Friday, July 1, 2016

Reflections on forgiveness of others and of self

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

In a culture driven by competition, aggressive and blind and ruthless aggression, in the pursuit of personal acquisitions, little talk and less thought focuses on forgiveness. In a given day, one can often experience a car cutting you off in heavy traffic, a shrug of indifference when you expect commiseration and compassion, an insult to one’s masculinity when a minimal hug would comfort, and a complaint when the complainant has omitted to fill in his/her responsibility behind the complaint. It is a minimalist effort to say “I am sorry” for having treated you badly for twenty years, although appreciated. It is very difficult to respond to that small gesture with a heartfelt, “I forgive you!” And it is relatively facile and perhaps even glib to write the words, “I forgive you” for leaving the marriage, when your real and deepest feelings are more accurately contained in words, “You may have had to leave, but you did it all wrong!”

The memory, especially the memory that retains the details of a deep emotional wound, is often a minefield that can erupt in explosive anger, or equally, a reflective and authentic “I forgive you!” And without participating in the act of forgiveness, one has left unexplored one of the great mysteries and great gifts on the pilgrimage of life.

Entering into the mystery of forgiving an enemy, one who has especially hurt us, we are more intimately in touch with our better angels, with our higher potential, and with our capacity to enter situations in which deep and profound wounds have been perpetrated on other unsuspecting and innocent victims. First, however, we have to believe that we are blessed with such angels, and such grace. Those of us whose perspective does not embrace a gentle and dependable trust of the universe, but embraces the inescapable and inevitable truth that another “shoe is about to drop,” having experienced a drama of crisis following crisis in our early lives, have to come to the place where we start to breath the more rarefied atmosphere of gentleness, compassion, support and warranted praise. Such atmosphere can only replace the turgid stench of criticism, insult, put-downs, and physical and emotional abuse slowly, beginning with a glimmer of tenderness from an unlikely source, and one that has no “agenda” in the gentleness. Ostentatious shows of affection and praise, on the other hand, especially to one whose normal experience is cloudy and sad, frighten one into believing that such “shows” are hollow, inauthentic and perhaps overcompensating. Anyone who thinks or believes that demonstrating, expressing, reinforcing and practicing supportive gestures of acceptance and respect and honour are nothing more than “political correctness” is living in a land of ghosts. Even the most hardened person, perhaps especially the most hardened criminal, suffers from a complete lack of acceptance, a dearth of kindness, and a blindness to his own worth. That is why sliding into a merely transactional world in which the guiding principle is “what have you done for me lately?” is so reductive and so destructive, not only of the perpetrators but also of the recipients of such an approach.

On the other hand, children who are showered with excessive allowances, an unwarranted smorgasbord of praise and “pedestalling” can and often grow up with a contempt for those whose lives are scarred with poverty, abuse and indifference. A school system that depends exclusively on rewards, without sanctions, will inevitably generate generations of “entitled” young people whose social conscience has atrophied from lack of use. Those responsible for education policy might like to consider this notion.

Human sensitivity and even human spirituality potentially touches, embraces and helps to shape public policy given the significance of experience in one’s early years. Forget the “nanny state” so abhorrent to so many rugged individualists; our attitudes of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance and embrace as expressed in civil rights and human rights legislation have the seeds of their flowering in our hearts, not just in our minds. And there is not a single person who, at some time or other, has not been “down” and “out” however such a picture was painted for that person. And at that time, we have each needed a hug, an invitation to come out to play, a letter or a text of engagement and it is on these small gestures that our capacity to extend a similar hug to another is based, and that includes our capacity to forgive.

And while forgiveness of another who “crushed our flower,” can be compared to the scent that flower emits under the crushing heel, that process is relatively easy and uncomplicated compared with the more penetrating act of forgiving oneself.

