Don’t Change, Become

I’m grateful when my Facebook friends post inspirational, beautiful, or funny things on their pages. A recent post advised, “Don’t change, become.” That got me thinking about the difference between the words “change” and “become.”

If someone tells me I should change, I may feel like the real me is not good enough. That I should try to be someone else. I may ask, “What’s wrong with me? How am I bad or broken? If I’m bad or broken, is there really any hope for me?”

However, if someone talks to me about who I can become, I can create a vision. It’s still okay to be me. In fact, it’s vital that I be me. The genuine me with the potential to learn, grow, and live with purpose. 

When I’m becoming, I can decide what there is about me that I’d like to stay the same, and what I’d like to transform. Being aware of positives, not just negatives, gives us the energy we need to move forward.

Positive humanist psychologist Carl Rogers believed we all need genuineness, acceptance, and empathy in order to thrive. He said, “What I am is good enough, if I would only be it openly.” If we are hiding fears of not being good enough, we aren’t being our true selves. It’s only when we have the courage to confront our genuine feelings and thoughts that we gain the power to transform them.

Reading a devotion before bedtime comforts me and the following passage from James 1: 2-4 (NRSV) was just what I needed one night. The verse said, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

What an awesome and amazingly difficult way of looking at our struggles. I’m still striving to look at my current woes with joy, but when I remind myself that no inspirational life story is without struggles – and the more extreme the better – I am able to improve my attitude.

Those times when I’ve been humiliated, disappointed, ashamed, or grieving have clothed me with empathy for others and led to insightful moments. I’ve been very happy to shed some of my old judgments that were acquired before I experienced things like: my child being the one throwing a tantrum in the grocery store; my work being criticized and rejected; my assumptions proven wrong.

Experience transforms us in ways advice never can. Experience delivers intelligence in the form of feelings and emotions and goes beyond the simplicity of mere words.  

Becoming means throwing off unrealistic or pointless expectations of how we should appear and what we should achieve. It means being patient with ourselves as we work through difficult periods in our life. Grief coach Maria Kilavkoff explained, “Sometimes we slow down so we can digest the indigestible.”

Feeling broken is awareness that it’s time to challenge beliefs and behaviors that are no longer appropriate for us. We find ways to fix what needs repairing by learning to become more compassionate, generous, respectful, courageous, daring. We take deep breaths, relax, and enjoy being who we are and where we are in the moment.

When we know we’re becoming, and we realize others are also becoming, forgiveness can blossom within us. We feel sadness and hurt, but we accept our feelings and learn to understand where those feelings are coming from and where they are leading us. The beauty of forgiveness is in knowing it’s okay to be who we are, and it’s okay for others, who are also struggling to become, to be who they are.

Becoming requires humility, not humiliation. When we have humility, others no longer have the power to humiliate us because we’re strong enough to accept whatever mistakes we make and learn from them. We refrain from humiliating others because we wish the best for them as they strive to become a better version of themselves.

Humility means having the courage to accept who we are, and the compassion needed to treat ourselves and others kindly. Humility has been called the master virtue because it’s vital in helping us become virtuous.  We don’t close our minds to new ideas or cling tenaciously to what was or what we assume should be because we are no longer defensive. We are excited about who we are becoming.

When I think of the times when I’ve been irritated with someone who is trying to give me advice, it’s because I feel they want me to change into someone they approve of. A friend said she was hesitant about getting help from an organization called “Behavior Management” because she didn’t like the idea that she needed to be managed and said, “It seems like they will be out to control me.” Most of us don’t want to be controlled, but we appreciate people who support us on our journey of becoming.

Of course, when we think someone else should change, “Behavior Management” sounds like just the ticket. The problem is we can only manage our own behavior. Everyone is on their own path to becoming and we don’t get to control the pace or the direction.

Inner freedom blossoms as we let go of the burden of expectations that we or others must change. We find peace with letting ourselves just be and become. We can rest assured that we are who we are supposed to be as we envision – with faith, hope and love – the person we are becoming.

Critical Race Theory Is About Our Identities

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has gone from a concept to be analyzed to a political football targeted at provoking fear and manipulating voters. Supposedly CRT misleads students into believing their country is evil or was founded upon evil – as if nations can be categorized as good or evil – one or the other. But nations are made up of people, and like people, they are a mixture of good, bad, and everything in between.

I’ve taught history, but I’d never heard of CRT until it became a political issue, so I looked it up. The theory was officially organized in 1989 and, according to Britannica.com, is based on the premise that “Race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of physically distinct subgroups of human beings, but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of color.”

Whether we like it or not, we humans do label each other, and we have historically used the categories we invent, such as race, to distribute resources and power. We learn at an early age we can fit people into categories and those categories play an essential role in establishing identities. Our families and institutions, such as schools and the media, often lead us to believe some identities are better than others.

When teaching at an alternative high school serving students of various skin colors who were struggling through their teen years, I learned the impact our identity has on our vision of who we will become. A gentle, soft-spoken boy with light skin being raised by his grandparents worried he’d become a murderer like his father. A boy with Lakota heritage who had just studied the Holocaust wondered, “Why don’t people hate Germans instead of us Indians.”

Girls showed me the lyrics to their favorite songs, which portrayed them as objects whose only value was in providing sex to demanding males. A transgender student felt she would never have an opportunity for a loving, supportive relationship because of the messages she had received about an LGBTQ+ identity. A variety of students asked, “Why are you trying to teach us? We’ll just wind up in jail or working at McDonalds like our parents. Do you think we’re smart or something?”

The history and civics curriculum we provide our students is very important because it has a vital impact on their identities and the life paths they embark upon. I don’t believe anyone truly wants children, or adults, to feel badly about their identities. But sometimes we are so wrapped up in defending our own identities, in trying to escape guilt and shame, that we become defensive and neglect showing compassion, respect, and appreciation for the diversity of identities that surround us.

If our identity is tied to feeling special or uniquely blessed, hard truths and different perspectives will not be welcome information. When our identities are based on superiority to the identities of others, problems occur.

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was taught about the Founding Fathers and other “his” stories of America. However, I do distinctly remember having the opportunity to read biographies of Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale. As a female, I could identify with those stories, and they comforted and motivated me much more than stories of heroes like Abe Lincoln or Albert Einstein. I also remember a story about George Washington Carver and the amazing discoveries he made regarding one of my favorite foods, the peanut. However, the grand majority of information I received regarding the contributions of people other than white males was garnered only through my own curiosity, as I sought out books covering a wide variety of people and perspectives.

