This year I discovered that Forgiveness can be a place, rather than an act or a feeling, or even a gift (to oneself or another person), -though it is often perceived as all those things. And it can be all those things and more.
I go for regular hikes and rambles in this thorny place, an inner country called Forgiveness. I admire every flower and I peer into the darkest places. I climb trees whose roots reach down deep into the Underworld, the Land of the Dead, the domicile of the Ancestors. Poison plants often thrive in the shadier places. Poison Hemlock loves growing on disturbed ground. In this inner garden the purple sirens of the hedgerow, enchantresses covered in purple blotches, flirt with antlered shadows and horned beings.
This is the place where Christianity turned a horned fertility god into the Devil.
These are the territories of Deep Duality, of Black and White, of Good and Bad, of Adored and Dreaded.
These are the psychic territories of demonization (blaming others rather than taking a fearless look at ourselves).
Forgiveness is not what I thought it was.
I grew up in a Roman Catholic family and forgiveness is a key principle in this cosmology, where it is known as the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation:
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (commonly called Penance, Reconciliation, or Confession) is one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church (called sacred mysteries in the Eastern Catholic Churches), in which the faithful obtain absolution for the sins committed against God and neighbour and are reconciled with the community of the Church. By this sacrament Catholics believe they are freed from all sins committed after baptism. The sacrament of Penance is considered the ordinary means for the remission of sin.
From the Lord’s prayer (English standard version):
…and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
Recently I have found myself wondering where the person harmed or wronged features in this doctrine. If they are not ready to forgive – can a RC priest really grant forgiveness, by extension and on their behalf, in the absolute sense? -As we will see later on in this blog, the fields of family constellation work and ancestral healing work tell a different story.
My family of birth is riddled with mental health histories. I grew up with a father (who suffered from PTSD and lifelong depression) who took out his rage on me. As a very small child I became a human boxing ball (and sometimes football). My mother stood by but did nothing to stop this, for reasons of severe abuse in her own background. She was conditioned from birth not to respond, not to stand up for herself and therefore she could not stand up for her daughter either. She just froze, zoned out and waited until the abuse episodes ended. These outbursts of rage and violence would bring a brief period of relief in family life until the human volcano would erupt again and the pattern would repeat. These episodes were never mentioned after the rage had been released and the psychic pressure on the family barometer dropped for a short while (before it inevitably started building again).
My brothers and I were conditioned from birth to never ever mention this to others, to outsiders, or to absolutely anyone who was not present. The Dutch expression is “de vuile was niet buiten hangen”, and the English equivalent is not airing your dirty linen in public. Only very recently did I make the decision to not play by those unwritten rules any longer. Not because I want to disrespect or belatedly accuse my family, but because as part of my own healing journey I need to take ownership of my side of the story, my reality, my relationship with the forces that shape my adult life until today.
As an aside before we proceed: I am not a victim and have no desire at all to viewed through that lens of perception (thank you for taking back that projection!) I am not a survivor either. I am not engaged in battle with anyone, including myself. I am a person who has made the commitment to walk through life with her eyes wide open, to be fully present to what is, was and can potentially be. But I have also committed to deeply grieving what could not be, the herbs displaced by poison plants, the spines drawing blood when small hands reached for love and safety, the secure childhood all children in our world ought to have (but, tragically, shockingly many don’t. Predictably, perhaps, I wrote a book about children and parenting!) I choose to live in close proximity with the ancestors who did not make it, with the children lost in the family tree, with the outcasts – the healers (often they are and were one and the same).
Within all of us lives a dispossessed person. No matter how beautiful our home is and how secure our relationships seem, we all have a homeless person within us – which is (probably) why we can hardly bear to make eye contact with homeless people and beggars in the street.
Perhaps my life became wilder for what happened. When you do not feel at home in the place that is supposed to be your home and sanctuary, you become a traveller, a seeker, a lifelong pilgrim. When you do not feel safe in the place you call home, you also become a raging insomniac, always watching out for the dagger in your back. When moments of respite and powerful dreams do come, you value them beyond belief.
The place of danger is liminal, it has its own knife’s edge and its own deities. You either become a tightrope-walker or you become another lost child in the family tree.
Back to the Night Garden of Forgiveness: I was brought up to forgive. This message was repeated in the Lord’s Prayer we spoke before every meal we ate. At age 18 I left home and became an art student in Amsterdam (four years of bliss!) I met my Swedish husband and moved to Stockholm. Together we moved to London and made a fresh start in a place where I knew no one. By then I knew that I was a messed-up person, that I had no personal boundaries at all (I did not even understand the concept!) That pain does not leave you when you leave the place of pain. It catches up with you, sometimes at a delay and other times immediately.
I followed the recommendation of a friend and enrolled in a Twelve Step Program (Co-dependents Anonymous). I am a good student (too good a student perhaps!) I did my homework.
