Tough topic. Some cultures still take the literal position that “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is absolutely justifiable. Of all the people on earth, offenders (people who hurt people) are the ones most likely to be wished dead, or worse. In jails, we’ve all heard stories how child-molesters often end up murdered by fellow in-mates. And as a parent, if my daughter were the recipient of unspeakable abuse, I can’t say with certainty that I would be able to put into practice what I’m about to write about. But, I hope I’d have the courage to try, for my own peace of mind.
Whether it’s a school yard bully or a repeat sexual predator, the thought I’m forwarding is that trying to develop a sense of compassion for the offender is helpful to the survivor and those who support them. Making the attempt to see the situation from the offender’s position is more likely to help the survivor than is carrying the burden of hatred in their body and spirit. Looking to understand the reason for their offender’s behaviour, understanding the illness behind it, and reminding ourselves that it’s hurt people who hurt people, can lighten the load.
I have immense respect for those who have been hurt and are trying, when it must be immeasurably difficult, to rise above their experience.
The idea of feeling compassion for offenders is not intended to make anyone believe the offender’s actions are acceptable. What’s wrong is wrong regardless of any rationalizations of what caused it, and it’s correct to protect yourself and others from it ever happening again. In fact, if the abuse is on-going, it’s extremely tough / next to impossible to feel any compassion at all. Compassion for the offender is easier to contemplate, as a concept for healing, when there are already solid boundaries in place, when the abuse is not being repeated and when the survivor is feeling safe.
What is compassion and why is it helpful for us to feel it? It is feeling empathy towards someone else’s pain. No action is required, just making the intention that the other person’s suffering be reduced. It helps a survivor to feel it towards their offender because it takes them out of the state of anger which is poisonous to themselves, and it helps their suffering become more grounded.
Whose examples can we follow? Nelson Mandela powerfully describes his time in jail while demonstrating compassion towards his captors in “Long Walk to Freedom”. Amanda Lindhout, a Canadian who was held captive for 15 arduous months in Somalia, gracefully and courageously echoes this sentiment, in “House in the Sky”. In her words, immensely challenging as it is to do, “choosing compassion is the way to experience freedom”. Theo Fleury was extremely angry for many years at the perpetrator of his childhood abuse…and today, for the same reasons as the others, he’s more grounded, insightful and consciously choosing the path of compassion. All these survivors are basically saying the same thing in different ways. And there are many others on this same page, people who have been in positions to suffer greatly and yet who are guiding lights for others to follow in reducing further pain.
One could look to what all these people have in common and theorize that there is a spiritual (not necessarily religious) component to their feelings of compassion towards all others. Could it be that when you have a sense of being connected to something greater than yourself (a ‘God of your own understanding’) that this concept of feeling compassion to all, even to offenders, seems a bit easier to adopt?
If you are not moving towards compassion, the opposite and some would say more naturally reactive direction would be to feel hatred. What does hatred serve? If, like physical pain felt by nerve endings, it is part of a defense mechanism to let your brain/heart know to change your current situation- then good. Anger would then be useful to keep you safer, and it is good to listen to it. If you’re already in a safe-enough place and the trauma is not in danger of being repeated, however, then the hatred/anger will only serve to make yourself ill.
Reminder- It is not always the trauma event itself that makes you the most hurt. It’s often how people (including yourself) respond to the abuse that contributes to your difficulty (or relative ease) with your personal healing.
In a nutshell, how does feeling compassion for your offender help you to feel better? Once you see it’s the other’s issues and pain, it encourages the thought that the abuse was not your fault and you instantly have more energy to forgive and love yourself. And that’s really the goal in healing. The bonus is that if your intention for them to feel less pain comes to be, they’d be less likely to hurt another.
- Is your trauma/abuse truly in the past or ongoing in any way? If it’s ongoing, find safety, whatever that means to you.
- Have you been able to connect with, acknowledge and process your pain? This part hurts, but this important step allows yourself to grow and be stronger, and increases the likelihood that this kind of experience will not be repeated.
- Do you know the background of your abuser? If not, try to piece it together. If you do, see where their own pain/illness comes from and explore in your mind how hurt people hurt people, and how this is not really about you.
- Convince yourself that your own heart is worthy of tons of love, and be open to receiving it.
- If there’s not an abundance of love you can be surrounded with in your present whereabouts and social situation, or just to expand what you have, find any way to be of genuine service to others without expectations of reward. I read in a trusted blog that helping is healing, and that makes a lot of sense.
Upcoming event in Calgary: On March 14th Theo Fleury and Kim Barthel are co-hosting a forum on healing, called “Conversations with a Rattlesnake”. I understand that discussions on topics like this one might come up; if not, people in the audience will be encouraged to raise them or whatever else re/ healing is on their minds. As Kim’s husband, I’ve seen Theo and Kim’s work together genuinely help people to understand themselves better and regardless of their condition, to feel more hope. Every time the events have done more than that though; the interactive format brings inspirational people to share, and from those connections it’s encouraging to see Theo and Kim learning every step of the way as well. Our journey as humans in supporting one another is never over, but this forum is one great opportunity along the way. I look forward to the 14th. We’re all in this together.
- Bob Spensley