Adults of influence: parents, teachers, preachers and “talking heads” terrify vulnerable young with pictures and stories of hatred. Susan Sontag has eloquently named and warned us of the damage inherent in war photos when they can be so easily manipulated to inflame emotions or numb them out. As rage engulfs dichotomies reign: “I am good”, “You are bad”, and “If you think like them, you betray your people and become a traitor.” Hate destroys all but gives the illusion that the hearts of believers are pure, righteous and valiant. Such purity is dangerous to all as such unleavened violence finds its’ own course, energy and aim.
Children are accepted as part of the fold until or unless they act on their own. This is violence by permission. With no conscience to guide them, they spew mimicked hatred as their diseased “heroes” drain their pints of brew with hands of Pilate.
Five Minutes of Heaven depicts a mad world stuffed into innocents like Alistair Little (Liam Neeson) until revenge as murder is prized, honored, and celebrated. The terrible emotional toll on such young followers is never accounted for as they are once again abandoned when their purpose is served like puppets cut loose from their strings.
Innocents on the other side are foreigners, not us, not for who they are but what they represent. They, like 11-year-old Joe Griffin (James Nesbitt) are erased as children, remaining only as cutouts upon whom to heap bitterness and blame. Terribly this happens even from their own “side” as with Joe’s family when his brother was murdered. Helplessness is intolerable: “Why didn’t you stop him? You could have stopped him,” his mother screeches.
As such children grow up what are they to do, how do they go past what they were taught and believe they are? I believe they can recover their humanity, scarred though it may be and this film, while bleak, offers direction. Although unfashionable to believe perhaps, and I’ve had my share of professional disagreements on this subject, moving beyond trauma does not usually entail forgiveness, apology, reconciliation, reparation and the like. It is to be recalled that “acts of forgiveness” by transgressors are often quite different than genuine internal, heart wrenching transformations. With complex trauma these tropes are, to me, often easy and cheap. They can be no more than empty, self-serving gestures often devoid of empathy or at least pathos.
As an addendum, however, I would suggest authentic forgiveness is possible, but only when initiated by the “survivor.” A request for forgiveness by anyone else carries the weight of a further intrusion or demand. Forgiveness, if meaningful, is gifted, offered; for the purpose of healing the victim’s own pernicious injury. Still it is more likely that moving on is moving into the trauma with honesty, cold and harsh as it may be, to find healing space through a process I identify as nonforgiveness.
Should time preclude a full discussion today I want to say a few words to distinguish unforgiving from nonforgiving. Many times in my long work with trauma survivors there comes a point where the fear, rage and numbing sorrow of loss begins to fade. I have great respect for the resiliency and courage of these wise and weathered souls. They have lived through both the violence and in re-telling, often re-living the very destructiveness they seek to heal from in therapy. This healing, this discovery of an internal, resilient sense of self beyond the attribution of victim, to whatever degree possible, is not often accomplished by forgiveness. It is just too much to expect of those who have sacrificed so much of their lives. The options then are unforgiveness or nonforgiveness.
I distinguish the two in the following ways. Unforgiveness is about holding on to, a grasping, grabbing, swallowing, biting into experiences with will and hardness. This is an active, albeit unconscious resistance; justification is infused with vengeful fantasies, wishes, dreams and often actions. Still, it remains an infected, dangling attachment to the transgressor: “I keep us alive by punishing you. Punishing you, I undo the past. I am you; my pain is your encrusted being, all of you. You will not escape. You are all I suffer and exist beyond redemption.” Identification and infusion darken the soul and mourning is sacrificed.
Unforgiveness, however, may serve us an initial gateway, not necessarily to forgiveness, but to nonforgiveness as I am defining it here. Akhtar wisely notes revenge can impart a sense of mastery and a loss of innocence as the victim can, perhaps for the first time, “taste the pleasure of sadism.” Safer goes further in positing a legitimate, healthy, willful unforgiving if to forgive is to condone violence. Such a decisive action reflects a developing sense of self externally focused on such social issues as justice and accountability.
Nonforgiveness is different. It is letting go, being fed up with, moving elsewhere, beyond restraint, filling in life, redirection emerges as memories become washed out, fading into a muted background again, mostly unconscious. Time has been run through in acts of psychic survival. The transgressor is crowded out, choked off by different transitional experiences (Winnicott), vitalization of imagination and fantasy, and the gentle shiver of physical awakening. It happens
quite suddenly—a “gone-ness”—or as one patient put it to me, “a sacred emptiness.” Nonforgiveness is outside the black hole, outside the teratoma, as Vida has pointed out in a personal communication. Memories remain, we never forget, but they are distant, humbled, although potentially activated in some lesser form by other transgressions, trauma or new losses. The healthy tissue cannot evade or avoid what used to be there, but what used to be there is no longer active.
Most significantly, there is no internal conversation of blame, defense or justification. “It’s gone.” And often surprisingly so. The squawking shadow haunting life disappears around a mind’s corner, turned many times before but now inexplicably the landscape is different. Mystery and grueling hard work come together in one last alchemistic transmutation: a rusty uneven gate, wobbly on its hinges closes and the worn latch drops loosely into place.
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