Monday, August 29, 2011

Forgiveness, the Final Frontier

Of all the steps discussed in this blog, forgiveness is one of the most challenging. The foundation of so many teachings, and the subject of endless studies, it remains one of the most difficult to accomplish, and, at least for me, to write about.

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Those familiar with the Christian faith recognize this as part of the Lord’s Prayer. But do you know the verses immediately following the Lord’s Prayer? “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Just in case you need it spelled out because you weren’t paying attention when you were praying.)

That’s harsh! One person in our monthly discussion group asked in despair, “So if I can’t forgive someone, then I’m condemned?” Yikes!

Personally, I don’t think God is that stingy with forgiveness or exacts a quid pro quo. I believe that we live in a perpetual state of eternal grace. All of us, of any faith or no faith. I don’t think we can do anything to earn it or lose it. We become sidetracked by the merits of forgiveness. Does this person deserve it? Do I? We get caught up in judgment, knowing at some level we are reaping what we sow. And all the time, grace surrounds us and permeates us. It just is, like the air we breathe.

Yet we continue to seek it and withhold it. A Course in Miracles teaches that forgiveness corrects our misperception that we are separate, separate from others and separate from God. Forgiveness restores us to our true nature, oneness. Forgiveness releases us from our own bondage. We think in terms of forgiving others or being forgiven ourselves, but at some point we’ll see that it’s one and the same. Forgiveness heals our mistaken belief that we were ever unforgiven.

If we really understood how central forgiveness is to our well being, to our happiness, we would practice it, in Pema Chodron’s words, “like our hair was on fire.” My failure to forgive does not change who I am. Nor does it affect whoever it is that I am not forgiving. What it does is block my awareness of grace. I don’t like my awareness of grace blocked. So I try to forgive everyone, including myself.

But still, it’s so hard sometimes. Even the concept is hard to grasp, like a squirming, slippery fish. Forgiveness sometimes masks judgment. As in, I forgive you because I am a better person than you. Or lack of compassion, as in, I forgive you because I want you to feel guilty. And even when we genuinely forgive someone, sometimes the forgiveness doesn’t stay put. As in, I know I forgave you for this, but I was just remembering what you did and now I’m all upset again.

Only last night I was entertaining my daughter’s boyfriend with tales of some of her youthful misdeeds, and in the telling I became agitated and angry although these things happened years ago and I hadn’t even thought about them in ages. What started as a funny story that we were all laughing about triggered the hurt feelings like it was happening now. Wow.

So we start where we are. Sometimes that means I can enter the experience of universal grace, if only for a moment. Sometimes it means forgiving the same thing over and over. Sometimes it means that I can only express the willingness to forgive at some point in the future when I’m ready. It’s all okay. Whatever tiny step we can take to soften the hard crust around our hearts, to open a crack, to momentarily shift our perception, to consider the possibility of forgiveness, is to invite grace into our awareness. And grace, once invited, will surely come.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Canine Theology

I seem to be especially appreciative of laughter this month, maybe because we have been discussing the sometimes challenging topic of forgiveness. So here is a little Sunday levity. Two churches face each other across the street in a small, Southern town. Here is a series of messages on their signs out front.

Catholic church – ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN








Catholic church – ALL ROCKS GO TO HEAVEN

This battle of the signs reminds me of the story about the man and his dog who went to heaven. When they got to the pearly gates, the man started to walk inside but the guard at the gate said his dog couldn’t come in. The man looked wistfully past the gate at what appeared to be paradise and turned and walked away. Down the road, he saw a run down looking farm. The farmer sitting at the gate invited the man in. What about my dog, the man asked. The farmer told him that dogs were welcome. The man asked where he was. Why, heaven, replied the farmer. So what was that fancy place up the road, the man asked. Oh, that’s hell, said the farmer.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Be Right Back!

Greetings! I'll be away from the computer for the weekend. I hope that won't keep you from stopping by to visit. If you feel so inclined, please leave a comment on any recent posts (or any posts for that matter). I will publish your comments as soon as I get back on Sunday. Have a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Giving by Asking

In my last post, I told you about “Fred” and the technique I used to forgive him. One of the commenters observed that when we forgive, we often see our own share of the responsibility for what happened. So true. So I would like to add a bit more today.

In telling the story of Fred to someone awhile back, I stumbled across a new perspective on forgiveness. As I explained in the last post, I held such bitterness towards Fred for so long that it was poisoning my whole life. So I set out to forgive Fred. I would like to tell you that my motivation was that I wanted to be a good person, but really I just wanted relief from the choke hold the resentment and blaming had on my life.