We need to be proud of our identities and we need to understand why and how placing people in certain categories has led to unjust behaviors. One of my daughters sobbed after being told by a Sunday School teacher that, while enacting a play regarding a Jesus story, all the girls had to sit in the back while the boys got all the “good” roles. Through tears she told me, “I knew God didn’t like women, but I thought Jesus did.”

My daughter needed to know that historically societies, not Jesus, have demeaned women, and she needed to know why. We purchased a book entitled Herstory that told stories of strong women and the struggles they faced. My daughter confronted hard truths so that she could feel good about her identity and what the future could hold for her.

When I was teaching world history, one of my favorite topics was that of the Columbian Exchange. The world changed in “fourteen hundred and ninety-two when Columbus sailed the ocean blue” because it was the beginning of a link between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and the continents of North and South America. Goods such as wheat, oats, sugarcane, cows, horses, sheep and chickens, were transported across the ocean to the Americas. The Americas introduced colonizers to products such as potatoes, tomatoes, corn, beans, pineapples, turkeys, and cacao. Mixing cultures made possible hot chocolate and pizza.

After a class discussion on the Columbian Exchange, one of my Lakota students came up to me with a contented smile on her face and said, “So, everyone contributed to the America we live in today. That’s cool!”

When we tell the stories of the indigenous people and all the immigrants who came to the Americas, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, we honor all identities. When we explain why there are disparities in our society and encourage civil discourse that sparks positive change, we create “liberty and justice for all.” We walk the talk.

Critical race theory may be poorly named because it sounds so, well, critical – and nobody likes to be criticized. “Vital understanding theory” or “cultural awareness theory” might be better accepted and more accurately describe the goal of exploring and analyzing our society’s labels and the way they have affected, and continue to affect, the institutions and systems we have in place.

 J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” America is a land of great diversity with people who have amazing stories that need to be told. Growing up, I wasn’t made aware of the accomplishments, struggles, and resilience of all Americans, all the deep roots. For an American of European descent, that’s sad, but for Americans whose stories haven’t been told because of their minority status, that’s tragic.

All our stories need to be told. That’s not being critical, that’s being wise.

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash

But I Have Issues

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Following is the message I gave to my church, Canyon Lake Methodist, on July 13, 2021, while filling in for our excellent pastors and giving them a break. The sermon series, entitled “Your But’s Too Big,” focused on those things that keep us from finding our calling and living life to the fullest. My message was entitled, “But I Have Issues.” You can listen to the church service and message by following the link https://www.facebook.com/canyonlakeunitedmethodist/videos/126356636251833/

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 New International Version

But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Our pastors asked me to do the message on “But I Have Issues.” They said, “Chris, you have lots of issues, so this is a perfect topic for you.” Actually, they were too nice to say that so instead said, “You have a doctorate in psychology and psychology involves the study of people’s issues.” So, here I am.

What does it mean to have issues? Issues are emotional or psychological difficulties, and we all have those difficulties at some time or another, to varying degrees – from a personality quirk to a severe mental illness. When I taught psychology, I liked to assure students that, “We’re all a little crazy.” However, our issues don’t need to keep us from using our God-given gifts and talents, from following our dreams, from living fulfilling, purposeful lives.

Our scripture for today is about Paul, and it describes a time when Paul was having issues and he wanted God to do something about that. God had given him what Paul referred to as a thorn and Paul didn’t like it. I can certainly identify with his feelings.

Travis Heam, the author of “Your But’s Too Big” said “We want comfort. God wants character. We want freedom. God wants faith. We want easy. God wants everything. We want to feel good. God wants us to feel God.”  

In our society, issues are especially tough because we often feel like we have to pretend we don’t have issues, or we think we should be able to solve them by ourselves. We can tell people we’re on a diet or that we have high blood pressure, a bad back, or cancer, but it’s hard to admit we have mental issues, spiritual issues. We hide our true thoughts and feelings. And the horrible thing is that hiding our depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction or whatever issue we may be suffering from makes it worse. Pretending is poisonous.

So let’s not hide from our issues or let them keep us from our calling. Let’s look at the advice God gives to Paul, I’ll throw in a little psychology, and we’ll talk about three ways to keep from saying, “I would, but I have issues.”

First –God’s love is unconditional. “My grace is sufficient for you.”

My issues started early and I remember struggling as a teenager. I was fortunate to grow up in a Methodist church in Redfield, SD, that assured me God’s love was unconditional. God was merciful, not wrathful.  I was also fortunate that I loved to read. I still have the book I’m Okay, You’re Okay by Dr. Thomas Harris that helped get me through high school. It gave me hope that I was okay, even when I didn’t fit in or feel okay. Books can function as excellent therapists.

When Paul experienced his “thorn” – his issue – he needed assurance that even though what he was going through was hard, he was still okay. God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Meaning it doesn’t matter how many issues you have, you are okay and I will love you through this.

Having faith and truly believing God’s assurance that “My grace is sufficient for you” is important because it helps us calm down and realize it’s okay to not feel okay. We are still okay even if our thoughts don’t feel okay. Because we are not our thoughts, we are not our crazy feelings. We are beloved children of a merciful God.

What we especially need when our issues are keeping us from sharing our gifts and causing us great pain is a firm foundation of love and acceptance. I’m okay. You’re okay. “My grace is sufficient for you.” If we don’t believe that – that grace is sufficient – we develop big buts full of shame and blame that keep us from delighting in life and living out our purpose; from finding the joy that forgiveness and compassion brings.

If our issues cause us to bury our heads in shame, we will miss out on new experiences that will help us grow closer to God and we’ll say, “I would, but . . .when asked to share our gifts with others, to experience new things. We’re worried we’ll mess up againand just create even more shame for ourselves. We’re stuck.

Blaming can be even worse because if we can’t face our issues, we may take our pain out on others and become people who spread hurt rather than healing. If we’re busy blaming others for our issues and judging them for their issues, we’re missing out on the peace that passes understanding and the joy that comes with accepting and giving grace. With realizing we’re all okay and doing the best we can. Which leads me to the second point. We’re born to learn, not perform.

Second – We’re Born to Learn, Not Perform

We’re born to learn, not perform, which means we will make mistakes and fail. That’s the human condition. We don’t know it all and we need Jesus to show us the way and other people to teach us. Even rugged individualists in South Dakota need help.

So our scripture goes on to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul had a very high opinion of himself, and the scripture informs us he was quite upset that he had to endure “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” He didn’t like having issues and at first, he tried to persuade God to get rid of them for him.