As we know, forgiveness of oneself is the hardest of all the forgivenesses. (Joan Baez) Herein lies an even more complex, tortuous and frequently avoided mountain climb, Even if we have engaged in acts of forgiveness of others, and even if others have expressed their forgiveness to us for our having betrayed or sabotaged or undermined them, there is still waiting for many of us, another and deeper dive into our unconscious, especially into whatever courage and self-confidence we have mined for future reference. We know intimately the ‘script’ of the life ‘tapes’ that are on a repeat-roll in our minds. And for many, those tapes keep reminding us of how insensitive, how arrogant, how abusive and how indifferent our actions, words, thoughts and attitudes have been. Each of us has made a barn-full of mistakes, hurting others, often without intent at least in our minds, and none of us is released from the tightness that constricts our breathing, our thinking, our loving and our creativity unless and until we are able to, somehow, under the influence of a faith proposition, or a therapeutic guide, or a mentor, or a transformative trauma, forgive ourselves for our fundamental inhumanity to other human beings. Often we were frightened into hurting others as a pretense to self-defence; sometimes we have been running away from what we considered intolerable conditions from which we did not know, or seek to know, how to negotiate changes; other times, we “flipped” off someone important, because they were insulting us or undermining us, or even betraying us, and rather than confront the betrayal, (an act needing the patience of Job and the strength and courage of Hercules) we sought revenge; other times, anticipating a harmful gossip, one that could easily blow up our reputation, we painted the person whom we believed we about to slam us with a nasty and even vicious rumour, much like the kind that currently proliferate on Facebook, ChatRoom, and Twitter. And because our behaviour seemed so normal, even conventionally conforming to the culture in which we were living, we did not pay much attention to how damaging our actions/words really were.

And now, we are left with the “blackened pot” of our worst emotions, shame, fear, embarrassment, and a damaged perspective on who we really are (our warrior is not amused, and could even be ashamed, because we rationalized our “attack” as needed in order to strengthen the muscles of that warrior, when we know that only through the honourable deployment of our warrior would that archetype mature) and no convenient, or even available remedy to clean the carbon of our shame from the bottom of our consciousness, and even our unconsciousness, so deeply has this penetrated.

It is not merely an act of will like scrubbing the pot that begins to remove the burden. It is a much slower and much longer and more reflective, prayerful and solitary process (although walking with a loved one, and walking with a God is clearly helpful) than getting out the cleaners. Those cleaners are analogous to the Christian “penitential” or “confessional” through which under church theology, one accepts the already granted grace of forgiveness that emanated from the Crucifixion. And for some they, and the Cross, actually penetrate the psyche and the spirit alleviating the weight of the self-doubt and the self-loathing. In a Christian culture, in which for centuries the originating premise has been that humans “fell” in the Garden of Eden, through sin, and have spent the rest of their lives “in pursuit” of the forgiveness of the Crucifixion (available by grace to believers), however they conceived it to be granted. If that premise is lifted, from the beginning, and one is open to the notion that we are created in the image of God, and that the light of the Spirit of God is and remains in each of us, the picture changes significantly.

Forgiveness of self begins with an opening of the door of self-acceptance, and is not born of rationalization, nor of quick and facile explanations for wrongs committed both by commission and by omission, nor of a compilation of words of compliments, public applause. It is not an act of bargaining with God, “if I forgive myself, then will You make a place for me in heaven”....It is through a persistent, consistent and resistant conviction that good, the light, and only the good, the light, can and does shine a different lens on the “problem of evil” and thereby on the process of self-forgiveness.

Many of the judgements of evil that have been imposed on individuals, by those charged with searching out, finding and exposing what they consider evil are just that, the judgements of those people, supported by their “organizations”. And permitting the “external locus of control” that is control by others, through charges of guilt, is an integral component of the burden that forgiveness of self attempts to redress. Forgiveness of self, whether through grace for Christians, or through monumental and persistent reflections that bring each person’s past, present and future into the light of love, the light of hope and the light of promise that an enriched life can emerge from such spiritual practice, in a supportive community. Like a stream flowing over boulders and rocks and stones, the company of others in silence, regular, uninterrupted except for occasional brief portraits of experiences of light and joy, in a moment in nature, for example, or a moment of memory, or a moment of song, messages one’s heart, opens one’s mind, and relaxes one’s muscles (physical, mental and spiritual) from the tightness of ordinary living, working, planning, interacting, negotiating, bill-paying, conflict-resolving and all of the other ‘doings’ that comprise daily life.