I worked hard in therapy, I completed forgiveness workbooks, I went to healing services, and I prayed. And gradually I forgave. And for the most part it stayed put. I went on with my life, free of the chains I had dragged around for so long. But as I was relating all this to my friend, something started nagging at me. Later, still reflecting on this vague uneasiness, I had a lightbulb-turning-on epiphany.

I realized that I had only completed half the work of forgiving. I still saw myself as the innocent party in this story. But was I? I had heaped judgment and blame on Fred. I had wished unpleasant things for him. And I had completely denied my own contribution to the escalation of the enmity between us. It was my own reaction to what had happened that created such a monster of bitterness and anger. It was my own feeding of that resentment that caused forgiveness to take so long and require so much effort.

I myself had committed hurtful thoughts, words, and actions, both during the time of conflict and for a long time afterwards as I nursed my fury and pain. And so in my heart I asked Fred for forgiveness. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t like admitting, even to myself, the things I had thought and said and done. Humbling, to be sure.

In recognizing my own complicity, I found it hard to hold onto any lingering unforgiving feelings I had toward Fred. So I’m wondering if I have stumbled onto a shortcut to forgiving others. Giving forgiveness is easier if you are also asking for forgiveness. It is very difficult to ask for forgiveness and judge someone at the same time. That’s because asking for forgiveness is a heart opening gesture, and, as we know, unforgiveness closes our hearts. By shifting our attention, even momentarily, from blaming the other person to looking for our own responsibility, we soften the hardness of our hearts. We see that we are in need of forgiveness, too.

Now, when I catch myself feeling wronged, in even some small way, before I get too invested in the story of someone else’s shortcomings, I try to stop and ask forgiveness for the separation I am creating by my own thoughts. My heart stays open and filled with compassion for all of us, trying to do the best we can.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

God Bless That Ol’ @#&!

By now, we are probably convinced that forgiveness is a good idea. But then how do we do it? How do we let go of the anger and resentment and fear? How do we mean it? Here is the good news. We don’t have to mean it, at least not right away. All we have to do is be willing to mean it. Or even to consider the possibility that one day we might be willing to mean it.

Some years back I went through a very difficult time. The details are not important, but what is important is that I blamed someone for causing me so much stress and anguish that I thought I was going to die of it. I’ll call this person Fred. I blamed Fred for everything that seemed wrong with my life at that time, which was a lot. I hated Fred. I wanted bad things to happen to him. I fantasized about terrible things I’m too ashamed to describe. I felt no mercy. I wanted vengeance.

Over time, life settled down and went on. But my fury still burned brightly. I still thought about it and talked about it. Until finally, I was tired of it. Tired and bored. I groaned and rolled my eyes every time I heard myself telling the story again. And again. And AGAIN. Goodness knows how my friends stood me. I couldn’t stand myself.

I knew that my unforgiveness was costing me my well being – physically, emotionally, spiritually. I began to want to change. I thought I could just decide to forgive and be done with it. That didn’t work. I read books on forgiveness. I did workbooks on forgiveness. But I was stuck. I obsessively and repeatedly revisited all the wrongs I thought I had suffered at the hands of Fred, like watching news accounts of some horrible crime or natural disaster over and over. It was an addiction – a habit I couldn’t stop.

My brain was in a rut. A rut worn so deep from driving over it a gazillion times, that I couldn’t steer out of it. I needed to start building a new path. My brain needed a new habit. So this is what I did.

Every time I thought about Fred, at the very instant I began to repeat my habitual pattern, I substituted a new thought before the emotions started churning. Before I was hooked. “God bless Fred and please help me mean it.” Let me be clear. I did not mean it. Not for a second. I did not mean the “God bless Fred” part, and sometimes I didn’t even mean the “please help me mean it” part.

But the point really wasn’t to mean it. At least not yet. The point was to break the habit. To get out of the rut. And perhaps to ask for help.

So I prayed this prayer over and over. At the beginning, sometimes several times an hour. Many times a day. And over weeks and months, very slowly, the blame loosened its grip. My heart began to soften. My feelings didn’t boil when a thought about Fred crossed my mind. The thoughts didn’t come so often. By then, the prayer had become a habit, so that when a thought of Fred popped up, the blessing was automatically triggered. Sometimes I hardly noticed it. And finally one day I said it and gasped in amazement. I really did mean it. I really, truly wished Fred well. It was a miracle.

This is a technique you can use, too, when you find yourself past the point where you have honored your feelings, when you find that unforgiveness is becoming a heart hardening habit. You don’t have to use the same words. Choose words that will mean something to you. Keep it short and simple. The important thing is to break your habit of closing your heart with judgment and blame, and to substitute a habit of opening your heart, allowing forgiveness to flow naturally and freely.