Today I realise that a strong Roman Catholic “overlay” remained. I worked hard to forgive my parents. This took a lot of hard work and willpower. It also took countless tears and prayers.
Today I also realise that I was a well-meaning but naïve person. What I lacked was life experience. My reason for writing this blog is to make others aware of the pitfalls of forgiving too much, too soon, too unconditionally or even readily.
I thought that by forgiving my parents we would be free to have a more loving and supportive relationship with each other. After all I no longer lived “at home”, or even in my country of birth, so I was now safe from abuse, right?! -I was wrong.
I forgave people who had not asked for forgiveness or admitted that forgiveness was even needed.
I forgave people who made no commitment whatsoever to treating me differently in the future (let alone making amends for the decades of harm that had already been done)
I forgave people who had not done the hard work of taking stock and make a fearless moral inventory of themselves
Only years later would I learn how deeply entrenched family dynamics are and remain unless everyone involves make a commitment to shifting, healing and rebalancing
I would also learn that dysfunctional families often appoint a scapegoat or sin-eater, meaning one person that all undesirable things get projected onto – so the others go free, their load lightened and future brightened. I learned, the hard way, that this person cannot keep on forgiving and forgiving and forgiving
I have lived abroad for all my adult life. This means that I have now spent 30 years travelling to visit my family of birth several times a year. Once again, I was naïve. In the early years I thought of those trips as “holidays”. Big mistake! Once I discovered that I always came home upset and physically ill, I reframed this. I started calling them “family visits”. Today I think of them as a sacred but painful obligation. Today I admit to myself (and trusted others) that there is no joy in these visits. That they continue to affect my physical and mental health. I now reframe them as an ordeal and initiation: how far have I come in not shouldering the projections and insults, in not allowing their words and actions to hurt me? Unfailingly I discover that I am less adept at this than I would like to be. Frying pans come coated in a more effective coat of Teflon than I can ever apply to myself… A dear friend of mine will ask cheerfully: “How did you get on this time? How did Act number 1, 2 and 3 in the Karmic Family of Origin Theatre unfold this time? Did you manage to leave the stage without carrying the burdens and filth home with you?! Will you need to go back for more or have you passed the test?!
Our society promotes the cosy idea of a nuclear family with a Mum and Dad who love their children more than Life itself and who will do anything to keep their children safe and happy. For many people this just is not their reality.
Families too are like gardens where poison plants grow, and darkness lingers at noon. Poison gardens look very beautiful, as long as you don’t touch anything.
My father had a younger sister who died from leukemia in childhood. Her name was Mientje. I often sense her presence. She inspired me to create an ancestor gallery: an area in our house dedicated to old family photographs. She has told me that had she lived, -she had wanted to be a writer. She is pleased that I am writing books. I am aware that I am living her dream but that this is OK, because writing is my own dream too. The second thing she told me is that she made a sacrifice: by developing blood cancer and dying young, she took a certain amount of ancestral pain and trauma away with her, to the Land of the Dead, to unburden the living. She told me in no uncertain terms that she does not regret dying young – but she regrets the fact that our family does not honour the sacrifice she made. This taught me about the importance of ancestral healing work and right relationship with the dead. I perform ceremonies (alone and with groups) where we speak the names of the dead and honour them. (The word sacrifice comes from Latin and literally means: making sacred – with the connotation of “by offering it to the gods”).
Only recently did I realise that this pattern of sacrificing one family member, did not die with Mientje. When I was a child my mother sacrificed me on the altar of preserving her marriage (not only that, a lifetime of keeping up appearances that this was a happy and functional marriage and that she was a wonderful mother). My two younger brothers were (unconsciously and by example) invited to participate in this dynamic as well. As I was the one who carried the pain and emotions in our family, they all joked about me being hysterical, silly, prone to exaggeration. That also means anything I do say (until today) can safely be ignored and ridiculed. Please note that the word hysteria is derived from the Ancient Greek word for womb, (?στερικ?ς (husterikós, “suffering in the uterus, hysterical”), from ?στ?ρα (hustéra, “womb”). I am an only daughter, a sister of two brothers, I am the only child of my parents with a womb.
My young idealistic self decided that could live with these things “happening in the past, to my child self”, after all I had forgiven them, had I not?!
It is much harder to accept that these things are still going on. I am 52 years old, a mother of three children myself and I have a portfolio career that combines a rather wide range of professional activities. I am hardly a “human car wreck”. My mother likes saying: "I must have parented you right - you are doing so well today!"
"The unexamined life is not worth living"
Then are there are two brothers. My younger self did not perceive them as “players in this constellation”, as I am their older sister. Today I know better: both formulated a different response (to seeing their sister beaten to pulp and humiliated for two decades). Middle brother decided that “he had been very clever in avoiding the abuse”. He told me this explicitly years ago: “You were stupid!! You spoke up whenever and wherever you perceived any injustice! You made yourself a lightning rod and you have only yourself to blame!”
