Forgiveness by Sidney B. Simon and Suzanne Simon: help for the walking wounded

Forgiveness: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Get on With Your LifeForgiveness: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Get on With Your Life by Sidney B. Simon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A straightforward, authoritative guide to the path of self-healing—which we all need more than we think.

This book, published in 1990, is the product of a husband-wife team; the Simons led seminars in forgiveness and healing throughout the United States in the 1980s. Indeed, it comes out in the book that it was at one of these seminars, then led only by Sidney Simon, that the pair met: for Suzanne had suffered sexual abuse as a little girl, and had finally taken definite steps to heal herself. She went on to marry the seminar’s facilitator and to coteach the seminar with him.

Suzanne’s story becomes the central case study in the book. There are also about half a dozen others: the stories of men and women who suffered emotional wounding and went on to heal it and live more fully. Not all the wounds are necessarily inflicted in childhood; one woman was traumatized to learn of her husband’s affair. The authors point out that we can be hurt by spouses, lovers, siblings, and employers as much as by our parents—although our early caregivers are in a position to do the most harm, since at that time of life we are small and helpless and at their mercy. Certainly this was the case with Suzanne, who was molested by her own father.

The notion of people being wounded or damaged, and working with their “inner child” and haunting support groups, has been in popular culture for some time. Beavis and Butthead made taunts about each other’s inner child, and the popular writer on healing, Caroline Myss, is critical of the phenomenon of “woundology”–of people identifying with their wounds and thereby never getting past them. She sees support groups as being, at least sometimes, enablers of this kind of thinking. But I got a sense from reading the Simons’ book that this getting stuck at a stage in the healing process is normal and inevitable. And, true, a person can stay stuck there a long time, maybe his whole life, but the problem is one of being stuck, and not of paying attention to one’s woundedness. For we must pay attention to it if we are to heal. But we need to pay attention to it in the right way.

This is where the Simons’ book comes in. They clearly outline the healing process and how to proceed with it. For each of us, it unfolds as a series of 6 stages, which they name:

1. Denial
2. Self-Blame
3. Victim
4. Indignation
5. Survivor
6. Integration

We all start in the Denial stage, and we may linger there a good long time, since it’s something that naturally goes away by itself. The authors describe it thus:

This is the stage in which we attempt to play down the impact or importance of painful past experiences and bury our thoughts and feelings about those experiences.

It’s easy to see why this creates a “stuck” situation, since, when confronted with evidence of a problem, we respond: “Problem? What problem? I’m okay, that’s all ancient history. Heck, it’s made me stronger!” But the evidence of unhealed wounds lies in our lives and how we manage them. Do we engage in self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors? Do we repeatedly find ourselves enacting similar unpleasant dramas in our lives? Do we feel unfulfilled or dead inside? Do we feel that life is just something to be got through—and maybe got over with as soon as possible?

One of the most striking things for me in reading this book was to see how the behaviors associated with unhealed wounds describe so much of human life around me—as well as my own life. To some extent, we are all, each of us, the walking wounded. For, as the Simons observe, everybody gets hurt. We don’t all get hurt equally badly, but it’s not a contest; and if our wounds are causing unpleasant symptoms to appear in our lives, then this is a problem we need to deal with.

The book is called Forgiveness, but the path they describe is one of healing. I don’t know whether I’ve ever associated those things before. But, according to these authors, forgiveness happens spontaneously as a byproduct of healing. We cannot forgive by an act of will; the words “I forgive” have no magic power to bring about the mental and emotional closure that true forgiveness brings. According to the Simons, we must go through all the steps of healing—every one of them—in order for the magic of forgiveness to take place. The level of our actual forgiveness is revealed in how we live and behave: if we are living fully, enjoying our lives, and actualizing ourselves, then we have forgiven.

The authors are at pains to make clear that forgiveness is not the same thing as condoning or excusing cruelty or injustice. Our ignorance of this point can be a serious obstacle to progressing on the path of healing. Forgiveness means putting things in perspective, and seeing that life is more than just the harms that have been done to us, and that those who have done the harming are more than just their worst moments.

Each step of the process is discussed in detail, but the book moves along briskly. The authors give us exercises to do to help bring us along, and illustrate each phase with their handful of case studies. I bought this book in order to do research for one of my fictional characters, but found that I was learning about myself and my own life. Now I would recommend this book to just about everyone: both those who are limping from day to day on “painkillers and emptiness-fillers,” and those who are mostly happy, unaware that their unhealed wounds are keeping the true riches of life out of reach.

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