It’s worth the effort.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Giving Up Hope...and Getting Somthing Better

Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past. –Anne Lamott

When we forgive, we let go of whatever it was that we wanted to be different. All the sadness and grief that we held at bay with closed hearts is then released...and felt. It hurts.

Anne Lamott was speaking of the past, but I think her point applies equally to the future. I might paraphrase this way. “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a different future.” Earlier this year, not one but two of my three daughters blindsided me with the news of unexpected pregnancies. Let’s just say they were not ready to become parents. And this was not what I was planning for my first year of retirement. After somehow managing to raise five kids to adulthood, 2011 was designated as the year of ME, the reclaiming of my own independent adult life. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Little did I know it was a train!

I should clarify here that I’m not comparing raising my kids to a dark tunnel. I love my children and I love being a parent. And I’m blessed with wonderful kids. But I was looking forward to the next stage of my life and I had a PLAN for it, by golly!

As you can imagine, there are many facets to this new direction in our family, but the one I would like to share with you today is what I experienced with forgiveness. Among the many feelings I had roiling around in my spirit in those first weeks, were anger and resentment. Understandably, some would say. I would say, too. However, while honoring those feelings, I knew at the same time that they did not serve my well being or the well being of my children. I knew that I had choices to make about what I wanted for myself, for my relationship with my daughters, for my relationship with my grandchildren. I knew that the choices I made right then would have consequences long into the future. I wanted to choose wisely.

So I went up to my cabin to be with my feelings, to meditate and pray, to search my heart, to listen to the creek. I saw that underneath my anger, one thing I was struggling with was my lack of control. (Can we say Step 3?) I was losing something I had looked forward to and I had no control over what was happening. I imagine that many of us can relate to that last sentence in ways big and small in our own lives and in the lives of those we love. I felt sad. And afraid. I didn’t know what this new reality would bring with it.

I took out some paper and wrote a description of what my life would have been like if things had gone as planned. Some of the things I had planned were still possible, so I didn’t include those. I only wrote about what I was sure I was losing. Of course, I was writing about a future not yet here, and no one knows what really would have happened, but I assumed the best. I wrote out my wildest fantasies of blissful retirement. Everything was exactly the way I wanted. It was glorious. Then I sat with that paper. I read my fantasies out loud. I said how much I would miss them. I cried over them. I wished them well. I gently placed the paper in the fire and offered my broken dreams to the heavens.

Acknowledging and honoring my feelings allowed me to release the anger and resentment. As the fire burned the paper, it burned off the crust of hardness on my heart, and the smoke carried the spirit-choking toxins up the chimney.

In the emptiness left behind, I felt something emerging alongside the sadness. Love. Deep deep love for my daughters, for the children they were carrying, and for myself. More than all my fantasies of what might have been, I knew I wanted to be present for what was. I wanted to be present for my own life. I wanted to be present for my children and for their children.

As I look back over these last months, that weekend stands out as a testament to the power and value of forgiveness. Yes, it hurt to feel the sadness and grief over letting go of all the hopes I had for myself and for my daughters. Oh, but I got something so much better. So infinitely better.

The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative. –Philip Yancey

related post: The Joy of Sadness, the Sadness of Joy

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Comic Relief!

We have been discussing a topic this month, forgiveness, that has touched a painful place for some readers and presented a challenge for others. Let's lighten up and enjoy some comic relief. This is a scene from the TV series Frasier. In the scene (6 minutes), Frasier's brother Niles is preparing for a dinner date. What does this have to do with forgiveness? Absolutely nothing! Just a reminder that fun is good!

Niles preparing for his date

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Righteous Unforgiveness

Our planet is in great trouble and if we keep carrying old grudges and do not work together, we will all die.

Before you read any further, guess who said that. Was it said by a politician? A peacemaker in the Middle East? Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth?

Give up? It was Chief Seattle. Have you ever noticed how some of the greatest advocates for forgiveness are among those who have the greatest reasons to remain bitter?

The Amish community forgave the man who came into one of their schoolhouses and shot ten little girls, killing five of them.

Nelson Mandela forgave his jailers and healed his country through truth and reconciliation.

Six year old Ruby Bridges prayed for God to forgive the screaming throngs hurling racist threats at her as she walked into her newly integrated school.

There are many stories of Holocaust survivors who refused to hate, of POWs from Vietnam who went back and met with their captors, of victims of horrific crimes who forgave the perpetrators.