I understand, issues are no fun. We want comfort. God wants character. When I was much younger, I remember times when my issues were bothering me – and then I’d have an insight, a personal epiphany, and think, “I’ve got things figured out now. No more issues.”  And for a few hours, maybe even a couple days I did, but it wasn’t long before a new struggle would come along and I’d have issues again. I finally figured out this learning thing is lifelong. It’s not a one and done. God wants us to grow and learn all our lives. We’re to be lifelong learners.

Paul figured that out too. He wasn’t supposed to be too content with himself, and he definitely wasn’t supposed to boast about how smart and special he was. God told him to boast about his weaknesses, because his weaknesses, his issues, were going to lead him closer to God and keep him learning. It wouldn’t be as comfortable and self-esteem boosting as Paul would have liked, but struggles are when we have the opportunity to build character, to be transformed.

Like Paul, we probably need to do some complaining first because issues are tough. Then we can surrender and ask God, “What am I supposed to be learning? Why am I so depressed, so obsessive, so anxious, so angry, so unable to concentrate, so addicted, so tormented? And we ask God to be with us as we try to figure out our issues, as we grow and learn, ask for help, share what we’ve learned, and develop character. We change our focus, so our negative thoughts don’t spiral out of control.

Third – It’s Not All About Me.

Changing my focus and reminding myself, “It’s not all about me,” has been effective for me in a couple ways. First, I’ve quit telling God what to do – it wasn’t working anyway – and just ask the Holy Spirit to be with me as I stumble and struggle and do my best. Paul, too, realized it was not all about him and said, “When I am weak, I am strong.” What does that mean?

When we realize we’re weak, that we have a lot to learn, we can open our heart and mind to what the Spirit is telling us, what people around us and our experiences are trying to teach us, and that’s how we become strong. Open hearts, open minds, and open doors – our Methodist slogan – is what strengthens us. It’s what spiritual humility is all about.

Spiritual humility is realizing, “It’s not all about me” and that’s a delightful thing. Humility has been called the master virtue because it’s all about letting go of our ego and our fears and welcoming in the Holy Spirit. Spiritual humility isn’t about thinking less of ourselves, it’s about thinking of ourselves less. When I’m wasting time ruminating about my issues I can say, “Stop, it isn’t all about me,” remember that I am more than my negative thoughts and take a sanity break. I can think about the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and how I can develop those fruits and share them with others. I can think about how I can serve others, not how I can be served.

Mary Oliver, a poet who knew what it meant to struggle with issues, wrote “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” She had found that shifting her focus to the beauty of the earth, nature, and God’s creation allowed light to shine in her darkness. Paying attention to that which heals – nature, music, service, kindness – takes the focus off that which hurts. It strengthens us.

Spiritual humility means we are strong enough to share our gifts even though we may fail and fall flat on our face; it means we are strong enough to admit we don’t know everything, that we have issues, and we need help. When we are honest about our issues, when we face them with courage and compassion, knowing we are unconditionally loved, forgiven, and always learning, we keep our issues from turning into big buts. Instead, our issues bring us closer to God, closer to those with whom we share our concerns, and closer to our true calling. As God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s ability to handle his thorn, his issues, had its foundation in the love of God and he wrote in Romans 8: 38-39 the passage I will close with:

38I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39.

I pray we will open our hearts, feel God’s love, and embrace grace.

Overcoming Trauma Through Forgiveness

Have you had experiences in your life that were extremely disturbing and still cause you emotional sadness or fear? Do you belong to a group that has been, or is currently being, oppressed or victimized?  If you answered no to both questions you are uniquely blessed.

Human history is full of trauma. I’m an educator and experienced at teaching world history. My students loved studying the wars, especially the dramatic world wars when humans were traumatized on a global level. Sometimes we think of history as studying one war after another, as if all we humans do is kill each other in the name of some grand or greedy cause. One student told me she couldn’t do a report on the recent history of Brazil because Brazilians hadn’t been in any wars during the last fifty years.

Survival as a human has rarely been easy. Prehistoric humans faced dangers like wild animals, food scarcity, and harsh weather conditions from which they had little protection. Fast forward to the last millennium and we find our hardships continuing.  

Europeans who had been traumatized in their home countries – by oppression, famine, homelessness, persecution of some kind – came across the ocean to what they referred to as the New World and inflicted trauma on the Indigenous people and the Africans they subjugated as slaves. Females have been viewed as property and had little recourse against rape or domestic abuse. Alpha males have made other males their pawns and directed them to kill and be killed for questionable causes. Kings, queens, and autocrats were constantly in danger of being beheaded or falling prey to some other sort of horror as those around them competed for power.

What has all that trauma done to us? It has indeed sharpened our survival instincts. We are equipped with an emotionally reactive amygdala that is powered by fear. It can override the rational, decision-making part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, because it’s programmed for quick, life-or-death protective action. Sometimes the amygdala is a hero, saving us from dangerous predators and accidents. But at other times, it destroys relationships and causes high blood pressure.

We have evolved to automatically focus on negatives because we need to be ready to defend ourselves against the perils of the world. But too much fear over long periods of time causes overexposure to the hormone cortisol, which disrupts our body’s natural processes and increases our risk of health problems like heart attacks and headaches.  

Grouping people into “good” and “bad” categories and perceiving the world as a place where it’s “us against them” has protected us from harm as we banded together against them. But whether we like it or not, we are all connected. Viruses don’t honor national borders, and combatting the negative effects of climate change will take a global effort. Nuclear weapons have the capacity to destroy all the humans in the world, but I’m guessing cockroaches will somehow survive, as fossil evidence indicates they have for around 300 million years. 

Why have cockroaches survived? It’s not because they are extremely fearful and have developed ingenious ways to punish and kill each other. It’s because they are good at adapting to changing and difficult conditions. They “overcome.”

Overcoming trauma, for humans, requires the ability to calm our instinctual fears and use our prefrontal cortex to adapt to whatever environment we find ourselves in.  Scientist Marie Curie advised, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Understanding helps us overcome our fear, heal from our trauma, and adapt to whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Fear can take the form of what Lakota writers have called Iktomi, the trickster. We must be careful because we can be tricked into harmful behavior unless we are self-aware and able to understand what we fear. That’s why Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. ‘”

All the major religions recognize self-control and forgiveness as virtues because fear, negativity, and demonizing “others” can lead to destructive decision making. We need to quiet down our amygdala and convince it to hand over control to what psychologists call our “executive function” – the part of our brain that can reflect and effectively problem solve.

