Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.” ― Harvey Fierstein
In my last blog I talked about exploring a more holistic understanding of forgiveness for the sake of our mental, physical and spiritual healing. Forgiveness and grievances are aspects of all significant relationships. I want to cast a wide net while exploring forgiveness because it is a complex issue involving many aspects, including healthy protest.
There are many ways that we can offer a healthy protest to an injury– refusing a hug by a spouse who is in the dog house, withholding the bedtime story ritual to a disobedient child, waiting a few days to return a friends demanding phone message, or withdrawing from an unhealthy relationship. There are varying degrees of protestation that we can consider, and the ability to protest is important for our mental health. It’s important to be mindful of the age appropriateness of an expression of protest as well as the time frame in which it might occur. Protest looks different when we are thirty than when we are three. The act of protest and/or the process of forgiveness will be different depending on the nature of the relationship, and will differ depending on whether the injuries are past, present, or ongoing.
While attending a conference a few years ago the speaker shared a story that I have never forgotten and will paraphrase here. This doctor had hospitalized his patient, Zoe, who was experiencing profound depression and suicidal ideation. Every question he asked her was met with indifferent lethargy. Finally, he asked her to tell him about a time in her childhood where she had gotten even with someone who had harmed her.
All of a sudden Zoe became shockingly animated, as remembered a time when she was five. Her mother and step-father dropped her off with a distant relative and drove away. She reported that the elderly couple was nice enough, but they already had Sara, an energetic eight-year-old. Sara hated Zoe. As the weeks passed Sara terrorized Zoe every chance she got. So one day, Zoe dug up about fifty worms putting them all in a tin can.
At this point in the story, Zoe, clearly energized, suddenly laughed with sheer delight, sat straight up and said to the doctor, “I ran in the bathroom and dumped them into her bath while she screamed bloody murder. The doctor roared with laughter. “That’s a healthy response of protest to an injury if I ever heard one!
When a person has self-esteem, a usual response to an injury is indignation– righteous anger. We can see this kind of fury in babies who protest an offence until tended to and comforted. If ignored their sense of self identity can be stunted. Indignation can be followed by an act of protest that is a healthy response, but sometimes the act of protest can be self-destructive.
For example, in my book, Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe, I wrote of being a young divorced mother. Carefully managing every dollar received in my divorce settlement, I gullibly lent $4,000 to my boyfriend. Not only did he turn out to be a batterer, he also refused to repay the money. I had to drive by the business I had helped him to purchase each day on the only route to my job; my murderous rage was so great that it took everything in my power not drive my car through the large plate glass front window. I hadn’t felt that kind of fury since I was seven and started a field fire after still another round of sexual abuse. Driving a car through a plate glass window and starting field fires are self-destructive protestations. Being acutely aware of the twists and turns involved in forgiveness and the right to protest, this article barely touches the surface—but it is a beginning.
There are many reasons why we keep painful secrets. But ignoring our hurt or anger for the sake of looking good, peace at any price, or fear of not being believed, can be damaging to one’s emotional growth and development. However, since we internalize a memory image of every significant relationship, even protestation in the form of leaving an abusive relationship may not assuage the feelings of injustice or a wounded heart. So, it’s important that we look at all sides of forgiveness.
In this series of articles, I will explore the healthy end of the spectrum of responses but I also understand the other end of the spectrum only too well.
To be continued…
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