Joyce was abused by her father when she was 12 years old. She'd hated him ever since. When I met her last year, she was 50 years old and had a long history of difficult relationships with men, depression and overall inability to enjoy life. She blamed most of her problems on her father.
Her father was clearly the cause of the problem, but what has kept her in the victim position for 38 years? Her festering resentment is preventing her from moving from victim to survivor and beyond. Her father was wrong for what he did, and Joyce's reaction was natural.
Anger has been called a judicial emotion - a reaction to injustice. So when we experience any form of injustice, most of us react with a clenched fist, a closed heart and a sense of resentment. These reactions are a natural effort to defend ourselves emotionally against further injury. And it works, in the short run. Like a scab, it protects the tender wound from infection, but if the scab stays too long, the wound never heals.
So what can be done?
Forgiveness is the process of giving up resentment toward another. It has nothing to do with reconciliation or even holding a perpetrator harmless.
But forgiveness is one of those things that sound great on paper, but feel almost impossible to do.
Forgiveness takes courage. The first step is to understand that today's suffering is about holding onto resentment and not about what happened yesterday. That shifts both power and responsibility. The second step is to find the humanity in the person we need to forgive, even if his or her behavior was inhumane.
In time, Joyce was able to see her father as a frail 80-year-old man, as opposed to a powerful middle-aged man who abused her. When he joined her in a session, she learned about the turmoil of his life back then and his many regrets. She chose not to have a close relationship with him, but she didn't need to hate him anymore.
Few understand the process of forgiveness better than Jim LaRue. His daughter Molly and her fiance, Geoffrey Hood, were murdered by Paul David Crews while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1990. Although Crews was originally sentenced to death, he was resentenced last month in Perry County, Pa., to life imprisonment without parole. At the trial, LaRue faced Crews and read a letter saying the following:
"Paul, early in the morning of Sept. 13, l990, you tortured, raped and murdered my daughter Molly. The hole in my heart from her loss remains.
"But I am here today to offer you forgiveness for what you have done.
"I hope that you and I can now find peace. . . .
"Molly had decided to devote her life to working with troubled children, like you certainly were. She believed that if these children could be helped when they were young, they wouldn't become violent. She would have wanted that for you. If you pick up where Molly left off, I can assure you that she will be with you along the way. She cares that much.
"Peace be with you."
When I contacted LaRue, he told me that he has long believed that undiscovered pain is at the root of violent behavior. I doubt he could have written this letter 15 years ago, and he may not have been able to write it five years ago. Although he will always feel the pain of this loss, he believes that forgiveness is the only way he can find peace. And what impact did it have on Crews? LaRue told me that although Crews said nothing while he was reading, he was visibly moved.
"InsideOut" appears every other week. Clinical psychologist and family therapist Dan Gottlieb can also be heard on "Voices in the Family" at noon Mondays on WHYY-FM (90.9). On today's show, he will explore the topic of forgiveness with Jim LaRue. E-mail Gottlieb at DrDanGottlieb@aol.com.