The easiest way to deal with the wounds of abuse - any abuse - is to think nothing, (never mind say nothing), either of the past or of the present. You just ‘deal with it’, a very apt expression, but one which, if acted upon, can be toxic.
For one thing, it is a lie. You never ‘deal with it’, so why, at any point in history, do we pretend that this is possible?
The #MeToo movement is epoch changing, not only because it goes some way towards validating the suffering of the victims of abuse, but because it gives us all permission to re-connect with and, in some measure, own, our pain. We do this privately, in our own dark corridors of remembrance, and in solidarity with others in the #MeToo movement. We also do it in solidarity with other generations.
Abuse, as we well know, is not an emerging phenomenon. It has been around for centuries, so it helps, I find, to try to place one’s own pain in the continuum of the abuse suffered by the perpetrators and by those who preceded them. This does not exonerate the abusers. Neither does it oblige, still less enable, me to forgive them. As if forgiveness was purely a matter of understanding contextuality, cause and effect, and thereby accepting the abuse as inevitable. But this is how women, and I think many men who may have been abused in childhood, try to come to terms with what a generally abusive childhood or youth still does to them.
There are two serious flaws in thinking that we can ‘deal with’ abuse and the effects of abuse. First, it tends to ignore the fact that abuse is not limited to the sexual and physical. Sexual abuse, for women, is more often reinforced by what seems at the time a natural and ‘deserved’ shaming of the person concerned. Perhaps it is the same for men. If an adult implies that we are ugly, stupid and to be laughed at rather than with, we accept it as a given. ‘Put downs’, the many chance remarks deemed as OK, but deeply wounding, enforced compliance with how we should look or behave, all in the context of dishonest and manipulative relationships, build a toxic mix of shame, anger, fear and self-loathing.
Very few sexual predators will genuinely want their victim to feel that they are beautiful, intelligent, unique and loved. On the whole, they will either intuit, or possibly know, that their victim has been conditioned to believe none of these things. This makes them fair game. It gives the abuser ‘permission’ to behave as he or she does towards them. Furthermore, and as we all know, abuse is not limited to the sexual. Emotional abuse will, often as not, occur between members of the same sex, first in family contexts and later in social and professional life. By then, it is more commonly known as bullying.
As Christians, each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask to be forgiven as we forgive those who have sinned against us. To be honest, I find it almost impossible to pray these words when I think of my own abusers, as well as of the hundreds of women coming forward in the #MeToo solidarity movement. What does forgiving actually entail for us?
As I have never really found an answer to this question, I tend to mentally ‘bracket’ the words 'Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us' as I am saying them, and hope God understands, but I don’t just leave the people concerned in a kind of limbo. Later, I ask God what he thinks those of us who have been sinned against are supposed to do with our recurring memories, with our feelings about these people, and with our own anger and shame.
There seems to be no ‘answer’ to such questions. But I do believe that we pray to a God who not only ‘understands’ but shares the feelings which prompt them. There are many ways we could visualise this sharing. Being present to the words 'Why have you deserted me?' spoken from the Cross is one of the most obvious, although not always the most efficacious when it comes to having our negative feelings about forgiveness validated in the moment.
Perhaps a better way is to see the wounds we still carry, because they are far from healed, as part of our transfigured inheritance. They become what makes us worthy of honour in the presence of the Lamb (Rev.14:1). In them we share in Christ’s glory, beginning with the shame and agony of his dying and death, but moving with him to his embracing of us in his risen life. This is not a pious metaphor, or some kind of mental cop-out. It is something which can take a life-time to learn, or it can be learned in a single revelatory moment of understanding.
Such an understanding gives us the greatest freedom. This does not mean that we are given permission to indulge, even momentarily, in gratuitous hatred and desire for revenge. It means that we too are forgiven for finding it impossible to ‘forgive’.
But such freedom brings responsibility. We are now ‘responsible’ for our abusers, lest they fall into the abyss. This means that we must be willing to receive what is needed for us to have a transfigured way of seeing them, so that we can ‘hold’ them. It does not mean persevering with, or reviving, destructive relationships. It means allowing ourselves to have deep compassion for those who abuse us, or for their memory. We ‘hold’ what we know of them, as best we can, in the ‘safe space’ of the mercy and forgiveness of God, a space which we ourselves are also occupying.