A Bible verse, 2 Timothy 1:7, reads “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” 1 John 4: 18-19 tells us that love — genuine love for ourselves, for each other, and for God — can overcome all fear. But self-control isn’t easy, nor is loving without conditions. It’s something we must genuinely desire and strive for.

“Moral injury” is a term psychologists use to describe a wound to our inner soul. It’s a type of trauma and it happens when our actions, or the actions of those we have admired and followed, runs contrary to our deeply held moral beliefs. This may happen in war, a time when survival instincts are on high alert, or anytime our foundational beliefs of goodness and truth are shattered. Our spirit suffers.

Forgiveness means letting compassion and grace heal us and set us free. Coming to terms with our own humanness, as well as embracing the humanity of others, allows us to let go of our fears and our bitterness at all the unfairness and cruelty in the world. We still work for justice and kindness, but with the guidance of that part of our being that directs us forward with hope and love.

Orson Scott Card wrote, “When you really know somebody, you can’t hate them. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t really know them until you stop hating them.”

That advice goes for knowing ourselves as well. We can shed our shame and resentment by accepting our humanness and forgiving ourselves for not being everything we assume we should be. We can reject a culture of blaming and liberate ourselves from fear. We don’t have to hide from the truth or distort it to feel in harmony with the world.

Deeply distressing, disturbing experiences – traumas – are hard to overcome, but it’s worth the effort. Forgiveness helps us heal, making life a little easier and bringing joy and light into our darkness.

My favorite Native American dance is the hoop dance, and it inspired me to write the following words.

Great people don’t spend their time jumping through other people’s hoops.

Great people don’t spend their time creating hoops for other people to jump through.

Great people learn how to dance with hoops and create circles that inspire, include, and enrich others.

 Photo courtesy PDPhoto.org –  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=868316

How To Avoid “Troubles”

 We in the United States have been experiencing troubles. “Troubles” is a term used to describe public unrest and disorder. On January 6th, we witnessed the storming of our Capitol and violent attacks on Congress. Riots and protests brought on by racial injustice, mass shootings, and hate groups fuel our troubles. Conspiracy theories and the spreading of dangerous misinformation spark our troubles.

Amidst our troubles, South Dakota governor Kristi Noem persuaded the state’s legislature to spend almost one million dollars to establish a new South Dakota Civics curriculum. She said the “common mission and key objective needs to be explaining why the USA is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

That comment made me recall a Pickles cartoon in which Grandma tells Grandson, “You’re unique and special, just like everybody else.” Some people believe in American exceptionalism – we’re the best and the brightest ever – but what about the people who question that or who think every nation is special in its own way?

If our mission is to teach students the USA is the most special nation in the history of the world, are we going to let students use their critical thinking skills to analyze that statement – or will we insist they accept American exceptionalism and feed them only information that supports that goal?

I’m proud of the ingenuity, tenaciousness, and strength my pioneer ancestors demonstrated as they survived and even thrived on the Dakota prairie. They came from Sweden, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and who knows where else, and they worked hard to create a better life in what was to them a new land full of much needed opportunity. But I’m not going to deny the slave ship captain in the family tree that was discovered by my historian uncle, or ignore the duplicity and inhumanity that allowed European immigrants to acquire the land of the Indigenous people.

It’s natural to want to feel good about ourselves and our nation, but not at the expense of truth and excellent reasoning skills. If we’re truly patriots who love America, we embrace our country, warts and all, and accept the fact that all people – and nations – have strengths and weaknesses. If we can’t be honest about our mistakes, our faults, our ignorance, because we’re clinging so tightly to our superior identity, we won’t be able to develop, to adapt, and to learn from anyone whose viewpoint is different from ours. 

From 1968 to1998, Northern Ireland experienced the conflict commonly called “The Troubles,” a turbulent time in which a low-level war was fought between Catholics (Irish nationalists) and Protestants (British unionists). Catholics wished Northern Ireland would become one with the Republic of Ireland and Protestants wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

I visited Northern Ireland several years ago and learned that the Catholic position in The Troubles did not necessarily have anything to do with religion. As our taxi driver stated, “I’m Catholic, but I’m not religious.” The Troubles resulted from a history of injustice and prejudice, and they were eased through cooperative efforts to reduce anger and promote greater fairness throughout society.   

Northern Ireland suffered The Troubles because Protestants thought they were more special than Catholics and vice versa. But The Troubles became less troubling when Queen Elizabeth apologized for the injustices her government had inflicted on the Irish Catholics. On my tour of the Republic of Ireland, our Irish tour guide became quite emotional as she expressed her gratitude for Queen Elizabeth’s acknowledgement of oppressive actions and injustice on the part of the British. When someone sincerely apologizes and takes responsibility for the harm that was done, fear is reduced, and trust can be established. We really can’t trust someone who isn’t aware of the pain they have caused, because people are unable to change if they do not recognize what needs changing.

Education for Mutual Understanding was a program established in schools in Northern Ireland to ease The Troubles and they are currently promoting a curriculum entitled “Integration Works – Transforming Your Schools.” Students are taught to listen and empathize and are given skills to help them respond to personal and systemic injustice with compassion and creativity instead of anger and aggression. Healthy forgiveness is emphasized, meaning having the courage to confront issues with a genuine desire to understand, while working for peaceful solutions beneficial to all. Students are not taught that one group is more special than another but are instead asked to respect the inherent worth of all people.

Our brains are programmed for survival in wild environments and therefore our default system leads us to revenge, aggression, and competitiveness as we fear we won’t have enough resources or will be harmed by “the others.” We may grasp conspiracy theories instead of scientific explanations because they fit our preconceived notions and biases and require less effort to understand.

To avoid troubles, we need education that helps us understand how our brain works and that improves our thinking skills. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are dangerous, but the good news is we can be taught how to evaluate information and search for valid, reliable sources. We can learn skills that help us appreciate different perspectives and develop the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.

While teaching high school, I encountered students who were surprised to learn they could be angry without lashing out or running away. Because I didn’t lose my temper (usually, anyway) they assumed I was never angry. I assured them I did get angry, and we talked about ways to be assertive instead of aggressive or passive – to control our anger so it doesn’t control us.

I remember a situation in which students in rival gangs were invited into a mediation session that focused on creating win/win solutions. Students were amazed to discover that their foes had feelings and concerns much like their own. What was the secret to their discovery? One student explained, “I’d never listened without interrupting. I’d just assumed I knew what the others were thinking, and I only cared about what I thought.” Members of each side were able to express themselves without interference, and they then worked on fixing the problem, not the blame.

