We are all human. WE all make mistakes. Sometimes our mistakes cause inconvenience, discomfort or even pain to the people around us. Most of us carry around in our psyches our mistakes, and the injury others have done us, often for years and years. I know sometimes I will suddenly remember something that happened years ago, and will be filled with fresh emotion that belies how long ago it happened and how relatively small the event was in the whole of my life. Not only do our religious traditions ask us to forgive these errors and injuries, or as it says in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But doctors and scientists are now telling us that holding on to these errors and injuries can create physical illness and can delay recovery of illness and injury. In fact a recent study by the mayo clinic showed that people who focused on a personal grudge had elevated blood pressure and heart rates, as well as increased muscle tension and feelings of being less in control. When asked to imagine forgiving the person who had hurt them, the participants said they felt more positive and relaxed and thus, the changes dissipated. Moreover, forgiveness is the key to creating beloved community and long lasting deep relationships; you can’t be friends with someone for 20 years without forgiving often. But it’s not simple to let go of those old hurts, so today we want to take some time to think about forgiveness and the process by which it happens.
In her article “Moving Toward Forgiveness” Presbyterian Pastor and author Marjorie Thompson defines forgiveness this way. “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who as wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment might seem.” In forgiving, she assures us, we are not resigning ourselves to martyrdom, and we are not trying to excuse unjust behavior. We commonly hear the phrase “forgive and forget” but the two are not the same. To forgive and to heal we don’t need to forget the injury happened. Sometimes the experience that came along with the injury has brought us important knowledge and wisdom. What we want to let go of is not the memory of the event, but “its power to hold us trapped in continual replay of the event, with all the resentment each remembrance makes fresh.”
So let’s take a moment right now to think of a moment in your life to think of some time when you were hurt through another’s actions or inaction. Something that still makes your blood boil when you think of it, but I’d like to recommend that it be something not too fresh, something you’ve had time to live with for a while. [pause].
You may be surprised that there are a number of folks out there writing about forgiveness, from all different fields, and they have come to some agreement about how forgiveness works. I’m going to use the language of Robert Enright of the Forgiveness Institute today. The first step, which Enright calls the Uncovering Phase, is to take an honest close look at your feelings. Sometimes we forgive without doing this uncovering – we say “it’s okay, don’t worry about it” while our foot is still throbbing from being slammed in a door. Then we get home and realize that it’s getting all big and swollen, and our new shoes are ruined, and we may still be upset and resentful days later every time our foot hurts when we try to walk on it. So the Uncovering phase is where we really take an honest look at the “cognitive, psychological and spiritual impact of the injury.” Forgiving is not denying that any hurt happened, on the contrary, true forgiveness happens in response to our honest assessment of our feelings.
So take a moment with the injury you have chosen, to examine how it has impacted you. [pause] This process can take a while to really explore. If you are uncovering that time your friend slammed the door on your foot, probably a few minutes is all you need to really process it, but if it is a deeper injury, a more complex injury, it may take some time to really do all the uncovering you need to do to fully forgive. Maybe you want to plan to take some time later today or tomorrow to work more on this.
The next phase, Enright calls the Decision Phase, “in which the injured party has a change of heart and is willing to commit to forgiving the offender.” This is crucial. If we are not really sure we want to forgive someone, we are going to do a half-hearted job of it, and will find ourselves harboring those same resentments in years to come. Bring to mind the image you are working with today. Do you really want to forgive this injury? Are you really ready to forgive this? Is the relief of setting down the resentment worth giving up any desire for revenge or judgment?” [pause]
If decide that you are ready, the next step is the “Work Phase… Accepting and bearing the pain of the injury as well as reframing one’s perspective on the offender as to have greater empathy and compassion for the offender.” This is hard. That’s why it’s called the work phase. Often when we are wronged, we think of the person who wronged us as completely evil. In psychological terms this is called “splitting” because we are disowning our own capacity to do harm. We all have make mistakes like slamming the door on someone’s foot, or breaking someone’s favorite glass. We all have failed to live up to promises, I would even go so far as to say we all have in us the capacity to do violence. Because we are Universalists, we don’t believe that the world people is divided into good people and bad people, just people. As we do our work on forgiving, we are moving from “that person is evil” to “that person is human, and did something that caused me a great deal of pain.” This “work” phase is not a single act. In a way it is creating a new habit so that, when I think about my sore foot, I give up wanting vengeance on the person who hurt it, and letting go of judgment. Every time I think of that injury during this phase it is an act of will to say “I am choosing to forgive this injury, because it is not good for me to carry it around any more. I need to let this go more than I want vengeance.”
You know that you are done your work when you have that memory, and your blood doesn’t boil. You might feel sad, you can remember the hurt, but you don’t feel ready to go into battle against the person or who hurt you. See if you can recall any hurts from your past that are no longer charged when you think of them. Often, for example, when we become adults we are able to forgive some of our childhood wounds, because we realize adults are just people who make mistakes and bad choices or self interested choices, and we watch ourselves as adults making similar mistakes. This enables us to forgive our own parents and to let go of our judgments about some of the parts of our childhood that didn’t suit us.
The Final stage is the Outcome or Deepening Phase, “in which the injured person finds deeper meaning for self and others in the suffering associated with the injury; realized that one is not alone; and awareness of decreased negative feelings and of internal emotional release.” Another way to think of this is “learning something the hard way.” The wounds you bear have made you who you are today, but don’t keep you from being in community, and don’t keep you from having a whole and meaningful life.
