Forgiveness and Healing
Rev. Douglas Taylor
September 28, 2014
One of the interesting stories out of Dr. Luskin’s Stanford Forgiveness Project is the work they did with people from Northern Ireland. The roots of the conflict there is centuries old and in the past hundred years alone, thousands have been killed or maimed in its sectarian violence. In1997 a cease-fire agreement was reached and the goal shifted from achieving a cease-fire to building relationships across the division so that the cease-fire would become a lasting reality.
In 2000, Luskin hosted a week of forgiveness training for five women whose sons had been killed during the troubles. They established a series of metrics for before and after the training. This is one of the features of Forgiveness studies that always catches my interest – the scientific measurements. They “measured the women’s overall levels of depression, anger, optimism and perceived stress, and the degree of pain they felt over the loss of their children.” (https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=39032)
As you might expect all five participants showed dramatic improvements in their scores, and when they returned to Ireland they “sustain[ed] their newfound sense of peace.” (ibid)
A year later, 17 men and women, protestant and catholic, joined in the week of forgiveness training. Interestingly, the workshops did not focus on reconciling with specific people who had caused the participants harm. Often when I speak about forgiveness, I emphasize that it is about repairing relationships, about reconciling with people so you can move forward. Luskin’s Forgiveness Training offers a way forward but not necessarily through reconciliation.
When Magee was invited to [the] Stanford workshop, she says, “I asked, ‘Can the forgiveness just be in my own mind?’ I could never go to the persons who did this to my brother and say, ‘Oh, I forgive you,’ not in a million years.” Assured that it could be, and that forgiveness in her own mind was in fact the goal, Magee agreed to make the trip. (ibid)
This is interesting to me. This opens up the question of what is the whole point of this work we call ‘forgiveness.’ What the participants in Luskin’s training find is healing. Healing of the grief and anger, healing from the way the story of ‘how they were wronged’ had taken over their lives and absorbed their identity. The healing involved forgiveness of themselves for letting the tragic loss take over their lives, and a letting go of the past as the center point of their identities. We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
Most of us do not have this level of trauma or tragedy in our lives. A few of us do, I know; but all of us have a share of having been wronged or aggrieved. All of us could use healing for something in our lives. For the moment, let us set aside the work of forgiveness, it may come along for the ride – we’ll see. But for the moment let us focus on healing.
I would like to offer you not only thoughtful words about healing, but an experience of it if possible. Take a deep breath and relax yourself into a comfortable position. Think back on a grievance you have carried. You grievance story may be from your childhood or your adult years, it may involve your parents, a spouse, a sibling, or a friend. Perhaps your grievance is against God or the universe or life. Who are the other people in your story? Your grievance story is about a time when you were wronged, when you were hurt, when you were treated unjustly or unfairly. Consider your grievance story.
There are feeling attached to your story. Perhaps you still react to the memory with feelings of anger or fear. Perhaps your heart rate increases or your breathing gets shallow. Perhaps remembering your grievance is unproductive. Perhaps you are happy to not think of it, to bury it. Yet the feelings linger and resurface all the same. Perhaps none of this stuff about feelings is the case for you, or perhaps you are slipping into the feelings even now.
One feeling I suggest for you is the feeling of grief. The words Grief and Grievance have the same etymological root: gravis, which means heavy, serious. Perhaps there is some grief in your grievance story, some sadness for the way things occurred.
- I invite everyone to take a deep breath and focus on the area around your heart. Begin a gratitude list of all the aspects of your life for which you are thankful. For sunshine, breathing, and the gift of life itself. Perhaps you will include certain people in your life on your gratitude list. Perhaps you will include certain communities, activities, or gifts you have given and received. Focus on your gratitude.
- With all that still in mind, focus again on the grievance you have been holding. Think about what you wish had happened instead of what did happen. Think about how you wanted it to go. Perhaps you wanted closeness or happiness, respect or justice, love or comfort. All of these are very normal human desires for us.
- With another deep breath, acknowledge that things did not happen as you wished. To the extent that you can, accept the simple fact that things did not occur the way that you wish they had. With another deep breath release that old wish, that old desire.
- Again bring your focus to the area around your heart. Relax and again feel the gratitude you acknowledged earlier of sunshine, autumn leaves, the gift of life itself, whatever is on your gratitude list.
In the order of service is a slip of paper for you to tear in half. On the piece that says “Letting go” I invite you to write a few words about your grievance story or about the grief for what did not happen in the event. Vicky will play some music while the ushers will come down the aisle to collect your papers. Later, after the service, immediately after the receiving line, I will place all of the collected papers – all of the things you have written to ‘let go’ – and I will release them into the fire in the Fireside Room. Any who wish to help me with that may do so.
There is a second half to the slip of paper. And it is as simple as this: when you let one thing go, there is room for something else.
I remember the day I realized my father was never going to become the person I longed for him to be for me. He had several years of sobriety by this point. I was an adult starting a family of my own. He had been supportive of me, he welcomed the opportunity to be a grandfather with my two little babies, he helped put me through college. Yet I had a story of him as being absent from my childhood, a story of being angry with him for not being there.
And one day I realized that even though he was no longer absent and even though he was supportive, I had not stopped wanting him to be someone other than who he was. I realized that the piece missing in our relationship was not him, but the figure I had created in my mind that he was not. We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. I let go of my anger and grief over who I wanted him to be for me. What I was then able to do was have an adult relationship with the person that he actually is. And to this day, it is not a perfect relationship but is it a real one.
In letting go of my grief and my grievance, I made room for something else. I allowed more room for love, and love changes everything.
That is what I invite you to write one the second half of the slip of paper. If you can let go, what do you make room for? Write that onto the paper and then fold that paper and put it in your pocket. What can you welcome into your life now if the grief of your grievance is not occupying that space?
This is what forgiveness can be like. We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love. It does not only serve as a tool for repairing relationships, it can be about healing your own spirit so you can move forward again. Forgiveness is about freeing up the energy we had spent in our anger, our resentment, our grudge. Our anger and grief consumes our spirit. Forgiveness is about letting go, about allowing healing.
All of us have been hurt. Rehashing those experiences can tempt us to thinking of them as key pieces of our identity. Before I let go of my grievance, I wondered who I was if I was not the one hurt by my father’s absence or by his alcoholism. Those events, that absence was a significant element in the story of who I had become as a young man. But that was not helping me figure out how to be a father to my children, stewing over who my father was to me. No. I had let my grievance become too important to my identity.
What I let go was my need for my father to somehow become the father I thought I need when I was a child. What I cleared space for was more than just the actual relationship I could then have with him. There was more for me in that healing than just that. I also cleared space for me to learn how to be a father for my children. I cleared space to welcome more presence and support that I could both offer and receive. I cleared space to grow beyond the boy I had been. We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.
Healing is not instantaneous, forgiveness does not automatically roll in. But by clearing the way, we can allow our spirits to grow. We can make room for healing because healing is what naturally happens. That is how the Spirit works. Focus on your breath and on all for which you are grateful.
In a world without end,
May it be so