In that mediation session, the students were forced to listen to each other. The desire to listen compassionately to those outside our in-group doesn’t come naturally. Why? Because we may hear something that could upset our view of the world and our cherished beliefs. Changing our thoughts and behaviors is stressful. We worry about what our in-group will think. We could lose relationships and important connections if we’re seen as sympathetic to “those people” – the others who aren’t like us.

But it can be exciting and freeing to break down the wall we’ve constructed with the building blocks of fear, unclench our fists, quit gnashing our teeth, and let new insights and awareness flow through us. There is freedom in forgiveness and there is joy in learning and discovering.

Recently, Northern Ireland has again been plagued with violence. Brexit and economic problems have sparked rioting. These new troubles remind us our ability to effectively resolve conflict needs constant work and effort. Our mental and spiritual health requires tending in the same way our physical health does. If we do not keep working on our forgiveness and peaceful problem-solving skills, they will atrophy and our fight-or-flight instincts will predominate.

If we truly want a peaceful, just world where all human beings are respected and treated fairly and kindly, we won’t choose a curriculum that dictates one nation or one type of person is more unique and special than another. That’s the type of curriculum that was taught in Germany and Japan before World War II. If we want to avoid troubles, we will teach our students how to be kind, respectful, generous, and forgiving to everyone, not just to their own group. We will give them the skills needed to analyze and evaluate information.

And we will remind them they are unique and special, just like everyone else.

Why I Love Libraries

What kinds of places make your heart tingle, the corners of your mouth turn upward, your body relax? Beaches, mountain tops, flower gardens, babbling brooks, cozy restaurants, and for me – libraries. Books have been some of my best friends, and libraries contain my past buddies as well as future BFFs that I’m looking forward to meeting.

Libraries, of course, are not just for books anymore. They now have movies, computers, magazines, photocopiers, scanners, Storytime programs, makerspaces, and meeting rooms. They have Facebook pages and programs about yoga and gardening. Books can now be downloaded onto a variety of devices and may be heard but not seen. Sometimes I even enjoy housework because I can don my earbuds and immerse myself in a suspenseful mystery. At a particularly thrilling part, I’ve been known to dust stuff that hasn’t been touched for weeks – okay, maybe months. 

My favorite thing in libraries, however, remains words written on that old-fashioned material – paper. I can cuddle up with a book and travel to all sorts of distant places, make amazing discoveries, understand different perspectives, comprehend insightful information, all from the comfort of a chair or couch. I can skim boring descriptions and reread passages that spark my imagination. Books are incredibly patient and transform me at whatever pace I choose.

Libraries are full of interesting books and interesting people. There are nerdy folks like me, parents shepherding rambunctious children, individuals seeking a warm, welcoming environment, and people grateful for the computers and low-cost resources a library provides. There are people of all shapes, ages, and sizes, from every income bracket, pursuing a diverse variety of reading materials: romance, history, sci-fi, fantasy, self-help, classics, mysteries, biographies, . . . Oh, the places we can go!

I first fell in love with libraries while growing up in Redfield, South Dakota. The library there began as a reading club with members buying books to circulate. In March of 1902, the town received a Carnegie Library grant of $10,000. Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American philanthropist who funded a total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries between 1883 and 1929. At first, he funded only libraries in places to which he had a personal connection, but in later years, few towns that requested funding and agreed to terms of operation and maintenance were refused a grant.

 Redfield’s library has the distinction of being the oldest Carnegie Library in continuous use in South Dakota.  It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

I remember the beautiful building and the extremely interesting books it contained about dinosaurs. Like most children, I was a big fan of prehistoric creatures. The Redfield Carnegie Library also contained a plethora of Nancy Drew mysteries. Perfect Nancy, tomboy George, and plump Bess were great friends with three distinct personalities who accepted me just the way I was.

When I was a teenager, Redfield’s librarian, who may have been a hippie at heart, let me check out Catcher in the Rye, which was a scandalous book back in the ‘70s. It was a liberating read for a naïve girl from a small town whose most exotic travel experiences had been to Aberdeen, South Dakota, and the Black Hills. Reading it again as an adult was disappointing though, as I found it more silly than tantalizing.

The classics fascinated me as a teenager because I wondered why certain books had been deemed so special. Shakespeare’s dialect perplexed me, but I was able to journey in my mind to different places and times through the works of authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, James Michener, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  My vocabulary expanded and whenever I see the word “unctuous” I think of Uriah Heep, the villain in David Copperfield. Western history began to come alive for me while I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and my interest in Russian history sprouted through War and Peace. In other words, Redfield’s Carnegie Library was an enormously exciting place to be.

Local bookstores weren’t available to me when growing up, but I delight in them now, especially if they contain a coffee shop. The advantage of acquiring a book in a store over a library is that, when you pay for a book, you can write in it and highlight the good stuff. If you’re running out of room for all your books, you can become a librarian yourself – loaning books to people or generously giving them away, with the only caveat being recipients should pass the precious words on to someone else.

If you have an addictive personality, I highly recommend becoming hooked on books. Books can give you a natural high. Library cards are generally free, so you can obtain one and have access to all the “uppers” you need – very economical. Charles De Montesquieu said, “I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.” If you’re feeling sad or stressed, finding a good book may be excellent therapy. It has worked for me.

When I finish a good book, I often have to do a little grieving because I miss the characters I’ve come to know. When my daughters were young, together we read the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery and became kindred spirits. Visiting the book’s setting, Prince Edward Island, was on my wish list and several years ago I delighted in visiting the sites set up for Anne groupies like me that so enjoyed the wit and wisdom contained in Montgomery’s writing.

I love libraries because their contents allow me to journey to places I’d never be able to go physically. They expand my mind, warm my heart, give me comfort, and allow me to escape whatever may be troubling me.  Thank you, librarians and authors. I’m grateful for all the joy you’ve given me.

Photos compliments of the Redfield Carnegie Library

Forgiveness and the Easter Story

Inspirational stories can help us forgive. The death and resurrection story of Jesus has provided many Christians with assurance that no matter what sins they have committed in the past or will commit in the future, they will be forgiven.  In brief, the Easter story relates that God sent his only son, Jesus, to earth because he loved his human creation dearly, but was often very mad at them because they were constantly sinning. During the first century, when Jesus was on earth, it was common for lambs to be sacrificed in atonement for sins. Jesus, the son of God, became the lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of humankind with the goal of bringing us humans a new relationship with God the Father.  Jesus was crucified by Roman oppressors and died a human death, but arose from the grave, showing his disciples he had been resurrected.

