A Path of Forgiveness by Nancy Sullivan
Has anyone ever hurt you so much that you were left with resentment that stayed with you for years? I suspect that many of us have experienced situations that have lingered in the form of resentment long after the events took place.
Awhile ago, I realized that I had some forgiveness work to do. It was a bit of an epiphany for me. It is one of the things I discovered in the course of the Soul to Soul group that I was in. Each week I would listen to the other stories in my group and but then also hear my own. Over the months, I started to realize the extent to which I was holding grudges against people going back years…hurts and felt injustices, large and small, which I have nurtured and held close in my psyche.
I am not asking for a hand raise here, but I do wonder if any of you do that as well? Most of the people who I charge with these perceived injustices are dead or unaware that I have these feelings about them. Yet I carry these wounds & resentments. I am embarrassed to say that they have been almost like a badge of honor for me. Over the past few months, I started to realize that this is not good way to live one’s life. At least, it is not the way I want to live my life.
So what to do? I realized that I had no idea how to change my feelings. I have felt this way for such a long time. It has become a habit, a life perspective. I started asking, “How does one forgive? How does one change one’s thinking? How does one change one’s feelings?” And I asked whether I should forgive certain things? If some things are unforgivable, what can I do now? Should I just try to forget them? Should I just try to follow the old saw, forgive and forget?
So, as is my way when I have a problem, I started asking friends and others how they handle such things…how do they go about forgiving people? This was not a good strategy in this case! I got some weird looks, shrugs and eye rolls. Forgiveness, I found, is a real conversation stopper! So I switched to Google and got 82 ½ million hits on forgiveness. I decided to narrow my search to UU sermons on forgiveness and got 123,000 hits. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I actually felt relieved that others had done a lot of thinking on this topic because I really felt confused by it. My hope for today is to share a little of what I have learned in past three months of my study and reflection.
My plan today is to focus on whether and why we should forgive others, and how we might go about doing that should we choose to. I am choosing to leave the topic of forgiving ourselves for another day although it is not unrelated. I think it deserves a time of its own. And it was this place of wanting to forgive others, from which I started this journey and from which I will speak today.
The Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.”
I was at a point in my life where I was starting to intuitively feel the truth of that, yet still feeling some anger and resentment for things that have happened to me.
One of the first sermons I read had a vaguely sourced quote which spoke to that. (referenced in Sermon: The Power of Forgiveness, delivered 9/19/2010 posted by Rev. Thom). In Rev. Thom’s sermon, the person said, “Teaching forgiveness is hogwash. You’ll turn everyone into benign, benevolent zombies. They’ll be too blissed out to function in the real world, where you need a good, strong suit of armor to make sure you don’t get eaten alive.” This writer goes onto argue that when religions insist on forgiveness they trivialize the real hurts and pain of those grievously hurt and actually seem like a form of blaming the victim. It becomes one more onus on the victim….they are robbed of the righteousness of their anger. On top of everything they have suffered, they are supposed to forgive and have peaceful hearts.
I confess to having some sympathy with that view. After all, I have held onto my anger for many years. Daily there seems to be new reasons to become angry. Just look to Boston and Newtown, Connecticut. But now I am seeing how it has left me a less happy, less resilient person. I truly felt a need to find some balance between these divergent life perspectives.
To start with, I found it helpful to learn what forgiveness is not and I found I had some misconceptions.
First, I learned that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what has happened. The old adage, “Forgive and forget” is discarded by most researchers on the topic and current UU writers except for very minor personal infractions, like say bumping into someone accidentally. Let’s be real. We do remember the big hurts that have happened. Actions do have consequences. We carry them in our hearts. Rather, forgiveness as it is advocated today is about letting go of the power that a grudge has over us and this allows us to move and become our best selves (sermon by Rev. Ann Fox, UU Society of Fairhaven, Feb. 2, 2009).
Dr. Lewis Smedes in his book, Forgive and Forget, 2007, says “When you forgive, you heal your hate for the person who created that reality. But you do not change the facts. And you do not undo all their consequences. The dead stay dead, the wounded are often still crippled.” (p. 108)…which brings me to my next point on what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. Modern thinkers make a distinction between these concepts ( sermon by Rev. Bruce Bode, Quimper UU Fellowship, Dec. 4, 2011). The Rev. Bruce Bode from Quimper UU Fellowship says, “The distinction is this: forgiveness opens the possibility of reconciliation with another, but it does not necessarily lead to reconciliation, and it is certainly not the same thing as reconciliation. One can forgive and not reconcile. This is because reconciliation demands something from the other side, whereas forgiveness has to do with an internal process within a person. Reconciliation has to do with the possible results of that internal process in the outer world.
For reconciliation to take place, trust has to be built up again. And trust is something that must be earned. Reconciliation has conditions attached to it, but forgiveness does not. What forgiveness does, at most is to provide a place where trust can be earned and reconciliation made possible.
