I banged my fingertip against the shelf as I put a book away, and swore. Damn, that still hurts. It's been, what, a month? since I cut my finger. I'd been slicing carrots with my big chef's knife, which I had honed quite beautifully just a few minutes before, and something went wrong--the carrot slipping, probably --and suddenly I found myself dripping blood all over the countertop. I'd cut my left index fingertip right across, a good eighth of an inch down and on an angle, and it was bleeding like a stuck pig. I did all the right things--fast rinse under the kitchen tap, then pressure (plus swearing, because it was starting to *hurt*) to stop the bleeding, then antibiotic ointment and bandage. Many bandages. It took more than a week before the flap sealed shut. Now it's all healed--except that it still hurts, down deep, and obviously will for a while.
But likely not forever. Bodies are wonderful at mending themselves: think of immunity, clotting, scarring, regeneration, all precisely and beautifully mediated by cascades of precisely signaled biological processes like footmen at the feast. Of course it doesn't always go perfectly. Sometimes the systems screw up (as in autoimmune disorders). Sometimes they're overloaded by too many insults at once, or thrown out of whack down by too much trouble, physical or psychological. We do get less good at healing as we ago. And sometimes the damage is simply too great; either the body gets left with permanent injuries, or we die.
Still, bodies do a wonderful job. As do souls (or psyches, or whatever you want to call them). The sheer resilience of people is a marvel; they can bounce back astonishingly well. Or if the damage happens, they seem to have (Jung noted) a drive towards health. Those of us of the Christian persuasion say it's God tugging us Godward, for God is where the health is.
But for souls, the process is more complex than it is for bodies, and it may stall. My finger, unless it's too badly damaged or infected by some outside pathogen, will heal on its own recognizances. My soul has more responsibility for what goes on--but also less control.
A while ago, I apologized to a young woman whom I had hurt quite badly some years ago. I hadn't hurt her on purpose; I was trying to be helpful, and I think I spoke gently and without unkindness. But my timing had been rotten; and worse still, I had been trying to "fix" her. God only knows how much harm we do to each other, trying we can fix each other, cf. Matt. 7.3-5.... And since I had thought I'd done nothing really wrong, I wouldn't let her get angry at me I had refused to respect her point of view or admit that maybe I had some things to apologize for her. And so there we stuck, with things between us left askew. She'd forgiven me long since, in the sense of not being angry and not wanting any sort of payback. But the wound was still there, unhealed, until I apologized.
I could have argued that she should "just get over it". I could have insisted on a personal statute of limitations. But soul-damage doesn't work that way. The repair process can, in fact, stall out. Finding healing is only partly a matter of willingness or willpower. Of course, if you choose to stay stuck in your personal mudpuddle of misery, cherishing your grievance, you are not going anywhere on the road to recovery. Forgiveness is a choice, but it's a choice we make for our own sake, not for the sake of the person we're forgiving. Forgiveness is simply the willingness to get out of that mudpuddle, put down that grievance, accept your own part in the problem, and be ready to make peace. And maybe healing will come spontaneously when you do that.
But maybe it won't, and we can't blame the people we've wounded if they can't get better on their own. Healing has another part to it: the willingness of the offender to help the wounded to his or her feet, brush off the mud, and say "I'm sorry". If I hurt a person and refuse to take any responsibility for what I've done, I leave that person holding the bag.
"I didn't do anything," when something was quite clearly done, invalidates the other person. We tell the victims of our own stupidity or cruelty or pride "the way you feel is your own fault" or "you're just too weak and screwed up to accept loving honesty" (God, what an putdown that is!) Or "you must have done something to deserve this, because I am such a nice person that I wouldn't hurt a fly," or "you're just making this all up to make me feel bad about myself." The absolute worst, the crazy-making part of psychological abuse, is "I didn't do anything wrong, and besides, you made me do it because this is what you really deserve." It never ceases to amaze me, the sort of mental gymnastics that abusers use to prove to their victims that they're really just acting in love. This sort of garbage adds considerable insult to the original injury. It forces the other person into an unjust silence; he or she may stand there for years, holding out the forgiveness that we refuse to admit we need. And the longer that goes on, the worse the cumulative damage is.
If we claim to love each other, why are we so doggone ready to do each other harm and refuse to acknowledge it? My kid sister the pshrink (yo, Jane!) gave me the necessary phrase a while ago: "narcissistic injury." Admitting that I've screwed up and hurt another person is going to make me feel somewhat less like a good and loving and thoroughly nice person. I may even feel bad about myself. And that will hurt, and I don't like pain.
Some of us are better than others at fighting off narcissistic injury. Some are really superb at it, and they may cruise through life leaving blood and body parts in their wakes while conserving the comfy view that they're really wise, caring, good and loving people. Others get angry at the idea that maybe they have to admit they've screwed up; and they often get angriest at their victims, for seeing the pain they've inflicted makes them feel bad--and feeling bad makes them defensive, and being defensive makes them aggressive. For others, "The dog ate my homework." Others play "shoot the wounded"; if I've hurt you and don't want to deal with that, the simplest solution is to clobber you for the sin of being wounded so that you'll go away and stop making me feel bad. I could go on. There are as many evasive tactics in this business as there are weeds in my lawn. (Wasn't it Freud who said "neurosis is almost always the result of trying to avoid necessary suffering"?)
The liturgy is very wise in putting Confession, Absolution, and the Peace in that order. Healing and reconciliation really need all three, especially when the wound goes deep or has gone unhealed for far too long. We need to be ready to accept that we need forgiving, and our victims need to be ready to give us that forgiveness; and then the healing can happen. But forgiveness isn't the same as healing, and healing is not the same as being fixed, as though nothing had ever happened. My fingertip is scarred, and the scar will remain for the rest of my life. I can't expect the friend I hurt so badly to want to be my friend again; maybe she will, but that has to be her choice. That doesn't mean that we aren't at peace with each other, just that we're human.
One thing of which I am quite certain: if I hadn't apologized to that young woman and accepted her forgiveness, I'd have had to deal with God about the whole mess later. Christians can "let go and let God" because they have faith in God's justice. If I can't or won't put something right in this life, it will inevitably be put right in the next; and the pain I have ducked now will be mine then, probably with interest, as I fully understand the consequences of what I've done. I hope, in the Life to Come, where time runs back and forth like a bead on a string, that I don't have to suffer with that young woman during the days and weeks after I'd injured her, because she has forgiven me and I have accepted her forgiveness. I have myself had to forgive people who refused to admit that they had anything to be forgiven for, and I trust God will straighten them out. I don't believe in Hell, but I do believe that we go through a period in that Life in which we fully comprehend what we have done for good or ill; and if we've left unhealed and unacknowledged wounds in our wake, we will no doubt learn about them then.
If you need a nudge to go ask pardon from someone you've hurt, there you are: you have to do it sometime anyway, so you might as well get it over with. Better still, do it for love of them, for they deserve better than you've given them. You can't demand that they heal without your help; you did the damage, in simple justice, you should help undo it. If healing happens without your help, that's lovely--but that's not something you can expect or ask for.
My finger will be sore for a while, but it will get better. I know that the wounds in my soul go deeper and that there are many of them; I hope to deal with them all in this life, but I'm sure as hell not counting on it. There is eternity, full of God's love, and there even the worst wounded will find peace and perfect healing.
But we do owe it to each other, as part of the Great Commandment, to be ready to say "sorry," and say it genuinely, not flippantly, looking our victim in the eyes and acknowledging what we really did. It costs so little, really! A momentary pang, and then the splinter's drawn and the wound can drain and start to mend.