I personally receive comfort and inspiration from the Easter story

when I don’t try to analyze it scientifically or take it too literally.

During the days when the books of the Bible were written, it was common for people to explain difficult concepts through stories, as there was no science as we know it now. Human beings have always sought understanding, meaning, and explanations, but they have not always had universities full of books and laboratories or access to facts that could be scientifically verified. They often used symbolism, metaphors, and teaching stories (parables) to make sense of the world.

I imagine myself back in the days of Jesus. Back then, just as now, it was hard to be human. People struggled with the same questions.  How do we deal with guilt and shame? How can we keep going, knowing we have done wrong? Who could love us, wretches that we are? Who can save us from ourselves? We have always desperately needed hopeful, love-inspired answers to those questions, and the Easter story has provided many people with reassuring, encouraging answers over the centuries.

Jesus’s resurrection represents being forgiven and born again. It is okay that we are human and do things we regret. It’s all good. We can start anew. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” is a popular saying because we need reassurance that all is not lost when our shame and despair is trying to convince us to give up. We can summon up our courage and keep trying if we know there’s a loving spirit, a divine presence, guiding and supporting us.

I personally don’t have a lot of faith in sacrificial lambs and placating angry father gods, but I don’t think that’s what the Easter story is really about. I think it’s a story that was meant to illustrate the power of love and compassion, the happiness that comes with forgiving and being forgiven, and the transformation that is possible when we have the courage to create a new and better tomorrow.

The beauty of stories is that we can interpret them in different ways

based on what we have experienced and where we are at developmentally.

We can learn by listening to how different people understand the same story.  For example, in my younger years I didn’t like seeing the bloody images of Jesus on the cross with thorns on his head. I couldn’t figure out why people would like to see a disturbing image of suffering and pain. I liked the painting I’d grown up with in my church of a well-groomed Jesus in a beautiful field with cute little children and fluffy white lambs surrounding him.

Then I talked to people whose lives had been filled with bloodshed and thorns of some kind and became enlightened. The image of Jesus suffering on the cross was beautiful to them, not because they liked to see anyone suffer, but because it represented the empathy of a divine being who was willing to sacrifice himself for them. Jesus had been willing to feel their pain. He had been betrayed, unfairly judged, and crucified. He was part of a beleaguered population that was being oppressed by a powerful empire. He suffered and knew anguish and he genuinely realized how hard it is to be human. While enduring the excruciating pain of crucifixion, Jesus was still able to ask that his crucifiers be forgiven because, as he said from the cross, “They know not what they do.”

The people I talked to were comforted and reassured by the Easter story because it illustrated to them that God gets it. God realizes life on earth is hard and we need lots of love and support from the Divine along the way so we can become better people.

I have listened to people who have been transformed by the Easter story because the meaning it held for them was that Jesus, God, really loved them. It’s a wonderful thing to feel loved and some of the people I talked to had never felt anyone cared about them. It was good news that Jesus was willing to die a painful, humiliating death on the cross because he loved them so much.  It was life changing to learn Jesus didn’t care about what they’d done – whether it was good or bad. He didn’t care what other people thought of them or what shameful thoughts or deeds they may be hiding about themselves.

The love that transformed them had to do with compassion, mercy, and hope for a new and better tomorrow. It freed them from worries about judgment and abandonment and allowed them to forgive themselves and whoever and whatever else needed forgiving.

May your Easter be filled with the peace, hope, and joy that comes when we forgive and are forgiven.

This blog was taken from my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, pages 256-259.

Photo by Mitchell Maglio on Unsplash


The Ungrateful Jar

A friend told me she was going to set up an ungrateful jar for Lent, the season that is observed during the forty days before Easter. “What?” I thought. “Why do that? Do we really need a jar to help us whine and complain more?” I googled ‘ungrateful jar,’ but my words were corrected by the computer and the only thing I could get to come up was ‘grateful jar’ as well as quotes about being ungrateful like, “People are so ungrateful. No one ever thanks me for having the patience not to kill them.” 

So why did my friend think an ungrateful jar was a good idea? The story spurring her plan went something like this:

A young girl we’ll call Sally was excited because her family received a package in the mail.  She was thrilled about opening the gift until her mother told her it was from their church. “Oh, darn,” Sally responded. “I suppose they’re going to tell me to count my blessings and be grateful. They do that all the time and I’m tired of it.”  Her mother responded, “Well, do you want to be ungrateful?” “Yes,” Sally said. “Okay,” replied Mother. “Let’s set up an ungrateful jar.”

Was Sally’s mom being a bad parent? How could depositing words with things we don’t like into a jar be a good thing?

When we have a physical wound, the first thing we do is clean it to get out the dirt and germs. We want to be sure there is nothing in the wound that could be infectious and toxic to our systems. After that is done, we put on the antiseptic and whatever else is necessary to heal the wound.

Mental wounds work in a similar fashion.

“Don’t put on a happy face because you think it’s expected. Grief denied is grief unhealed,” Barbara Bartocci noted in Nobody’s Child Anymore.

Sally felt pressured to put on a happy, grateful face because others expected it. However, that wasn’t working. Her unhappy face needed to be seen and comforted before her happy face could make an appearance. Sally wanted to be genuine and was tired of pretending. She may have needed to talk about her annoying little brother, problems with friends, difficult schoolwork, secret fears she was holding inside.

The Lakota combine sage and sweetgrass in their ceremonies. An Elder explained to me, “In Lakota tradition, burning or smudging with sage symbolizes healing and taking the negative off, while sweetgrass represents blessings and putting on something positive.”

We need to clean our mental wounds before we apply our healing medicine. We name those things we are not grateful for so they can work their way out of our bodies. We count our blessings so they can find their way into our hearts.

There are numerous ways to approach Lent. One way is to reflect upon mistakes and hardships and seek deeper intimacy with God. Historically, people have wept and lamented, seeking freedom from long standing issues and hope for a new beginning. My friend planned to take the notes she’d placed in her ungrateful jar during Lent and, on Easter, a time of renewal and rebirth, have a ceremony to burn them.

My friend and I don’t dwell on our troubles, but we’ve learned it doesn’t do any good to pretend we have no troubles. We’ve learned to sit down to coffee with our hurts and work on understanding them. We advise, “Go ahead and cry. Crying releases pain.” We reassure, “It’s okay to feel resentful instead of grateful, and I’m here to support you while you work on transforming your pain.” We enlist the help of gratitude because we know counting our blessings helps us keep positive and hopeful. Gratitude provides light in the darkness.