Hang on! Speaking out when an injustice occurs (at great risk to oneself) is a quality I greatly admire in people until today and no child (especially a child under the age of 8!!) is ever responsible for the severe physical and emotional abuse unleashed on him or her (by the adults legally and morally responsible for keeping him/her safe, at that!)
The youngest child, and brother, was my Father’s firm favourite. In his early years he was a little slow (he is very smart today) and my father was protective of him, saw his own vulnerable child self in the family baby. This brother gave the impression of sleeping through the first 15 years of his life, of “not being all there”. So, today he predictably takes the position that “things weren’t that bad”. From his viewpoint that is absolutely right: for him the family situation was not that bad, he got the treats and the pampering, the adoration and the protection.
Children from the same family can have very "different parents" and very different childhood experiences, depending on their position in the family and their chemistry/karma with those same parents (and siblings).
Today my brothers still speak to me across a gulf, from those entrenched positions. They clearly feel that the unexamined life is well worth living. Philosophers they are not. One year ago, I met them for dinner (sans spouses and kids at my request) and I begged them to listen, just for once, to my account of the highly challenging, frustrating and draining relationship I have with my mother. Of her compulsion to re-enact with me the abuse she suffered herself. (From ancestral healing work I know that this is exactly how trauma behaves: it seeks healing through repetition!) The brothers appeared to listen – and, true to form immediately disregarded my plea. Even worse, they now seem to think that they need to protect my mother from me. In my family the one who is never protected from anything is of course me.
My father died ten years ago. My mother is now in her 80s and subject to the cognitive impairments of old age.
My family of origin was the perfect cradle to prepare me for me developing skills in shamanic work and ancestral healing work. I have no doubt that my soul chose it with great precision and great attention to unresolved issues (karma if you like) from previous incarnations. I accept and embrace that fully. I do not feel sorry for myself in any way (but I admit to still feeling some anger).
I also accept that intergenerational (or systemic) trauma opens up a polarity: the vast continuum between harm and healing. This is one of the sacred teachings of duality, it is a field buzzing with potential. It is also a minefield, death’s acre, a poison meadow. It takes almost super-human skill to navigate, to transmute the poisons into blessings. What it takes most of all is a willingness from everyone involved to heal and make changes.
Below you will find a prayer I speak daily. (It was sourced from Facebook where it did the rounds. My understanding is that it was shared with the permission of the Nahuatl Elders).
An ancient blessing created in the Nahuatl language
“I release my parents from the feeling that they have already failed me.
I release my children from the need to bring pride to me; that they may write their own ways according to their hearts; that whisper all the time in their ears.
I release my partner from the obligation to complete me. I do not lack anything, I learn with all beings all the time.
I thank my grandparents and forefathers who have gathered so that I can breathe life today. I release them from past failures and unfulfilled desires, aware that they have done their best to resolve their situations within the consciousness they had at that moment. I honour you, I love you and I recognize you as innocent.
I undress before your eyes, so they know that I do not hide or owe anything other than being true to myself and to my very existence, that walking with the wisdom of the heart, I am aware that I fulfil my life project, free from invisible and visible family loyalties that might disturb my Peace and Happiness, which are my only responsibilities.
I renounce the role of saviour, of being one who unites or fulfils the expectations of others.
Learning through, and only through LOVE, I bless my essence, my way of expressing, even though somebody may not understand me. I understand myself, because I alone have lived and experienced my history; because I know myself, I know who I am, what I feel, what I do and why I do it. I respect and approve of myself.
I honour the Divinity in me and in you. We are free.”
One of the most painful lessons of my life has been that I cannot heal my family single-handedly, even by forgiving them and loving them wholeheartedly and unconditionally, by doing regular ancestral healing work on all unresolved imprints still running. What I can do is parenting my own children differently, from a different level of consciousness.
Family constellations work (pioneered by Bert Hellinger) teaches that patterns will run in families until they are unravelled and transmuted. Not just that, one person dying (with serious issues unresolved) creates a magnetic void that another person in the family line will inevitably be pulled into. I know that I was. I also know why, that I chose this on the level of soul, from a desire to heal and learn and make amends across lifetimes. To my dismay I have recently found myself wondering if my brothers are unconsciously stepping into the void left by my father’s death. (Again: the laws of ancestral healing work teach us such a dynamic is likely when the people involved choose not to raise their awareness and do shadow work).