And then there’s me. When I was a girl, I was playing ball one day with the neighbor’s children in their front yard. I saw one of the kids cheating and I called him on it. His siblings came to his defense and the shouting quickly escalated. I was relieved when my mom came outside to see what the fuss was about, certain she would take my side. Instead, she suggested that I apologize and that we go on with our game. When I refused, she issued an ultimatum – either I would apologize, or I could never play with these kids again. Without a moment’s hesitation, I stood my self-righteous ground (after all, he was cheating)...and I never played with, or even spoke to, any of those kids again.

I mean really. I just shake my head when I think about it after all these years. And yet, if I think a little more, I bet I can come up with some folks that I am holding a grudge against right now in righteous unforgiveness. If we think forgiveness is such a great idea, why don't we make more effort to do it?

Last week at our monthly discussion group, someone observed that there is sometimes a perverse pleasure in holding onto a grudge. Our anger can make us feel powerful. Our hurt can attract the sympathy of those who validate our victim-ness, who take our side against the one who did us wrong. We believe ourselves to be right and the other deserving of punishment. We want the other person to suffer condemnation, to be tortured by remorse, to grovel in repentance. We want justice.

Holding a grudge can be secretly poison. I’ve been thinking about poison lately because, with some degree of spiritual turmoil, I’ve been putting out ant poison for the hordes of sugar ants invading my kitchen. The poison must be irresistible because they stream to it like parched nomads in the desert finding an oasis. They crowd around the drops of death and drink until there is no more. The poison then dries up their insides...and they die.

Unforgiveness is like that, I think. It might taste good, but it dries us up inside. No matter what our justification is for holding onto the grudge, we are poisoning ourselves. The other person did something that was so terrible, it’s unforgivable? Doesn’t matter. The other person is not sorry at all and never will be? Doesn’t matter. All my friends think I’m right? Doesn’t matter. We are drinking poison.

What if we paused before indulging in one more moment of righteous unforgiveness and asked ourselves one simple question – Is it worth it?

Well, is it?

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. –Lewis B. Smedes (quote courtesy of a commenter on an earlier post)

related post: Which Wolf are You going to Feed?

Friday, August 12, 2011

Paying It Forward

As some of you already know, I have two adult sons with autism who live together in an apartment run by Edwards Center. Edwards Center is an organization serving adults with developmental disabilities. They provide a full range of services including residential, employment, social, and recreational. When I started the 10 Steps program, I pledged whatever money I made from it to Edwards Center. I did this because (1) I think Edwards Center is an amazing organization, and (2) I’m fortunate enough not to depend on the income I generate from teaching and writing about the 10 Steps, so this seemed like a great way to use that money.

Earlier this week, I met with an editor from Indigo Editing and Publications to discuss the book I’m writing based on the 10 Steps. During our conversation, I mentioned my pledge to Edwards Center, because whatever I make from the book will be donated to them. At the end of our two hour session, I got my checkbook out to write her a check for her consulting services. She stopped me before I started writing and asked me to give her consulting fee to Catholic Charities, an organization she supports, so I wrote the check out to them. She was moved to do that because of what I told her about my pledge to Edwards Center.

I thought what she did was very cool, so we decided that we would both tell folks about this idea, hoping that others might be inspired to donate a little something in this fashion to whatever they support. So please spread the word!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

10 Steps in 10 Weeks!

As you probably know, I've been focusing on one step every month this year. My good friend Chrissy, at Life's Not Always Fireflies and Hummingbirds, is taking the fast track and highlighting one step every Thursday for ten weeks. Today she wrote a great post about Step 1--Give yourself permission to be happy. I'm so pleased that she is doing this, and it's great fun for me to see the 10 Steps through her eyes. Please stop by her blog today and every Thursday (and of course any other time) to see what's she's up to!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

From the Ashes

How many Bible verses or stories can you think of that teach us to forgive? What other stories of forgiveness can you call to mind from any source – other faiths, the news, movies, books, poetry, fables? Take a few moments and see how many you can list.

Here is one that made a big impression on me. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV held ten Amish girls, ranging in age from 6 to 13, hostage in their one room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. He tied them up and made them line up against the wall. There was evidence that he planned to sexually assault them, but whatever he planned to do to them was thwarted by the quick arrival of state troopers. Sadly, however, the troopers were unable to stop him before he started shooting. The oldest girl, only 13, asked to be shot first, hoping that some extra time might save her friends. He shot her first. Then he shot them all, killing five, and finally shot himself.

Imagine being one of those girls. Imagine being one of their parents. I can’t. But if the crime itself was unfathomable, then even more so was the response of the Amish community. Within hours of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the slain girls was heard admonishing others not to hate the shooter or to think evil of him. They quickly reached out to his family and offered forgiveness and condolences. They attended his funeral and invited his widow to attend the funeral of one of the girls. They invited her and her children, the children of the man who murdered their own children, to become members of their community.