There’s a wisdom tale generally contributed to the Cherokee called the “Tale of Two Wolves.” I found several versions of the story and what follows is my adaptation of those versions.

The Cherokee Tale of Two Wolves

A Cherokee brother and sister had been fighting and were struggling with their feelings. They went to their grandparents to ask how to handle their competing emotions. Grandfather advised, “We all have a battle going on inside of us between two wolves. One wolf is mean, angry, and greedy. The other is kind, peaceful, and generous.”

“Which wolf wins?”  Grandson asked.

 “The one you feed.” Grandfather replied.

Grandmother was listening and added, “If you feed both wolves well, they both win.”

“But why would we want to feed the evil wolf?” Granddaughter inquired.

“Our bad wolf will not go away. If we ignore it or pretend it isn’t there, it will just become hungrier, more uncontrollable, and will be sneaky in looking for attention and ways to get fed. Both our good and bad wolves need to be attended to and guided. When we take care of both wolves, they can work together instead of fighting, and we can lessen the burden of internal struggle and find peace.”

We may repress our feelings because we think we shouldn’t feel the way we’re feeling or because we don’t know how to handle our disturbing thoughts and reactions. But if we can safely express genuine emotions, we may be able to better understand them and keep them from hurting both ourselves and others. One woman I interviewed for my forgiveness research described how she felt after confronting her true feelings. “I could finally breathe with a full heart and full lungs. I could free myself from the horrible pain that had been locked inside me.”

Until we know what’s in our ungrateful jar and have been able to let it go, we won’t know true joy. Sally was wise and bold because it’s not easy to throw off society’s expectations and admit everything’s not always fine, admit we don’t have everything under control.

The ungrateful jar is not really about being ungrateful. It’s about being honest and strong enough to confront what pains us, hopefully with compassionate connections supporting us. That’s something we can definitely be grateful for!  

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

How to Win the Blame Game

Fix the Problem, Not the Blame

I hate it when I lose the blame game. It hurts my pride to admit I’m wrong, and it’s no fun suffering the consequences of my bad behavior or thoughtless words.

If I’m playing the blame game, I try to point the blame elsewhere, so maybe I can escape some pain. If I can transfer responsibility to someone else, maybe I won’t have to do the work of finding a positive resolution to whatever disappointing or hurtful event occurred. It seems easier and safer to be a victim of someone else’s errors than an empowered problem solver. However, it’s only easier in the short term – and only if I’m at ease with fooling myself.

We sometimes play the blame game because we want justice. Those who are to blame for what has gone wrong need to be punished. And we certainly do want there to be consequences and accountability when people, ourselves included, harm others. But retribution alone often creates more problems than it solves, as one bad deed leads to another. We may end up like the infamous Hatfields and McCoys, feuding for decades. Better to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., who left us with a more fruitful legacy, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

There’s a Difference between Fault and Responsibility.

When someone treats us badly – abuses us, lies to us, disrespects us – it’s not our fault. However, if we want to take power over our lives, we must take responsibility for our reaction to whatever happens to us. We can learn to problem-solve instead of blame; seek to understand versus seek revenge; discover how to heal, not hurt.

As a research psychologist, I’ve interviewed people who’ve forgiven major offenses. They weren’t to blame for the abuse they suffered or the pain caused by others. Sadness and anger were their natural reactions and some of them spent time playing the blame game, creating a personal prison of fear, distrust, and loneliness. What they had in common, though, was that they each eventually chose to discard the identity of victim, take responsibility for their thoughts and feelings, and create a courageous, inspiring next chapter in their life story.

One man, who described himself as “a recovering racist,” said when he was angry and unforgiving he felt “like a rat scurrying around in the dark.” One woman, who was finally able to forgive an abusive parent, said she “could now be a light for others.” A Lakota woman turned to prayer after the murder of family members and before her heart could harden. She knew she wanted to be a good role model for her tiospaye (extended family).  

The people I interviewed weren’t to blame for the pain they experienced, and they needed to grieve, but they knew blaming and complaining made them victims. Taking responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions empowered them and allowed them to move forward in a moral manner that gave them peace.

Individuals, Groups, and Nations Play the Blame Game

Individuals play the blame game and so do groups. Racial and ethnic inequality and discrimination are big, tough problems we Americans face. To escape blame and escape efforts to improve the situation I hear statements like, “I didn’t steal the Indian land. I didn’t have slaves. Don’t blame me. Why don’t those people just get over it?”

Unfortunately, we don’t “just get over” historical trauma, colonialism, and other injustices. Those issues are real, difficult to overcome, and not the fault of those who’ve been oppressed.

But fault is different than responsibility.

It takes strength for the oppressed to beneficially deal with a traumatic past and speak truth to power.  It takes courage for those in power to admit to past wrongs and the need to resolve injustices. But the only way to avoid more oppression and trauma is for all parties involved to acknowledge the harm, combine justice with compassion, and repair the broken parts of our system.

Individuals and groups play the blame game and so do nations. Most people know about the Holocaust and how the blame game was played against the Jewish people and other groups in Germany. What’s not as well known, however, is how the aftermath of the Great War, or World War I as we now know it, laid the groundwork for World War 2. The winners of the “war to end all wars” blamed the losers for the senseless and horrible destruction and death that occurred, and the Treaty of Versailles was all about vengeance. There was plenty of fault to go around on both sides, but the Treaty of Versailles harshly punished Germany and its allies, leading to hardship, feelings of unfairness, and a receptive environment for Hitler and the Nazi Party’s propaganda. Blame didn’t lead to progress, it led to yet more blame.

We can learn from our mistakes, however, and one of the great accomplishments of the post-World War II era was the Marshall Plan. Instead of a vindictive aftermath as in World War I, the United States, blessed with being distant from the combat and economically advantaged by the wartime mobilization, developed an aid package for rebuilding Europe. The goal was creating political stability. Secretary of State George Marshall said, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” We decided to fix the problem, not the blame, and Germany and Japan became allies of the United States.

Playing the “Who’s Worse” Game

Sometimes we try to escape blame by contending that the other side is worse. I remember asking a German exchange student in my world history class what he was taught about World War II. He replied, “We did some bad things, but the Soviets were worse.”

I can think of many conversations I’ve overheard and regretfully participated in that start with an issue of some kind and turn into a contest to determine who’s worse. For example, let’s say your significant other admonishes you – “You forgot to take out the garbage.” Instead of an apology, you might retort – “Well, you forgot to take the dog out last week and I had to clean up a huge mess.” If we’re not careful, we may spend the evening recounting past wrongs, and adding to a list of hurt feelings.