It is in such periods of quiet meditative reflection that one almost involuntarily lapses into a state in which forgiveness, (one of, if not the most significant of,) the core experiences of spiritual rejuvenation, renewal and hope gradually emerges. Such a quiet and peaceful repose, free of judgements, in an ethos of openness, hope and expectancy, like a garden of human flowers starting to open, finally finding a place to open, and sharing the surprise of a completely new and almost shocking lightness of the shoulders dropping, the lungs filling, the arms, hands and fingers resting and relaxing in repose, and on the horizon, the expectancy of letting go of all of those burdens of  trauma imposed from without, and more significantly, judgements of sin and evil, the disease of darkness, not in a generic way, but rather specifically and individually released, as learnings, as new perspectives on old encounters, and as a splash-pad of running through streams of water for the spirit, in a kind of youthful burst of energy.

It is the kind of experience that cannot be ‘engineered’ or manipulated, or planned, or even expected. It is not even the result of the will; rather it is in the state of being, of being present to one’s self in a circle where others are also being present, where the energy and the compassion, and the doors of the heart and mind and spirit are open to light, to hope, to a new way of being, seeing, conceiving and creating. There is no rational explanation and no measuring instrument that either can predict or evaluate the experience and yet, there is no doubt that it happens, to each person differently. And having been steeped in the human identity of sin, of man’s falling short of the glory of God, of having been inculcated in the sins of the flesh, and the sins of narcissism, and the sins of abuse and inhumanity, one’s spirit has been weighted and freighted with such heaviness, that even a brief moment of the new relief, not that another says ‘those things don’t matter’ but rather that those things are real, they happened and they were how you behaved then, not as defining your person, your identity and your potential.

It is a kind of  practice of theology, belief in God, that sees the potential of this moment for the light to shine both from without and from within, and that brings a kind of expectancy of love, and expectancy of hope and an expectancy of joy in the midst of all of the other truths, realities and memories. And the paradox is that the darkness is in greater relief, nudging each to give voice of confrontation, of protest and of activism in the face of evil.

Forgiveness is like a process of healing a wound, a deep and painful and seemingly never-ending unease morphing into a spiritual disease. And forgiveness, including the grace of God, is available to those whose spirits are ready to let it in, and then to share its blessing in future encounters. However, as the surgeon who commented, while inserting the stitches following the abdominal operation, “Remember, you can put the stitches into the wound, but you cannot heal the patient!” Similarly, we can prepare the mind, the heart and the spirit for the healing of forgiveness; we can do the spiritual work of opening up to the possibility and the potential for being forgiven; and if our preparation is complete and authentic and unreserved, then the process of forgiveness can begin.

And the mystery of both the healing of the surgical wound, and the healing that comes from the forgiveness of self and of course of the other, is like the precipitate in E.J. Pratt’s poem the Truant, the defining element of being human:

The stuff is not amenable to fire.
Nothing but their own kind can overturn, them.
The chemists have sent back the same old story —
"With our extreme gelatinous apology,
We beg to inform your Imperial Majesty,
Unto whom be dominion and power and glory,
There still remains that strange precipitate
Which has the quality to resist
Our oldest and most trusted catalyst.
It is a substance we cannot cremate
By temperatures known to our Laboratory".
Written in the 1940’s, Pratt’s work focused on the quality of the human will that defied all the processes of analysis know to the chemists and the scientists of that time. Today, as a metaphor, we are using the analogy of the will’s defiance to chemical processes, to compare it will the intellectual comprehension of the mystery of the dynamic of forgiveness, a notion that can be known when it is experienced both as subject and object, without being amenable to anatomizing, parsing, and decoding. And like pregnancy, it either is occurring or has occurred, or it has not. And there is no confusion about that.
And like the scent that emerges from the flower crushed under foot, it is a life-giving breath!


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