The accounts of forgiveness flashed around the world. I read everything I could read about it and found websites in many countries marveling at a faith that most of us would believe beyond human capacity. Certainly beyond my own. I knew I was witnessing a gift. Even a miracle. The response of a small group of previously unknown people to an unimaginable tragedy inspired millions to examine their own hearts, to consider, if only for a moment, the possibility of transcendence.

The following year I read a book titled Amish Grace, in which the authors put the community’s response in the context of their faith culture, in which forgiveness is a central concept. It permeates the way they interact with each other, raise their children, and live their lives. The author made it clear that the Amish do not equate forgiveness with lack of consequences. Had the shooter lived, they would have supported whatever justice the legal system imposed...and then visited him in prison.

Many Amish, when questioned about their practice of forgiveness, replied with puzzlement, “Amish forgiveness is just Christian forgiveness.” One person, after hesitating a moment, wondered, “Is it different from Christian forgiveness?” Is it? Is it different from the concept of forgiveness in any other faith? It appears to be so universally fundamental. And yet, we struggle so to live it.

What would our lives look like if we could forgive like that? What would our communities look like? Our world? What would the Amish response have been to 9/11? To a tragedy in your own community? In your own life?

Can we consider the possibilities for just a moment? Imagine.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. –Mark Twain

Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Child Will Lead Them

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. –Luke 23:34

Sometimes we come face to face with forgiveness in all its raw demand, and powerful promise. In 1960, Ruby Bridges was escorted by federal marshals to her first grade class. She was the only black student sent to integrate an all white school in New Orleans. People saw her mouth moving as she walked, so tiny inside the circle of towering marshals, through the raging crowd screaming every vile thing you can imagine at her. Later, when asked what she was saying, she said that she was praying, praying that she would be strong and not afraid, and praying for God to forgive the people in the crowd because they didn’t know what they were doing. Ruby was six years old.

Have you ever apologized to a child? “Sorry, honey, I forgot,” or “I should not have said that,” or “I’ll make it up to you.” How quickly did the child respond with forgiveness? The younger the child, it seems the more quickly he forgives. I’ve watched kids playing together when one child does something mean, then after a moment (which may or may not include an apology), the play goes right on, while the wrong that I would have nursed a grudge over for months is apparently shrugged off.

What do children know about forgiveness that we’ve forgotten?

How many petty affronts (real or imagined) have I held onto long past the expiration date? Perhaps holding an image of little Ruby in my mind will help me let go. Instead of forgiving those who have wronged me, perhaps I should ask for forgiveness for holding onto my righteous arrogance. Please, God, forgive me, because I don’t know what I’m doing.

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling all together, and a little child will lead them. –Isaiah 11:6

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The F Word

No, not that F word. The other F word. Forgiveness. Forgiveness is our topic this month. Step 8 is “Forgive everyone.” This includes, and perhaps even starts with, ourselves.

Forgiveness is a central idea in the Bible. And in A Course in Miracles. And in psychology. And in 12 step programs. It is central to Amish culture. And although I’m no expert, I’m guessing it is central in other faith traditions and self development programs as well. People read thousands of books about it, spend years in therapy to be able to give it or receive it. People beg for it, offer it, pray for it, resist it, marvel at it, long for it, fear it.

Most everyone agrees that forgiveness is a good thing. I say most everyone because I read an article by someone who was not very keen on forgiveness. He thought that some people should not be forgiven. For example, he would withhold forgiveness from someone who expresses no remorse. Or someone who is a repeat offender. Or who does something so horrible that forgiveness is out of the question.

However, in reading his rationale, I believe that he confuses forgiveness with reconciliation, or self-protection, or trivialization – all focused on the wrongdoer. But forgiveness isn’t about the forgiven; it’s about the forgiver. Withholding forgiveness separates us from others, which inevitably results in fear, which in turn is often masked as judgment. It is, as the saying goes, like drinking rat poison hoping the rat will die.

Well, goshdarnit, if withholding forgiveness is so toxic, and forgiving is so beneficial, why is it so hard to do? And do we really have to forgive everyone? Even [fill in the blank]?!

As a way of getting started with our topic this month, try to pay attention to what happens in your body when you think about forgiving the person whose name you inserted in the blank. Perhaps your heart is beating a little faster, or your head is starting to hurt, or your throat is closing up, or your brain is spinning. That’s okay. Take a few belly breaths and let it go for now. Just be aware.

I hope you will join me this month as we explore the connection between developing a habit of forgiveness and living in joy. As always, I welcome your experience and questions and insights.