If the imprint of abuse, scapegoating and bullying must continue – then I now (reluctantly!) accept that those vacancies in the family tree will be filled by souls choosing to work certain issues. I honour their commitment to learning from pain and duality. Some need the darkness in order to see light, it is one path of divine illumination, one path to sacred knowledge, -but a path I now choose to step away from. Instead I opt for The Wild, growing into the Wisdom of the Crone as both Mother Goddess and Death Goddess.
There is such a thing as “a dark power structure” ruling families, a balancing occurring at all cost. Some might call this Fate and others call it karma or psychological patterning. Mientje died for her (our) family (long before I was born) and I got as far as an investigation for breast cancer in an oncology clinic last year. My family is not good for my health, mental/emotional or physical. But I am determined to heal, if not my family of birth (after 30 years of trying and failing I accept that this is a lost cause), but myself and Those Whose Ancestor I Will Be.
From years of one-to-one client work I know that I am not alone in struggling with this. Below are my suggestions for people who labour to tread with integrity under the same dark power structure, under the same cloud of scapegoating and exclusion. The ones who “got away” but did not get away.
Before you forgive anyone, ask yourself:
- Can I forgive this person (or these people) and move on, or am I obliged to stay in relationship with them? (If the latter applies – tread with immense care and caution. Do not assume that forgiveness heals future interactions with them!)
- If I forgive this person, will they unconsciously take this as permission or encouragement to continue treating me badly?
- Can I forgive this person yet live with a constant reopening of core wounds?
- Can I forgive this person yet live with being ridiculed for having difficult emotions in their presence?
- What is the price I am willing to pay, in terms of physical and emotional health, for staying in relationship with primary attachment figures? (Through deep inner work and years of client work I observe a connection between Cancer and auto-immune diseases, and this type of family background)
- What will happen if I decide I am not willing to pay that price?
- Forgiveness can become a trap: someone cuts you in the very fabric of your soul and from past experience you already know what needs to be done, so you take a shortcut and forgive them (or at least believe you have forgiven them until old wounds open and the need for forgiveness rises anew). Forgiving can get exhausting!
Healing is a beautiful divine gift, powerful beyond measure. So powerful that I have dedicated a large chunk of my life to it and observed many miracles! It moves me to tears when a whole family shows up to attend and support one family member's healing session. (This happens!!)
Yet, human free will and human lack of awareness are formidable forces too. They cannot be rushed or forced. That is the place where Healing borders the Abyss - the dark rift we cannot cross.
A hedgerow grows around the Land that is Forgiveness. It consists of Hawthorn and Blackthorn bushes entwined. Between them they open the Gate of Duality. Hawthorn is sometimes called Whitethorn! Only witches fly straight across this boundary, when they go hedge-crossing, but the rest of us need to risk life and limb to climb in.
This gateway is a thorny arch, a many-limbed barbed spider reaching for you, marking you. The price of entry is scarring and old wounds opening; a commitment to shedding blood on behalf of those in the same bloodline. Yet foraging is encouraged. There are purple fruits to be picked. A thorny staff (possibly an ancient template for the Thurs or Thurisaz Rune) can be a powerful magical tool:
The Blackthorn is depicted in many fairytales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen. Called Straif in the Ogham, this tree has the most sinister reputation in Celtic tree lore. The English word “strife” is said to derive from this Celtic word. To Witches, it often represents the dark side of the Craft. It is a sacred tree to the Dark, or Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess, and represents the Waning and Dark Moons. Blackthorn is known as “the increaser and keeper of dark secrets”. The tree is linked with warfare, wounding and death, associated with the Cailleach - the Crone of Death, and the Irish Morrigan. Winter begins when the Cailleach (also the Goddess of Winter) strikes the ground with her Blackthorn staff.
Some people are pricked and stay asleep for one hundred years. The proper name of Sleeping Beauty is Thorn Rose or Little Briar Rose (Doornroosje in Dutch, my mother tongue).
For those who have many years of sleeping left, it is kinder not to wake them with a kiss.
Imelda Almqvist, Sweden, Dark Moon, the night of 27 October 2019
Imelda Almqvist is an international teacher of sacred art, Seiðr and the ancestral wisdom teachings of Northern Europe. Her first book Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit For Life (Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages) was published by Moon Books in 2016 and her second book Sacred Art: A Hollow Bone for Spirit (Where Art Meets Shamanism) was published in March 2019. Imelda has presented her work on the Shamanism Global Summit and as a presenter on Year of Ceremony with Sounds True.
Imelda divides her time between the UK, Sweden and the US. Her third book “Medicine of the Imagination: Dwelling in Possibility” will be published in 2020. Imelda is currently working on her fourth book, about the pre-Christian spirituality of The Netherlands. She recently appeared on a Mystic Britain TV programme filmed for The Smithsonian Channel, talking about Mesolithic site Star Carr and arctic deer shamanism, (and modelling a Stone Age antlered headdress!)
Imelda dreams of being a full-time forest witch!