Releasing the pain from the past can lead to a positive present.
Our families of origin, the families into which we are born, are the source not only of love, warmth, and special memories, but also of core wounds that can haunt us for a lifetime. On a spectrum of emotional injury, these wounds may fall anywhere from minor to devastating. In some families, these hurts were inflicted despite the best of intentions and greatest of efforts, while in others, the harm was more deliberate.
In my medical practice, I frequently see patients who have low self-esteem or even feel self-hatred. On some level, as a result of the core wounding they experienced, they think they are unworthy of good health and nourishing relationships. While there are numerous causes of illness—viruses, bacterial infections, environmental toxins and more—the emotional fallout from core wounding may at best interfere with the body’s healing process and at worst have a more direct and adverse impact on physical health.
In the interest of our own wellness, I maintain that it is essential for us to release ourselves from the consequences of harm from family members, whether that hurt was intentional or not, and whether it was severe or mild. I define this process as “forgiveness.” In a Slow Medicine context, forgiving means releasing ourselves from the shackles of resentment, hatred and other inflammatory emotions that, if left unchecked, can exacerbate the harm already done to us.
Let me be perfectly clear: Forgiving does not mean forgetting or ignoring. It especially does not mean getting back into the ring with a manipulative, abusive or otherwise toxic individual. It does, however, require a deep reach into our own humanity. It asks that we recognize someone else’s limitations, accept the reality of their resulting behavior, and—most challenging of all—rise above it all. It asks that we ultimately make choices that support our health on every level.
We can forgive family members and feel unconditional love for them, without ever seeing or speaking with them again. We even can forgive family members while taking them to court or otherwise holding them publicly accountable for their actions, as in the case of domestic violence. Forgiving simply means that we stop churning through the unproductive emotions that drag us down instead of lifting us up.
In some situations, of course, we humbly may realize that our grievances and resentments are more of a matter of ego than anything else. In these cases, we may choose to overlook squabbles of the past and attempt to reconcile in the interest of restoring an important relationship. Indeed, once we grow from the experiences of the past, we might gain something very significant. When we reach out with an open heart and are met in kind, the depth of healing is profound. So perhaps the risk inherent in attempting to reconcile is worth the potential benefit.
Whether and however we decide to interact with our families of origin, the bottom line is this: In the interest of our own wellness, we need to “forgive,” so as to free ourselves from the trap of recycling childhood wounds. To the best of our ability, we need to oust from our very cells the energy of the action that was taken against us so that we are no longer controlled or harmed by it. This release may happen through any number of means that help us cultivate peace and tranquility: writing a memoir, practicing meditation, white-water rafting, teaching self-defense, raising happy children, or doing whatever else helps us turn our anger, fear and hurt into something healthy and productive.
We have very limited control over people and circumstances outside ourselves. We cannot make someone think, feel, or be what we want, and we cannot go back in time and undo the past. But we still have the power to make choices that contribute to a different kind of future, where we can walk side by side with people who feed our souls. Through “forgiving,” or releasing, family members who have harmed us, and through doing our best to live passionately and manifest our life’s purpose, we can experience deep healing in our bodies and our hearts. By turning the pain and indignities of the past into something positive for ourselves and others, we can transform, like a caterpillar, and emerge with wings to fly.