January is a time when tradition invites us to review the last twelve months and resolve to do better in the next twelve – those famous New Year’s resolutions.
I have a few problems with New Year’s resolutions. First, they don’t work. At least not very well. Resolve may help us get through an onerous project like taking out the garbage, fixing the back fence, or writing that report. These are time limited – if we can just gird our loins long enough, we can get through them. Then we can relax.
But in growth or transformation, habit is stronger than will. With determination, we may override old habits for a while. But sooner or later willpower tires or bores us or just runs out of gas. Then, like deep-rooted dandelions, old habits flower and spread anew.
A second reason resolutions don’t work is they tend to ignore or override pain. A sage once said that pain is the soul’s way of bringing our attention to that which needs attention. If we try to “move on” too quickly, we may ignore something that needs gentle, steady attention. On the other hand, if we see to the heart of a difficulty, it tends to release on its own.
So I don’t recommend New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I recommend awareness. Awareness heals. Awareness can transform. Forgiveness and patience help us bring heartful awareness to difficulties rather than run roughshod over them. If we do not forgive, we hold onto the pain rather than learn from it and release it.
So every January I like to remind myself of the power of forgiveness. And what better way to remind myself than to preach a sermon to you about it. So this is my annual forgiveness sermon.
This morning I want to focus on forgiveness as a way of patiently releasing past hurts. Before I unpack this phrase – patiently releasing hurt – I’d like to tell you a story.
Over lunch one day on a retreat, a meditator whom I’ll call “Betsy” said energetically, “Those trying to save the spotted owls or curb factory emissions are elitists with little care for the common worker.”
I knew Betsy as a colorful character with many opinions I don’t agree with. But she has a good heart and I was feeling mellow. Her comments slid past me.
An hour later, sitting in my meditation hut, I thought, “If I was to respond to her, I might say …” and constructed a rebuttal. I imagined how she might respond to that. And the things I might say back to what she said back to me.
From the outside, it looked like I was meditating. But inside I was sponsoring a debate. My mellowness had flown south.
Realizing how distracted I was, I took a few breaths, relaxed, and went back to real meditation.
Then I wondered why Betsy had said what she said. She knew how I felt about ecology. She said people who thought my way had questionable motives.
I felt hurt. My mental rumblings became emotional rumblings. I tried over and over to let them go. But my efforts were to no avail.
“Maybe I should just go talk to her and get this off my chest. But it’ll probably go badly and I’m not supposed to be talking.”
“This is crazy,” I thought. “A few offhand remarks and I’m spending the whole afternoon in a stew. My meditation is shot. I’m a neurotic mess.”
I was a little upset with Betsy and a lot upset with myself. But I couldn’t shake it.
Ever have one of these bouts when you just can’t shake something? On retreat in the woods there was little to distract me from my disturbance.
Every evening at the retreat center we went around the room and share how our practices were going.
I said, “My tranquility had been stampeded by obsessive thinking.” I mentioned Betsy’s comments and my inability to put them to rest.
Betsy chimed in. “Doug, you have a big problem. This has nothing to do with me. You are seriously out of balance …” She went on in this vein.
I said, “I agree, Betsy. I was reporting, not trying to blame you. I know this is mine to work through.”
She jumped back in for several minutes about her innocence and my problem.
I looked at teacher and asked, “Should I engage her?”
He raised a hand and shook his head as if to say, “No. It’s not worth it.” Out loud he said, “The real work is inside you. Keep meditating.”
He was saying, in effect, “Just be patient and mindful and things will develop on their own.”
I tried. But now I was even more upset by her defensiveness and not-so-subtle aggression.
All the next day thoughts rattled through my head, like stones in a clothes dryer: “Is she oblivious to how I feel?” “Was this just her flare for drama?” “Does she want me to leave?” “Was it a mistake to come here at all?” “Am I going crazy?” On and on.
Finally, late that next evening, some semblance of peace returned. Whew.
Then I woke at 2:30 in the morning with my mind spinning like a hamster on amphetamines.
I believe the sage I quoted earlier: “Pain is the soul’s way of bringing our attention to that which needs attention.” I’ve found that when we get stuck in an obsessive pattern of thought or behavior, there is usually something subtler, deeper and more powerful going on beneath: something wants attention.
Wide-awake in the middle of the night with the hamster wheel in my head I was desperate. I sat up and slowly felt down to the roots of those thoughts and emotions and subtle energies. After a half hour I was face to face with a core force in my life.
In myself I saw a deep yearning to be in relationships that are clear and heartful. I want relationships that are clear in that I see the person as he or she truly is and the person sees me clearly as I am. And I want them heartful in the sense of being genuinely supportive and caring.
This simple urge permeates my ministry, work as a therapist, how I relate to family and friends, how I write … everything. And it was driving me nuts that I couldn’t figure out how to get there with Betsy.
