Immaculee Ilibagiza is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide that took place in the mid-nineties. Political tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes resulted in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of members of both tribes. On Easter Sunday 1994, when Ilibagiza and her family were gathered together, her older brother, Damascene, begged their father to take the family and flee to safety. They made the fateful decision to stay.

 Soon after, a killing spree began that targeted the Tutsi people. Ilibagiza and her younger brother, Vianney, managed to make their way to a local Hutu pastor’s home, who provided protection from the chaos that was surrounding them. When they arrived, they heartbreakingly discovered that Vianney could not stay and Ilibagiza and seven other women hid in a small bathroom for three months. When they were finally able to leave their hiding place, Ilibagiza learned that her family had been murdered. She lost 50 pounds during her ordeal.

While our human nature naturally desires revenge, Ilibagiza somehow chose to forgive the people who killed her family as she felt the bitter feelings of rage were destroying her. She was determined to let love, rather than hate, rule her life. Eventually, she met one of the murderers face-to-face and told him directly that she forgave him.

Ilibagiza is now living in the US with her children, some of whom are adopted from Rwanda. She has written a best-selling book about her experience, “Left to Tell”, made several television appearances, spoken at multiple conferences and founded the Left to Tell Charitable Fund to help children who have been orphaned through genocide. From the unimaginable pain she endured, Ilibagiza has managed to do an immense amount of good, creating positive change in the world.

We all have our own stories of pain and suffering which in varying degrees affect our lives…but it’s the pain inflicted by others, sometimes the people closest to us, that can have the most far reaching and long term effects. Yet, if we are willing to put forth the effort that forgiveness requires, eventually we will reap benefits rather than suffer repercussions. 

Sadly, my story is not an uncommon one. I can remember as if it were yesterday, the very moment my safe, childhood bubble burst and I became “less than”.  It came from the individual who was supposed to love me the most – the person expected to nurture, protect and prepare me for my future and all that lay before me. Now, in hindsight with the utmost clarity, I can see how it deeply affected the course of my life. I won’t get into detail here but I couldn’t have been older than seven when I understood that something was wrong. Something about ME was wrong. Something about me wasn’t good enough….and in the blink of an eye, I became “less than.” It happened that quickly.

Of course, as the years went on, there were more incidents, insults became bitter verbal attacks and eventually full blown emotional, psychological and physical abuse. It chipped away at my self esteem and identity like a giant, brutal ice pick. I never cease to be amazed at how much power memories such as these can have over us. The human spirit, in all its resilience, is still so tender. 

In shamanism, we describe this as soul loss – these unfortunate moments that happen in all of our lives that cause us pain, and without our knowing, steal a precious part of us.  Some bury it, refusing to acknowledge or address it, others spend years in therapy trying to get to the root of the problem but often settle for a band aid when the work gets too hard or hits too close to home. The vicious cycle continues, and we carry these beliefs, like monkeys on our backs. We remain unable to retrieve the parts of our soul we’ve lost, allowing the illusion that we are “less than” to affect our choices, decisions, relationships…every aspect of our lives.

After decades of living a life tightly bound by the menacing chains of my adolescence  and constantly searching for validation outside of myself, there finally came a day when I grew tired of the identity my psyche had adopted. I realized the story I kept telling myself and others about who and what I was didn’t belong to me – it was a projection, borne of someone else’s pain and suffering. At that moment, unbeknownst to me, my world began to shift and transform. A moment of empathy and the recognition of my abuser’s imperfect and fragile humanity opened the door to my own healing. Inevitably, the by-products of my past began to steadily morph into gifts that would begin to serve my greater good. A new awareness allowed for a different, affirming and positive perspective.

When speaking with counselees, I ask them to approach this with beginners mind and define themselves differently. For example, rather than an abuse victim, they are a person who has experienced and overcome abuse. This removes the limiting identity they’ve unconsciously adopted and creates new space  to grow and become. It’s usually not an easy conversation because releasing old stories means change and that can be frightening. Pain, no matter how debilitating, is sometimes preferable because it’s a familiar, comfortable, safe place that doesn’t require us to stretch our boundaries. It allows us to remain in the shadows, hiding from the truth of our potential. It’s validation of all the reasons why we can’t be happy, successful or fulfilled and relinquishes the responsibility of having to aspire for anything.  True forgiveness and the freedom it brings cannot be achieved until we are willing to let all of that go.

The notion of forgiveness is floated around without really providing a thorough explanation as to how or why it works and who it actually benefits. We are told to forgive because we’re supposed to. This makes it incredibly difficult for someone who (rightfully) believes their suffering is being diminished by those who are insisting they forgive. It can feel like an admission that what they endured wasn’t a big deal, or “that bad”, so they should get over it – and often, allow the person who hurt them back into their lives.

I’m here to tell you that’s not what it means.

If I may digress…

Don’t say you forgive someone when you really don’t. That isn’t helpful either. Denial will just keep you holding on to an old wound that it slowly poisoning you. Genuine forgiveness can only come when you’re ready and that takes work. It’s a layered process in which we learn to detach from the need to determine the fate of the perpetrator or what we believe they deserve…It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s part of our humanity. 

The truth is, to this very day, I struggle to forgive my abuser. It’s constant effort and a deep dive into practices like mindfulness and self awareness, but well worth the price of my self esteem and sanity. It’s also the platform on which I have built my ministry and career. My life’s mission is to ensure that those I touch recognize their inherent value, embrace their unique gifts and shine their light into the world. Would I be so dedicated to this had I not had the experience of being devalued and diminished myself?

To forgive means to see beyond the hurtful action itself, beyond the facade of the perpetrator and into the source, the origin. I don’t have to know details of the situation, who the person is, what they did, to tell you with 100% assurance, that the cause of their behavior was rooted in pure, prolific pain. Pain they may have never fully acknowledged, overcame, or even consciously been aware of…and most importantly, pain they still suffer because they have no concept of what forgiveness is, what it means, or that it’s even a possibility.

As the Buddha said, ” Pain is inevitable….suffering is optional.”

My friends, the angriest, cruelest people are the most fearful, trapped in a deep, dark, emotional, psychospiritual hole. This is a repercussion of their own story, which we’ll likely never know.  We tend not to think about a person outside of their relationship with us. We don’t know who they are beyond the role they play in our lives, nor do we generally care.  We don’t always look at the bigger picture. But sometimes it’s incredibly helpful, even if challenging, to take a step back and try to see things from a wider perspective.

Don’t misunderstand me…I’m not suggesting this absolves or excuses anyone’s abusive or inappropriate behavior. Yes, we are adults and should be responsible and held accountable for our actions, but compassion, even for those who may seem unworthy, can be cathartic.

It is of great benefit to acknowledge that our understanding of life is often limited to what is filtered through the lens of our personal experience. While we may not be able change what is outside of ourselves, we can certainly change what is within.  Forgiveness becomes possible when we are freed from the projections of others that are a direct result of their own lack of self love and awareness. This allows us to recreate our entire existence on our terms. You become the author of your own story.

Remember, whatever you have endured has prepared and equipped you for your greatest moments. Discomfort and strife cultivate growth and empower change.

Therein lies the gift, and at the heart of that, lies forgiveness……not only for those who have sinned against us, but more importantly, ourselves… for ever believing or buying into the illusion that we were “less than”. 

 “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” – Joseph Campbell