Those on a 12 step path probably understand these differences better than most. Part of the 12-step practice is to make amends. Here is how one person described the process (cited in “My Thoughts on Forgiveness,” Rev. Bode, 2011),
“I don’t ask others to forgive me or to reconcile with me. That’s their business, that’s their work. I make an apology to them on the basis of my spiritual task, and with no expectations or strings attached. How my apology is received is up to them. I can’t pressure another person to forgive me or to reconcile with me for what I’ve done; all I can do is express my remorse and apologize to them.”
I don’t think the discussion on forgiveness can be complete without talking about how social mores and expectations play into apologies given and accepted.
Rev. D. Audette Fulbight points out (sermon: “Never forget—a theology of forgiveness,” 2005 at UU Church of Roanoke)….The truth is, most people take a middle road between forgiving and forgetting, especially if they have been raised in a culture where [sic saving] face or manners … is highly valued. In such cultures, we tend to move quickly to “it’s ok,” but secretly hold the incident in our hearts, and nurture it along. She says, [sic, that holding on] grows like a poisonous weed, and changes not only our relationship with the one we feel harmed by, but also everyone else, in subtle or significant ways.
She talks about how in relationship counseling. … we may say “sorry” when what we really mean is, “look, can’t you drop this and let’s act like it never happened?”” This”she says, “is not an apology and no reconciliation occurs.
In a real reconciliation process, she says, there is a sincere apology on the one hand, and work on forgiving on the other. Reconciliation involves a long examination of whatever the events occurred; there is consideration of what genuine acts can the offender take that will make a difference and set more at ease the one whose trust has been damaged. How can each more carefully examine their own roles in the relationship? How can the offender hear the pain of their loved one and understand it, and accept responsibility for the actions that caused it? Often, one or both cannot do this, and the relationship ends. But the need for the one who was harmed to find a way to forgive and move on does not.
I found real help on how to forgive at the Stanford Forgiveness Project website. It is a wonderful resource to those of us struggling with issues of forgiveness. Dr. Frederick Luskin has spent his career working on the question of forgiveness, how to forgive. His website, the Stanford Forgiveness Project offers directions for processes for families, spouses and partners, friends, communities. For those stuck in needing to forgive, he offers the advice helpful advice and analyses. The research shows that people who forgive experience less anger, show greater compassion, and have higher levels of self-confidence.
Dr. Luskin encourages us to become the hero instead of the victim in our own life stories. While I doubt the Newtown parents working for legislative change would consider themselves to be heroes, they are indeed rescuing themselves from victim hood by their actions and becoming heroic warriors. This type of behavior is how we rescue ourselves from our stories of grievance and become able to forgive.
For myself, on my own journey to forgiveness, I found a helpful meditation which I would like to share with you this morning. When my Soul to Soul group came to the chapter on prayer, there was a visualization activity (found in Soul to Soul by Christine Robinson and Alicia Hawkins, 2012, pp. 154-155.) which I have found to be very helpful. I have done this practice off and on for a couple months now and I feel a shifting my feelings to those of greater wellbeing and trust.
So this morning I am going to invite you to experience with me this meditation or guided prayer which is from the Buddhist tradition. I will guide you through the four parts, each of which will focus your feelings of loving kindness on a different person. I’d like you to call these people to mind right now as I describe them to you. The first person will be yourself; the second will be a loved one in your life; for the third, select someone you encounter often but hardly know – your child’s teacher or a neighbor maybe, the fourth will be someone with whom you have anger issues.
Settle yourself, take a few breaths. Allow your eyes to close or your gaze to defocus as you choose. The first person in our meditation is yourself. Picture yourself in your mind’s eye as you listen to these words and repeat these words to yourself after me:
May I be filled with loving kindness;
May I be well;
May I be peaceful and at ease,
May I be whole.”
Now shift your focus to your loved one, “May you be filled…
Now bring to mind the person you chose who you encounter frequently but do not know well. Think of their name, picture their face, repeat these words in your mind. “May you be filled…
Now shift your focus to the person with whom you have issues. Keep your heart open and picture their face in your mind’s eye, repeat in your mind. “May you be filled…
Now, I invite you to focus on yourself once again. Say to yourself, “May I be filled…
Now bring your focus back to the room. I would be curious to hear how this meditation effected you or didn’t after the service.
Forgiving and being forgiven are not simple acts, quickly and easily done. They can be, however, moments of powerful transformation, leading to peace and strength and relationships more beautiful than any that were possible before. I remember getting into an argument with a friend of mine years ago….I was very angry; she was surprised that I was so fed up with her. We had a long conversation….over coffee, of course. At the end, I said that I felt sad that our friendship would never be the same. She was shocked, she said she thought the argument and subsequent conversation strengthened our friendship, not demolished it. She was wiser than I; 25 years later we are still strong friends.
A wise and unknown person once said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to discover that prisoner was yourself.” It is a hero’s journey, to offer or ask for forgiveness. Going forward from this day, “let us look at the elephants in our personal living rooms … and commit to the work of forgiveness. On this road, may we find the help of many friends who have traveled this road beside or before us.” (2005 D. Audette Fulbright, Roanoke VA).
And so it is. Blessed be.