READER POST: In his October General Conference talk, “The Ministry Of Reconciliation,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland states, “Surely each of us could cite an endless array of old scars and sorrows and painful memories that this very moment still corrode the peace in someone’s heart or family or neighborhood.” I have those scars. In fact, I do not attend church right now because it is not a safe place for me. People don’t ever ask why, but they are quick to tell me to forgive and forget and beware of pride and victimization.
Elder Holland concludes by asking us to be peacemakers, saying, “I make that appeal in the name of the Prince of Peace, who knows everything about being ‘wounded in the house of His friends’ but who still found the strength to forgive and forget—and to heal—and be happy.” I pondered on this. Strength to forgive? Forget? Heal? Be happy?
Oh, Elder Holland, the work I have done. I have learned how beautiful life can be when I am not called a “worthless bitch” nearly every day in my own home. I learned how to breathe in strength and solitude and breathe out resentment and bewilderment. I have embraced mindfulness techniques and poured over leading expert’s words on abuse, shame, and resiliency. I have cried alongside horrifically abused women. I attend support groups, therapy, training sessions, and seminars.
I have relied on the Atonement even though I often doubt it exists for me. You see, it is really difficult for victims to believe they are deserving of peace and happiness; the levels of betrayal in our lives are often so great, so horrible, so unbelievable that it degrades their inner sense of self-worth. Nevertheless, I have put in the work and it has helped me immensely. I thrive most days. I love to live and I am empowered. I feel my feelings but remain in control of them at all times. I embrace the quiet, gentle moments that once seemed lost in my life.
It was painful to hear a talk on forgiveness without also talking about abuse. It was painful to hear a simplistic prescriptive formula for happiness attached to situations in which the damage is irreparable. General membership and survivors alike need so desperately to know that trauma is not a dirty word but something that can inform how we interact with the wounded in our flock. These notions of forgiveness are not helpful without also condemning the sins, wrongdoings, abuses, intentional malice, evils, crimes, and misconduct that caused trauma and pain in the first place. By presenting a simplistic relationship between forgiveness and healing, the endless work survivors put into just staying afloat can feel as if that work is being erased. Don’t erase the nights I spent bathed in my own tears of the purest grief I have ever felt. Don’t erase the in-depth self-work I did to heal. Don’t erase the countless times I donated my own plasma to make ends meet during months of financial abuse. Don’t erase the angry prayers I yelled to whoever was up there listening to me cuss, complain, and question Why, Why, Why, Why? Don’t erase my real fight for healing with a platitude.
Nevertheless, I made a forgiveness list.
My Forgiveness List:
I forgive the bishop who re-traumatized me in his office and told me I deserved abuse.
I forgive this “Judge in Israel” for interrogating me, a 34 year old married mother of 4, about my sex life.
I forgive this “representative of Christ” for denying even the most basic temporal aid to me and my children in our time of need.
I forgive the stake president who didn’t believe me and who told me I was lying.
I forgive the Relief Society president who knew but did nothing.
I forgive the Sunday School teacher who said I was “prideful” for leaving abuse.
I forgive the Primary teacher who slept with my husband when my life was crumbling.
I forgive the Elders Quorum for removing my personal, intimate belongings from my home without my permission.
I forgive the home teachers who stopped visiting because they were no longer “assigned” to me.
I forgive the priesthood leader for refusing to see what was right in front of him.
I forgive the Scout leader who protected my abuser because he will want that protection one day himself.
I forgive the sisters at church who refused to sit next to me.
I forgive the church friends who haven’t spoken to me in over a year.
And those who responded with a blind eye and a cold shoulder.
And those who defame me, saying I must be mentally unstable.
And those who judge me for leaving my marriage and seeking safety.
I forgive the members for their silence, their ignorance, their complicity, their shunning.
And I forgive my abuser.
I forgave. I forgive. I can forgive. I will forgive.
How can we talk about forgiveness without giving equal attention to the sins that have contributed to its need? If we want to present paradigms, let us present ones that are filled with truth. Forgiveness is needed because someone did something wrong. In many cases, very wrong. Forgiveness does not come easy to the burdened.
Buried deep in Elder Holland’s talk were these words, which I appreciate:
It is important for some of you living in real anguish to note what Christ did not say. He did not say, ‘You are not allowed to feel the true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.’ Nor did he say, ‘In order for you to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.’ …even the most terrible offenses…
Does my pain count as “real anguish”? Do these church members who enabled abuse count as “toxic relationships”? Does my situation count as “destructive circumstance”? Are these things “terrible offenses?” Do I really have permission to set the boundaries I already have implemented?
Yes, I forgive. Every day I make that choice to forgive. Seventy times seven. But there is one thing that I still have trouble forgiving. One thing that is missing from my list:
How do I forgive myself for wanting to be safe? How do I forgive myself for expecting ethics in handling abuse? How do I forgive myself for being so naive?
I need to add an addendum to my list:
I’m Sorry List
I am sorry for trusting and for not trusting.
I am sorry for wanting safety.
I am sorry for asking for help.
I am sorry for not reaching out.
I am sorry I stayed silent.
I am sorry I spoke up.
I am sorry for setting a boundary.
I am sorry for clinging to my community.
I am sorry I loved someone who hurt me.
I am sorry I felt betrayed by betrayal.
I am sorry for being broken.
I am sorry I was traumatized.
I am sorry I told and I didn’t tell.
I am sorry. So So So So Sorry.
These two lists illustrate plain and precious truths: Victims are left holding their pain forever, while abusers go on with their lives. Survivors are weighed down with regret, while enablers walk unencumbered. Victims become best friends with our pain, while those who caused it never give us a second thought. We learn to live with trauma, while others judge us for it.
Could we have a talk on forgiveness that also condemns the sins that caused the pain? Could we have one talk on the unending burdens that survivors have no choice but to live with every day? An entire talk on how abuse impacts victims? An entire talk on how trauma becomes imprinted on our spirit? An entire talk on the demons that haunt survivors in our sleep and the confoundedness that accompanies us in our waking hours?
I imagine the day when a leader will stand up and tell all of us, “You are loved in your brokenness and grief. Even in your anger for what happened to you. You are loved. You are worth it. You are enough. You were and you are always enough.”
I forgive others.
But I still have not forgiven myself.
READER BIO: Lesley Anne is an RN by trade, but feeds her dominant right-brain by embarking on various creative endeavors, such as photography, writing, and design. She is a single mother to 4 young children, all of whom love art, play-doh, and dance parties in the kitchen. She comes from a heritage of Mormon pioneer-stock and appreciates her roots. Lesley has taken a proactive advocacy position for survivors of spiritual abuse with her efforts at unrighteousdominion.org. Her previous submissions may be read here and here
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