Catherine Grace O'Connell and Loreen Arbus discuss the myth of forgiveness.

“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” – Richard Rohr 

Forgiveness is a deeply personal experience. There isn’t one way to forgive. There is no time frame for forgiveness to take place. And we have to be open to the simple fact that forgiveness is a choice … and you can choose not to forgive and that’s OK.

The rise of spirituality along with the new age craze becoming more mainstream has expanded our mindset yet also contributed to many confusing “new agey” myths. One of the greatest myths or misunderstandings lies with the concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process, an internal process, a releasing of one’s inner self and energy around a traumatic event or upsetting memory.

Forgiveness cannot be forced or willed away. You can’t fake your way to forgiveness any more than you can fake your way to enlightenment. That would simply be another form of “Spiritual Bypass,” (see related post), one that will most likely come back to haunt you. A Bypass will always be the long way home.

I was sitting in the colorful living room of a gorgeous penthouse apartment overlooking the beautiful Hollywood Hills. I was in the midst of an in-depth conversation and interview for an upcoming episode of Mastering Modern Midlife with my mentor and advisor, and a woman I deeply admire, Loreen Arbus. Loreen is the daughter of Leonard Goldenson, the Founder of ABC. Not one to rest on her father’s laurels, Loreen became the first female head of programming at a national network for both Showtime and Lifetime.

A passionate activist and philanthropist with a tender heart for those who have been marginalized by society, Loreen understands the pain that comes with being marginalized, having grown up with a sister who had a severe case of Cerebral Palsy and a mother who was both schizophrenic and bipolar. She suffered significant trauma and abuse at the hands of her mother while growing up. The pain from the trauma continued throughout her life, a pain she internalized when she was younger.

Loreen had a complicated relationship with her mother. On the one hand, she was a brutal “Mommy Dearest,” leaving scars on her young psyche. Her volatile and unexpected rages left her terrified and alienated from her friends. Yet her mother had another side, an empathetic and compassionate side for those marginalized through disability like her younger daughter. She spent much of her life fighting for the disabled and making a significant impact through her contributions and activism which would eventually lead to a change in the Constitution of the United States and the American Disabilities Act. She also co-founded United Cerebral Palsy. She was a powerful woman and a mother driven to make a difference.

It was toward the end of a long day of filming. I looked at Loreen and said, “Let’s talk about forgiveness. Have you forgiven your Mother?” Loreen looked at me and shared a powerful lesson on forgiveness. She began by saying, “No, I haven’t forgiven her. I have no intention to forgive her.”

Her philosophy on forgiveness was a deeply personal one. She felt no need to forgive her mother for the immense suffering she had caused her while growing up. I wanted to know more. Loreen shared her experience around forgiveness. She could choose not to forgive her mother while also honoring her memory and contributions in the world of disability at the same time. She could honor her mother’s legacy and positive achievements while also choosing to hold onto the feelings and emotions she carried within. Her mother’s mental illness caused her an immense amount of pain. That pain had certainly lessened over time but it was still present. Her mother’s memory was very much alive and held both positive memories and negative emotions. Loreen believed she could honor the positive while also honoring herself by not forgiving the negative memories, trauma, abuse, and suffering.

There’s a misconception that in order to be “spiritual,” you must be all “love and light.” In order to be spiritual, many believe that it’s wrong to hold onto the past, hold grudges, or feel anger. In order to be “spiritually elevated” or raise your vibration, you must let go, forgive all transgressions, and not allow an ounce of negativity to enter your world. I call Bullshit on that!

Evolution is a process and so is forgiveness. You can choose to forgive someone without forgetting what they did. You can also choose to not forgive at all. Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness can’t be forced. Forgiveness is an internal letting go. It’s a process of unhooking the negative energy surrounding a memory and, over time, allowing that energy to dissipate or to be transformed through a lot of inner work. The path to enlightenment and evolution is one through the shadows and the dark night of the soul. The shadows and darkness are our greatest teachers.

We can’t hurry the process. We can’t build a positive or happy facade to hide the pain. A facade can only temporarily cover up the pain. A facade cannot transmute, transform or transcend the pain. That’s up to us humans, on our timeframe and no one else’s. Joe Dispenza once said, “Wisdom is a memory without the energy.” I’ll take that a step further. “Forgiveness is a memory without the energy to trigger negative emotions.”

Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves, if and when the time is ready. Forgiveness can only be done through “being” and not through “doing.” It’s not a mental process. Forgiveness is accomplished through living, not thinking. We can’t will it away. We can’t numb it away. We can’t laugh it away. We can’t fake it away. Forgiveness is a powerful teacher yet so is our trauma and our suffering. It’s the process of unwinding the trauma, the letting go of the pain, the negative emotions and memories that lead to healing over time.

Loreen is a woman who lives her life, her way. She’s a woman making a difference in the world. She’s made peace with herself and peace with not forgiving. She rests comfortably in her own power and decisions. She is the essence of Fierce Grace.

4 comments

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Fascinating topic, and such a deeply personal one. When I learn of someone who has been hurt deeply and is not able to forgive, my heart breaks for them, for the pain they endured, it is like a scar that will not heal. And I totally understand it. Remember that phrase, “Until you’ve walked a mile in my shoes…” I respect each person’s choice on how they respond to malice. For my own personal journey, I tend to choose forgiveness for a host of personal reasons, but with a guarded heart to protect myself going forward.

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That’s a wise philosophy as well sister…to learn from a person’s actions to protect yourself but to also forgive the hurt. I’m somewhere in between. I do believe some things are unforgivable. It doesn’t mean that I hold them in my heart but if there is evil intent to harm behind the action with no remorse or potential for remorse…or even worse, continuing to do harm…those are people I remove from my life. I love what Maya Angelou said so brilliantly, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I used to try to change them and take away their troubles. It took me a long time to realize that some people are damaged and best left alone. I can only help those who want to grow and evolve into loving humans like you!

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Ah. The myth of forgive and forget. A great topic, Catherine. I share Loreen’s philosophy. Some things are so painful, particularly if they were intentional, they don’t deserve to be forgiven. My mother was a difficult woman who I believe suffered from at least one form of an undiagnosed mental illness. She’s gone now and I choose to only remember the things I loved about her. Because love and hate are so uncomfortably intertwined, I’m able to hate some of what she did and love some of what she did. But I struggle with it and probably always will. That aside, I believe real forgiveness can only come when there’s an apology involved and the behavior isn’t repeated. If that doesn’t happen there’s no path to actual forgiveness. There is a path, though, to not letting it ruin your life. Like a wiser person than me said, “You can’t stop the bird from landing on your head but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair.” It’s being able to set it aside and move forward for your own greater good. It’s tough to be a human, isn’t it?

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This is such a profound thought, Kathleen. I would expect nothing less from you! We have so very much in common. I understand what you shared. As I shared above to Amy, there are some things and people that are best removed from my life as their actions were with evil intent to harm and continue. I used to try to help everyone, change everyone to being a kinder and move loving person. I don’t do that any longer. I’ve learned who I can help and who I can’t. I’m better off focusing on myself and those things I can make peace within inside of myself. I had more of a mother daughter relationship like Loreen so I understand the way she feels. Forgiveness is whatever you can do to make peace inside of yourself. It’s not about the other person. It’s about you!

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