All Buddhisms place a high value on the truth, and so that is where I’ll begin:
The Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, so involved in the process of reconciliation (i.e. forgiveness) in post-Apartheid South Africa, decided to take what he learned from those experiences (and those of others) and turn it into a sort of program that anyone needing to forgive or be forgiven could participate in. It is called The Forgiveness Challenge:
It is completely free to participate in at any time at your own pace. You sign up and each day there is a short reading and/or meditation, then a journaling activity that helps you to either forgive (others or yourself) or to ask for forgiveness. You can do as much or as little as you want – whatever calls to you, personally. There are also email reminders and forums and online events where you can reach out to others for support on your journey.
Now that the technical information is out of way, however, I fear that some readers might be tempted to stop reading because of some common misconceptions about forgiveness. I’ll explain more as I continue but:
- You don’t forgive for others. You forgive because you are suffering and need to let go of those feelings for your own well being. YOU FORGIVE FOR YOU. So it doesn’t matter if the offender doesn’t show remorse or some other sign.
- FORGIVENESS DOES NOT MEAN “forgetting” or “allowing injustice.” Learn lessons from what happened. If that person does not show remorse or dedicate themselves to change, then take steps to protect yourself. Seek legal action if that is appropriate. Forgiveness is about letting go of your internal suffering, not allowing continued harm or injustice.
- Forgiveness isn’t automatic. It’s a process, and this series of articles is going to lead you through my journey of forgiveness and maybe yours.
My Dukkha (suffering and dissatisfaction)
After promoting The Forgiveness Challenge here and there on our website, I finally posted a lengthy description on this Practice Circle (Forgiveness) article:
I was asked to turn that useful information into this series of articles so that it could be more easily found and accessed on the website. I was deeply flattered (Me? Write an article on a website like The Secular Buddhist? Wow!), but also deeply anxious.
I have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and related issues (General Anxiety Disorder, Agoraphobia, Depression and Personality Disorder). The symptoms make it so that I can’t work (I’m officially disabled) and something like writing an article is this …insurmountable challenge. It requires remembering to do it, concentrating on the task at hand, dealing with all of the intrusive anxieties I get (Am I doing it right? When is it due? What if I offend someone accidentally?), and facing my traumas (in one way or the other). I told Ted Meissner all of this and found understanding. Accommodations were made and help given, so that now I can write these articles the only way I know how – by taking you with me on my journey.
What’s your story? Why did you take the Forgiveness Challenge?
I was tortured by my parents. Quite the introductory sentence isn’t it? But it is true. No sexual abuse and the physical abuse isn’t the part that sticks with me. I was kept in semi-solitary confinement – to the point where I actually didn’t really know how to talk because there wasn’t anyone around to talk or to be spoken to. Then there’s the more standard deprivation of food, medical treatment, etc. But then there’s this delightful category (from a military definition of torture): A8. Induced Desperation: arbitrary arrest; indefinite detention; random punishment or reward;forced feeding; implanting sense of guilt, abandonment, or “learned helplessness”
No matter what I did, there were random “punishments,” and steps taken to make sure that I couldn’t escape.
The police forced them to place me in school, and I actually did quite well. I’m pretty sure that people knew or suspected that I was being mistreated at home – although I doubt they knew the full extent of it. I didn’t have the words to describe what was wrong, and I had learned to keep my mouth shut or else. I was trapped there until I was 18 when there was no longer a way that they could legally hold me. I ran off to college and actually graduated.
However, even those years were filled with “friends” and “boyfriends” who mistreated me and used me. I was different, isolated, and socially inexperienced – also kids can be cruel – so this was to be expected. At first, I didn’t see the abuse because it was still “lightyears” better than how I had been treated before. Once I noticed the pattern, however, I developed a set of deeply held beliefs about people and world – negative beliefs since every single (and I say that without exaggeration) relationship and/or interaction I’d ever had was ultimately negative. This even extended into work. I was always the hardest working, most productive, etc – but also the most disliked, no matter how much I tried to be giving and friendly.