I want to offer an example from my own life in hopes that this will help our discussion be more concrete and real. When I gave birth to my son, I had prepared for a home birth. I had done everything my midwife had suggested, taken the classes, read the books, done the exercises and felt I had really done my work getting ready. But the baby wouldn’t come, and eventually I was transferred to the hospital. As I checked into the hospital, frightened and exhausted, the doctors treated me like a delinquent and irresponsible child for having my prenatal care with a midwife instead of a doctor. I was seen mostly by student doctors, since I didn’t have an OB at the hospital, and midwives are not allowed to provide care in California hospitals, and it seemed that these students had not gotten to their unit on bedside manner. Finally, our whole birth plan went out the window, and I was wheeled to the surgery unit for a C-Section. Let me assure you I was filled with anger, sadness, and a sense of betrayal after that experience. I was angry at the hospitals, the doctors, the American OB system, my midwife and myself. It took years of work to let go of all that resentment, and forgive myself for not giving my son a natural childbirth. One day after a couple of years of working through all my issues, a thought went off like a light bulb: “Healthy baby, healthy mom.” What could be more important than that? Today when I think of how the doctors treated me, I take a deep breath and let it go. I don’t want to carry that resentment with me any more. I no longer think of the hospital staff as “evil” instead I can remind myself that they kept me and my son alive. Truth be told, whenever I hear the birth stories of my friends who had natural childbirth, I still feel a little sad that I will never experience that, and I still think the American Obstetrics industry and the laws that support it need to be changed, but that sadness, that hunger for societal change is just a part of my honest relationship with my past, part of letting go. Because that event undermined so many things I thought I knew, because it undermined even my theology, it took the help of with the help of friends, a few “art as meditation” classes and my spiritual director to weave myself back together into a whole person. But it finally did heal, and the marks it made on me, like the scar I have from the surgery I had that day, are part of the person I am today one a little wiser about how the world works.
Really, as injuries go, a hospital transfer during a home birth is dwarfed by some of the injuries our brothers and sisters have suffered. No one would blame a person whose loved one had been killed for holding that resentment, that desire for vengeance for the rest of their life. But some who have experienced grievous wrongs find the strength and wisdom to forgive even the unforgivable. When I hear of a mother or father whose child was killed standing outside the penitentiary where the one who committed that grievous crime waits on death row, and what the parents are calling for is to spare the perpetrator’s life, it is an amazing testimony about our power to forgive even the unforgivable.
And since we are all human, we all need forgiveness. So I want to ask you to set aside this injury you are working on forgiving, and search in your heart for something you need forgiveness for. [Pause]
Homer Ashby, a professor of Pastoral Care, hypothesizes in his article “Being Forgiven” that the steps for being forgiven are the same as those for forgiving. In the uncovering phase, we become aware of the mental, emotional and spiritual impacts of what we have done. We acknowledge that because of something we did, someone else was injured. A lot of us skip this step, because if we think we have done something that might have hurt someone else, it doesn’t feel good to think too much about it. But doing this uncovering might help us make the hard decision to seek forgiveness, and to enter the work phase. The work phase for seeking forgiveness, though, is where the main difference lies. Prof Ashby suggests that the work “might include a confession to oneself, to the person offended, or to a transcendent other to whom the offender feels a moral duty. Now, we have to be careful to make this a true apology. If we say “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said” that’s not an apology, that’s an indictment of the other person’s sensitivity or psychology. A true apology is for our contribution “I am sorry that I said something that hurt you.”
Part of our work will include putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, understanding how they feel and grieving with them if that is appropriate. Making amends is also an important part of this work- whether that means trying to “right the wrong that was done.” or changing your behavior so that we know we will not hurt that person, or other people, in that same way again. Taken all together, Ashby calls this “expressing repentance” – apology, confession, understanding the other’s pain, making amends, and changing behavior.
Here’s another important difference between forgiving and being forgiven- the person we have injured needs to decide for themselves when and if they are ready to forgive. Or as Ashby says “The offender must be willing to wait patiently for the gift of forgiveness to be given.” If you have done your work- by apologizing, empathizing, making amends, and changing your behavior, the choice is then up to the injured person. We have to live with the possibility that “we may never receive forgiveness from the person we offended.”
The final step is to receive forgiveness. If the person we offended offers words, a hug, a gesture of forgiveness, we must receive it graciously to bring closure to this cycle, which has the power to bring healing to both parties. The isolation of each is ended, and we feel that we are not alone.
Now sometimes, it would do more harm than good to seek forgiveness in person. Some wounds are so deep, that it would only open old wounds for the offender to approach the offended to ask forgiveness. And sometimes the person you’ve offended has died or is no longer in your life. In all of these cases, you can still seek forgiveness, but the process is internal, and so can be more difficult, because it is often harder to forgive ourselves than others. For people who believe in a higher power, they can ask for forgiveness in prayer or meditation. But for folks who are atheists, I think it can be really helpful to talk it out with someone you trust. Someone who can hold you accountable, help you make sure you are doing your work and not looking for cheep forgiveness, and help you let go.
In this month’s world magazine we heard a story from the childhood of the Rev. Patrick O’Neil : after being pushed into a snow bank by older kids, a neighbor came out to dry him off and offer a cup of cocoa and this advice “Patrick, you are angry at those boys for what they did to you. And it is natural for you to feel that way. But now – you must let it go. This day has other things to give you.” Many years later Patrick learned from his mother that the neighbor and her husband were both survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. With such a history she had a right to be bitter her whole life, but she made a different choice. She had found the deeper meaning to her life, and so had wisdom to offer this little neighbor child. This then is why we forgive, because when we lay down our hurts, our wounds, our mistakes, we can give more of ourselves to life, to community, to our relationships and to all that this day holds for us.