I often find myself split into many conflicted emotional and intellectual fragments when I contemplate the notion of forgiveness. An image arises of my head constructed as a multi-colored mind map filled with neural clusters (Bob Scaer’s “Dissociative Capsules?”) all representing overwhelming and painful experiences that unfolded from before birth up until the present moment. Many of them seem to be inviting me to forgive my parents.
There’s a toxic level of alcohol and nicotine present in the womb as I expand at a firestorm rate of 50,000 cells or more a minute from the moment I am conceived. That needs to be forgiven. There’s a sister, Melanie, born after me, knocking me from the throne of already inconstant mothering. That needs to be forgiven. There’s a father who flees, offering not a single shred of support for 20 years. That needs to be forgiven. There is a childhood filled with drunken disorder, tattered clothes, more beer than food in the refrigerator. That needs to be forgiven. There is the pre-adolescent shame and horror of having to witness my mother hauled off to Middletown, the Connecticut State Mental Hospital, and then having to visit her there. That needs to be forgiven. Just through my first ten years of life, the list of things that need to be forgiven feels like a long, long one.
But not any longer than anyone else’s list I’ve come to realize. When all of us, parents and children alike, have the time and space to tell the truth about what happened to us during our childhood, it turns out we have all been the witting and unwitting victims of great unfairness, suffering and ignorance – our own, our parents’ and their parents’ before them, all the way back to Adam and Eve, most likely. And telling the truth about all of this seems to be a necessary and essential requirement of us if we are to become the committed parents we wish to be. And as Stanford and transpersonal psychologist, Fred Luskin writes in his latest book, Forgive for Love, telling the truth about all of this until it no longer drives our emotional engines is a necessary aspect of forgiveness. It is a part of the journey that allows us to begin to have compassion for all living beings in the world, even our own parents.
If we don’t do the work required to come to a truly integrated place of forgiveness, in a very real neurological sense all that’s left for us is to end up becoming more and more “disorganized” as we age. Neurology never stands still. We’re either making more neurons and connections, or we’re making less. And while I mostly only know of anecdotal evidence to support it, the work of forgiveness intuitively seems like a work that would contribute profoundly to interpersonal neurobiologcal organization and integration. (How’s that for a mouthful?).
What might happen when we do the emotional work of forgiveness? Might our brain makes more neural connections to more neural structures, but even more importantly … to our hearts? I’m not going to traumatize you by attempting to get you to understand Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, but in the context of Steve’s theory, I’d be willing to predict one day neuroscience researchers will find that forgiveness does actually help to connect our brains to our hearts. In The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit, child development expert Joseph Chilton Pearce argues convincingly that our current level is not the pinnacle of human development. Rather, we are all in the process of growing and expanding into our “Fifth Brain”- the neurological clusters that work to let our heart know what’s needed by all the rest of our insides. When the heart is finally sufficiently connected up neurologically to run the show, might forgiveness become a given?
There is a Wisdom Teaching that says, “You can search the whole world over and never find anyone more deserving of love than … you.” That saying also applies to our parents and to us as parents, and when we do the healing work required to be able to authentically offer it, forgiveness is one profound way to begin to express that love.