I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, but I always hesitated to trust and was defensive. These had been “beaten” into me by years of betrayals and being attacked by my parents. Also, I was inexperienced in expressing myself and wasn’t even fully aware of my own emotional states. This led to me feeling “used” or over-pressured, anxious, etc, and not showing it. People would hurt me more than they’d realize and I’d be defensive or even kind of “retaliative” and it didn’t make sense to them. I didn’t even see it (that’s the nature of my illnesses). So there were problems at work with people being out to get me / make my life hard (and not in a paranoid way – in a very real way because I was disliked) and just plain old “me failing at social interactions.”
Eventually, I decided I wanted to move somewhere with a better economy and atmosphere, so I took an offer from Americorps that would move me from “big city” Miami to a town in Utah. There, I was systematically tormented by a supervisor (and not because of my innate social issues, but principally because I was a woman who did not act in a more “submissive” manner). I didn’t realize it until nearly the end of my tour of service (each post is a 1 year position), but he had been purposefully undoing things I had done and then blamed me. The whole time, I had been taking these setbacks very personally (since what was at stake was funding for school programs – a teacher actually lost funding for her job over this). I didn’t realize it, but I entered a severe depression. After all of the suffering I’d been through, I needed to believe that there were good people out there helping people and that there was a place where I could go to live among them. When that didn’t end up being true, I just stopped believing in the world entirely. I couldn’t really work or get out of bed or stand to see my coworkers. I didn’t realize what they were at the time, but I started having panic attacks before our meetings.
I left that horrible place, but had to take another Americorps post because that was the only work available. Again, I was the most productive person there. There were these goals that Americorps keeps track of (how many volunteers you recruit, how much funding your raise, etc) and I smashed those records my first month there. But without me even knowing it was there, the depression started to show. When a supervisor attacked me at this position (she refused to believe that I had actually gotten that many volunteers), I got defensive in my language towards her (not cursing or anything, but defensive, disrespectful). I don’t quite know who made what exact decisions or why, but I was lured to a backroom at the local Americorps headquarters. I tried to leave, but I was held there. I was read a list of complaints (some made up, some with some basis in reality) and was forced to write an apology to my attacker. I had to include mention of how I was “ugly,” “stupid,” and had no “talent.” Only then was I allowed to leave.
That was 7 November 2012. It was a Wednesday. It marks the “before” and “after” of my life.
I went to my car and planned my suicide. I ended up just getting in and driving out of town – out of the canyon – down the state. Some painful things happened. But my now-husband got me to come home. And there he kept me. It was a while still before he realized just how bad I was, but then he got me to a doctor. The first doctor made things worse. He got me to a new doctor. And that’s when I finally got my diagnoses.
So a bit of description is probably in order.
There are memories that come to mind and play out vividly (I can smell the same smells again kind of vivid) either when they are triggered by something specific (e.g. the sound of bedroom slippers on the other side of a closed door) or sometimes just at random. I can’t control or stop them really, but I do not lose touch with reality at any point. I’m aware that I’m remembering and I react emotionally to those memories as if it’s all happening again (e.g. fear, anxiety). In this vein, I have some vivid nightmares and avoid certain people, places, or things that tend to trigger these memories. Always having my guard up, trouble remembering certain things, being easily startled, not being able to express or even experience emotions – that’s all par for the course as well.
General Anxiety Disorder
This one is pretty straightforward. You have enough random bad experiences and you start to just feel anxious in general, everywhere. To fully qualify as GAD, however, it has to interfere with you living your life…
It’s not just the fear of going outside or in wide-open spaces, but being around crowds / people. I had so many bad experiences with people by this point that I 100% seriously was A-OK with never going outside again or having anything to do with them. Just the idea that they might try to come near me or talk to me or come knock on the door to my (safe) apartment caused me panic attacks ( ^ see GAD above). I didn’t want them to hurt me.
A feeling of deep sadness at all that had happened and all I had loss that persisted for years (even now, in a lessened form). I woke up every day in tears. Cried at random points of the day. Cried before falling to sleep. I couldn’t get out of bed or do a darn thing. Not a normal mourning period, but a persistent, deep grief as if all of these things had just happened moments before. Time was not healing the wound. That is depression.
This one is the hardest to talk about. I haven’t fully accepted this and all it means. But basically, having deep seated beliefs/feelings and patterns of behavior that you have trouble seeing, let alone correcting. ^ See above.
