering what isn’t obvious on the surface of another person’s hurtful behavior. I know behavior can be changed, and I trust others to grow more loving when I am loving. How about you? Can you allow love to flow from you, even with people who hurt you? Tell me about it in the Comments, below.