It’s not easy to abstain from the “who’s worse” game, but in a more constructive scenario we would respond to the recognition of our deficiency with a reply like – “I’m sorry. I’ll put it on my to do list so I don’t forget next time.” Followed by our loved one’s compassionate reply – “That’s okay, honey. I forget things too.”

Political conversations between people from different political parties playing the “who’s worse” game may go like this – “I think Republican Senator Ned Narcissist should be charged with corruption.” Followed by – “Well, your Democratic Senator Sid Sicko is far worse. He lies about everything.”

Again, if we’re not careful we may spend unproductive hours describing offensive behaviors by politicians from the “other side,” uselessly trying to persuade someone their side is worse than ours. We become polarized and the more someone tries to convince us we’re wrong, the more we dig in and defend our position. Our polarization paralyzes us.

If we want to resolve an issue, we need to focus on solutions, not on who’s worse. We need political conversations more like this – “I’m really worried about Senator Narcissist’s actions. I wonder what we can do to reduce corruption in politics.” Followed by – “Yes, Senator Sicko seems to be making bad choices as well. How do you think we could improve the system?”

Unfortunately, no one’s behavior improves just because someone else’s behavior is worse. Neither the blame game nor the “who’s worse” game fixes problems.

So what does? Getting our fears under control, taking responsibility, opening our minds and hearts to others, and working on solutions.

How do you win the blame game? By refusing to play.

Forgiving 2020

The year 2020 has been the most maligned year I have experienced in my many decades here on earth. People were cheering on December 31, 2020, because they could finally be rid of the horrible, terrible, no good year 2020. Good riddance!

Last year certainly wasn’t what any of us expected. We knew viruses could cause pandemics, but microscopic organisms weren’t supposed to outwit modern science and cause such hardship, grief, and uncertainty. We knew politics was becoming more divisive, but our dreadful manners and unfounded conspiracy theories weren’t supposed to result in organized efforts to overturn the democratic process.  We knew natural disasters were possible, but they weren’t supposed to become as ferocious and deadly as they demonstrated they could be in 2020.

Life in 2020 wasn’t predictable and stable for any of us. Change happened rapidly and severe suffering and death occurred that no one knew how to prevent. And that naturally made many of us anxious, confused, and distressed. Those twelve months contained a lot of pain that we won’t soon forget.

I don’t think we should forget 2020, but I do think we should forgive it. Forgiveness means letting go of the desire for a different past and accepting whatever happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. It means having the courage to talk honestly about why we’re justifiably upset with 2020, but also being mature enough to take responsibility for our hurt and pain instead of spreading blame and spending useless hours feeling sorry for ourselves. We have every right to be unhappy with 2020, but if we want to pave a heroic path forward in 2021, we need to learn from our disappointments.      

The Buddha used two words together to describe forgiveness: forbearance and compassion. Forbearance means patient self-control, restraint, and tolerance. When we don’t choose forgiveness, we give in to our default setting – our instincts – and forbearance exits while anger and bitterness rush in. If we’re not careful, schemers and tyrants will use our fear, confusion, and victim mentality to manipulate us because they seem to have the power and control we crave. They appear strong and certain and provide simple solutions we can easily buy into. Unfounded conspiracy theories take root, creating what the World Health Organization calls “infodemics.”

Forbearance is needed so we can calmly and rationally find a positive path forward, but we also need compassion if we want to create a year of healing, not hurting. Sometimes compassion is thought of as pity, but that is not the definition that helps us beneficially forgive. The compassion we need to make 2021 better than 2020 is an active process. A compassionate 2021 means a year in which we are energetically working to understand different perspectives and alleviate pain. Author Glennon Doyle Melton described compassion as, “a choice we make that love is more important than comfort or convenience.”

If we’re not careful, we can be persuaded to restrict our compassion to those who think and look like us – who are part of the “good” group. The “bad” group is deserving of blame and derision, not compassion. However, compassion means caring about others – all others. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” He didn’t make exceptions.

The year 2020 was disappointing and sometimes tragic. People lost jobs, lost elections, and worst of all lost loved ones. I help facilitate a grief group and one of the women in the group commented. “In 2020, people have been grieving so many things and not everyone knows how to grieve. We are so fortunate to be in a supportive group that allows us to express our genuine feelings and learn how to deal with loss.”

We need time to grieve when life deals us painful situations, and there is no timetable for grieving that works for everyone. When we suffer loss, we have to enter what is sometimes called “The House of Sorrows,” but at some point in time we want to leave that house so we can feel joy again.  

Losses make us sad and they may also make us angry. The good news about anger is that, if we do it right, we can channel the energy it provides into productive behaviors.

Angry feelings are like alarm bells that tell us there’s something wrong in our lives. Our instincts may tell us to fight or flee when angry energy surges through us, but we can upshift our thinking to our cerebral cortex and problem solve instead. We can practice forbearance and convert our fury into creativity, discovering ways to advocate for our causes peacefully – sharing solutions and responsibility, not hurt. We can surf the internet for verified facts and heart-warming stories of people helping people, not fear mongering. We can control our anger, so our anger doesn’t control us.         

We are naturally yearning for normalcy, but I agree with the cartoon that says, “Normal is only the setting on a washing machine.” When I’m struggling to adjust to change and find some vestige of stability, I like to think of myself as a turtle. Turtles have been around for millions of years and are notoriously slow paced. I watched mother sea turtles giving birth on a beach in Florida last year. They had to dig holes for their eggs before birthing them, but they rested in between surges of energy. The work was exhausting but they didn’t give up as they covered their eggs with sand and then made their way slowly back to the ocean, ready to start anew.

I also like to remember that what makes life exhilarating, as well as challenging, is lifelong learning. Singer Nia Peeples said, “Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is, in fact, constant transformation.” Forgiveness is all about learning from our past struggles so that we have the courage and capability to move forward with hope, not fear.

If we can journey through 2021 like a turtle, keeping calm and resilient, pursuing admirable goals but letting ourselves rest and recover when needed, then we’ll be able to keep moving forward. If we truly are all in this together, we’ll strive to be compassionate and will give just as much attention to our responsibilities to others as to our own personal rights. We will forgive 2020 for the pain it caused and be grateful for the lessons we learned as well as the many acts of courage and generosity that occurred. The year 2021 will bring us new challenges, but we can resolve to greet them with a spirit of optimism, innovation, and fortitude.

 (Photo by Nagatoshi Shimamura  on Unsplash)