But there’s more to it than even these paragraphs described. Every day I relived being held in that room and mourned as if it had, in fact, just happened that day. I feared them hurting me again. I feared rumors around town and being harassed in the streets. I would not go outside except to the doctor with Stefan. Even at home, I panicked at the sound of people in the hallway, coming near my door. Everyday a flashback (a vivid memory), a panic attack, a nightmare, a mourning. Even here I’m not sure I’m doing it justice. I suffered deeply every single day. The only reason I didn’t kill myself was that I had (and have) every reason to believe that Stefan would suffer like that after I killed myself. I couldn’t escape my hell by placing him in it. So I just sat there, waiting to die of old age.
The diagnoses and prognoses didn’t help much. Because of the memory problems that PTSD can cause, I had forgotten most of mathematics, how to use a microscope – very basic things for a science graduate. I struggled to concentrate (because of those memories forcing their way in) to the point where I couldn’t really read anymore – or do simple household chores. Social interactions – ha ha ha! I would never be able to work again. I would not be able to parent (and would pass on a genetic predisposition to certain mental illnesses like depression). No family. No point to school. No career. Not even a “homemaker.” Just endless daily suffering.
Justice was not an option. A full explanation would be beyond the scope of this article, but there wasn’t really a way that I could go to the police or have any action taken by Americorps at any level against those involved in all of these incidents.
Revenge was not really an option either. I had never been a person to think in terms of actually, ACTUALLY physically hurting someone, but once justice was off the table, I asked myself, “What about revenge?” To make us “even,” I’d have to take away these people’s families, all of their hope for the future, make the afraid to go out in public – and leave them alive. I struggled to even imagine what I could do to make them suffer like that and didn’t have the stomach to even try something like that. So even though I entertained a certain desire for revenge (I can admit), it wasn’t an option either and I knew it.
So what was left? Nothing. For a very long time, there was nothing but to endlessly endure hell on Earth. And then chance intervened:
I needed something to make the suffering stop (aside from suicide), so I searched for that something. The first thing I found was nonviolence. Maybe I could fight these people in a nonviolent way?
(Here are the resources I found. They are worth looking at although I do not accept them completely as is – I accept them with certain logical cautions and modifications:
Most likely, I will reference these again later on.)
Then, I randomly took a Coursera class – the much famed Buddhism and Modern Psychology:
(More information here: https://www.facebook.com/Buddhism.and.Psychology
I took it “on a lark” – to pass the time when Stefan wasn’t home with something that might help increase the efficacy of my therapy sessions. It was mostly videos to watch, go at your own pace or just quit (no pressure), so I decided to try. I ended up seeing Buddhism with my new eyes (I had learned some basics in college). There was deep truth in The Four Noble Truths – in the whole Buddhist worldview (there’s a lovely Japanese word for this that I just learned ‘wabi-sabi’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi). I also learned what meditation really is and isn’t (it’s not a time to “clear your mind” or to ruminate on your troubled day – it’s a time to focus on what comes up subsciously, among other things, and tove mindful). This time when I tried meditation out (as I had in college, but to no benefit), I actually got something out of it. I ended up converting to a Secular Buddhism (and coming to this Sangha). If Buddhism understood the true nature of reality and had an Eightfold Path and techniques (like meditation) for dealing with reality and reaching for Nirvana, then it was worth trying them out.
Finally, I started liking pages on Facebook related to nonviolence (Ahimsa in Buddhist terminology) and Buddhism, which led me to liking the official page of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. And it was through this page that I heard about the Forgiveness Challenge – about how to see your suffering, to acknowledge it, sit with it, examine it, then let it go without a need for remorse from the offenders or the law (if that wasn’t possible) or revenge or anything other than myself. I learned that forgiveness could free me from the feelings of suffering that I was feeling for my own sake and not for others. I wasn’t sure how it would be or if it would work, but I decided to sign up and try it.
The stage was set.
So this is all deeply personal and probably painful for others to read. However, I needed readers to understand where I had been, how I had suffered, so you can understand why I so thoroughly endorse the Forgiveness Challenge – it used nonviolence (Ahimsa) and Buddhist principles to free me from that endless, hopeless, daily agony. I will describe it more in upcoming articles, but my attacks have lessened. I can go outside (in a limited capacity) with Stefan or my service dog, Happy, and I do some basic things off and on. I notice how I’m feeling and thinking and can do things about them. The Forgiveness Challenge took me from there to here, so I hope you’ll keep reading:
CONTINUE ON TO Part 2