Seeing this so starkly, a smile arose deep inside. Every one of us has a personality. Personality, inclinations, and points of view distort our seeing. To see with complete clarity and compassion, we have to be free of all personality, all preference, all inclinations. Good luck! This side of enlightenment, we all have personalities and all have distortion. We “see in a mirror dimly.” In this conditioned world there is no such thing as unconditioned love or unconditioned perception. To pursue perfect clarity or perfect heart is to be burdened by perfectionism. This driving force in me was folly.
I laughed at my naïveté.
Suddenly it was okay for Betsy to be who she was and for me to be who I was.
I dropped into a deep and loving stillness. I slept sweetly for the rest of the night. And for the next few days the world was permeated with pervasive joy. Life was good.
My obsessive thinking is a story about getting stuck and how seeing deeply can get us unstuck and reconnected with joy. It’s a story about awareness. And it’s also a story about patience – how helpful it is to relax with difficulty and just be with things as they are with a gentle heart. Awareness and patience.
The story didn’t use the word “forgiveness.” But awareness and patience are essential to the process of forgiveness, whether we use the word or not. So let’s look at what these tell us about forgiveness.
Anytime forgiveness is an issue, something painful has happened. Sometimes we blame a person for the hurt we feel. Sometimes we blame ourselves for a hurt they feel. We get stuck in blame or guilt.
Forgiveness helps get us unstuck. When awareness goes deep enough to see the source of hurt, it releases. Conversely, lack of forgiveness is a blindness that makes it difficult to see and release a hurt.
This makes it sound simple: “Just let it go.” But we don’t always want to let it go. The old quip says, “Don’t get mad. Get even.” Sometimes we want to hold onto an offense until we can get back at the person.
And even if we genuinely want to let go, it can be mysteriously difficult.
So let’s look at some of the ways we hold onto hurt intentionally or unintentionally.
One reason for holding on is holding out for reconciliation. Reconciliation can be wise and healing – but it is not the same as forgiveness. So what’s the difference between reconciliation and forgiveness?
Reconciliation requires a meeting of the minds, an exchange of thoughts and feelings, etc. We talk things through until we reach a shared understanding of what happened and how each felt.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, in Chile, Greensboro, etc. were seeking public reconciliation after widespread damage. The model of these commissions says, “We want to hear the stories of both the oppressors and the oppressed, both victims and perpetrators. We want to find a shared understanding of the motives and how these things happened. In exchange for candor, we may offer forgiveness in the form of amnesty.”
On a personal scale, we may go to someone we’ve hurt or who has hurt us. We hear their story and ask them to listen to ours. We don’t argue with their version. We simply listen and recount our own version as they listen. As one teacher put it, “Don’t argue with someone else’s reality. But stand in your own.”
Maybe your versions of the story differ, but you understand empathetically how each person’s version has legitimacy. That may be enough awareness to release the tension. You both find reconciliation and forgiveness.
But reconciliation with its shared understanding is not always possible.
The training precepts at the meditation center discouraged conversations. Without discussion, reconciliation was not possible.
In social, work, or community settings, sometimes the other person is not willing or available to share their side of the story or listen to ours. Or maybe we’re too upset, embarrassed, or frightened to talk.
It takes two to tango. Reconciliation can’t be done solo.
But forgiveness can. I was able to completely forgive Betsy though we never reconciled.
Reconciliation requires forgiveness. But forgiveness does not require reconciliation.
Again, if sharing about a hurtful incident deepens awareness and this helps the pain soften, this is wonderful. But if we release the hurt, then the social discourse is unnecessary for forgiveness.
So one reason we hold onto old hurt is we are looking for reconciliation when it may not be possible rather than looking for forgiveness alone.
A second reason we hold onto old hurt is misplaced idealism.
Even ideals as innocent as wanting to have clear and heartful relationships can have a dark side if we strive too hard for perfection.
I didn’t want to hold onto my obsessive thinking. But my mind kept going back until I saw its roots – a belief that I should be able to relate to anyone and everyone with mutual clarity and understanding.
This is a noble but unrealistic expectation. It may be wise and good to move in that direction. But to expect too much is folly.
Once I saw this, the hurt released all by itself. I didn’t have to tell myself, “This hurts. Let it go.” I just saw and it evaporated into a smile.
That is the essence of forgiveness – that release of hurt. If we say words of forgiveness but don’t feel the release, we don’t feel forgiveness. If we don’t say those words but feel the release, we feel forgiveness regardless of what we call it.
We liberal and progressive religious folks have high ideals. When these inspire us, that is good. But when ideals become standards to measure inadequacies, that is not so good. Perfectionism makes forgiveness difficult and life burdensome.
An old story tells of a man rowing a boat across a foggy river. Another boat bumps into him. He turns around to yell, “Why don’t you watch where you are going, you idiot.”
But through the fog he sees the boat is empty. It must have slipped its mooring. Rather than yell he laughs.
Sometimes we don’t forgive others or forgive ourselves because they don’t live up to our ideals: Betsy should have been more sensitive. My relatives should have known what they were doing. I should have known better than to get myself into a tight situation. I should have …
The truth is that often the offending party just doesn’t know any better. Either they are incapable of understanding or they didn’t have the information or they were preoccupied with something else. For a moment they were an empty boat.
Holding grudges in these situations is like arguing with life itself: “If I were God and running the world, I wouldn’t let this happen.” “If I were in charge of the universe, things would be different.”
Well, we aren’t gods and we aren’t in charge of the universe. There is a lot of fog and empty boats floating in the stream of life.
So the second reason we hold onto hurt is holding onto misplaced idealism and its concomitant lack of humility
A third reason it may be difficult to release hurt is impatience. Deep awareness and forgiveness cannot be forced. We can make room for them. But they can’t be pushed. And even when awareness is deep and kind and steady, some things take time.
Even if I want forgiveness from someone, I don’t ask for it. I tell the person what I did (I “own it”), express remorse, and make amends. I say what I’m doing to prevent it from happening again, and say, “And I hope some day you’ll be able to forgive me.” And leave it at that.
I want them to know I value their forgiveness, but I don’t want to ask them to express it until it feels right to them. It’s like a garden – we plant, water, and weed. Then give it time to grow in a natural healthy way rather than pull the sprouts up prematurely.
If someone asks me for forgiveness, I hear them and then sit patiently with it. I want to see if that plant of forgiveness has grown inside.
Deep forgiveness is nurtured by patience.
So a third reason we hold onto hurt is we are in a hurry.
There are at least two other reasons we have difficulty forgiving. I’ve talked about them at length in past years. So I’ll just mention them briefly now.
One is confusing forgiveness with approval. There are some actions that weren’t okay and may never be okay. Forgiveness is not saying what happened was okay. It merely says, “What happened in the past can’t be changed. The hurt in the past can’t be changed. I’m content to let it be in the past and move on. I forgive you. I forgive me. I release the hurt.”
Two is we may not forgive for fear it will make us more vulnerable to being hurt again. But wise forgiveness is not forced naïveté. It’s not stripping defenses and making ourselves vulnerable again. In fact, the reverse is true. If we find reasonable ways to protect ourselves, it makes it easier to forgive. We can relax more easily and release the hurt into the past.
There are three venues for forgiveness.
The first is when we hold a subtle or not so subtle grudge. We think, “They hurt me. They don’t deserve forgiveness. I’ll hold on to teach them a lesson.” Or maybe we’d like to forgive or at least forget it and move on. But, despite ourselves, we keep ruminating about it in quiet moments.
This first venue arises when someone has hurt us. It is about forgiving them. It’s not about saying what they did was okay. It’s not about being naïve. It’s just releasing past hurts into the past.
What are examples of ways someone has hurt you? …
The second venue of forgiveness arises when we have hurt someone. We may want to ask to be forgiven.
What are examples of ways you have hurt someone intentionally or unintentionally? …
And the third venue of forgiveness is a way we’ve hurt ourselves. We are both the hurt-er and the hurt-ee if you will.
What are some examples of things you’ve done to hurt yourself? …
These three venues can mix and blend. Maybe somebody hurt you but you blame yourself for not handling it better. Or you hurt someone and are impatient for them to just get over it.
If pain is the soul’s way of bringing our attention to that which needs attention, we may want to ask, “Is there something in me that needs to be seen? Can I forgive myself for being vulnerable? Hurtable? Not having a clever comeback? Getting ruffled? Having unrealistic expectations for myself or someone else? Have I hurt myself or others with impatience, idealism, or just holding out?”
Close our eyes if you like. Take a few breaths, letting each out fully. Relax into your being. …
If a situation has come to mind, let it be with you now. Remember what happened. …
Notice any hurt or concern or recurring thought – ways you still feel injured, slighted, regretful, forgotten, misunderstood or just stuck…
Relax into just how it is now. If there is hurt or remorse, let down into it. If there is stuckness, let down into being stuck. …
Then try on words of letting go and letting be like:
“I forgive you” or “Please forgive me.” …
“For things done or not done, said or not said intentionally or unintentionally … I offer forgiveness. I ask forgiveness …
“It’s okay for you to be who you are.”
“It’s okay for me to be who am I.…
May we forgive ourselves and each other. May we release. …
May the pain of loss open us to life’s poignancy.
May the pain of guilt awaken us to mercy.
May the pain of missteps show us wisdom.
May the pain of anger awaken us to compassion.
May the pain of limitations enkindle in us humble understanding.
May the pain of our regrets shine forth in love.
Copyright 2010, Doug Kraft. First delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, on Sunday, January 10. 2010.
I gave at least one talk on forgiveness each year, often right after New Years. Below are links to some of these talks: