Forgiveness Transforms Victims Into Heroes

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.

~ Bishop Desmond Tutu

What makes someone a hero? According to my online dictionary, it’s being admired for courage, noble qualities, and outstanding achievement. Someone who forgives a major offense or injustice fits that definition.

Forgiveness requires the courage to confront and accept our pain, plus the ability to embrace compassion and empathy – which are noble qualities. The capacity to let go of a story of victimhood and forge a path forward that shines a light in the darkness is an outstanding achievement.

We honor heroes and remember victims. We’ve all been treated unfairly at some point in our lives and been hurt in ways we didn’t deserve. Victims suffer and feel justified outrage. Sometimes victims get sympathy and compensation for their suffering. Sometimes they get to avenge a wrong. But victims don’t become heroes until they are empowered through forgiveness.

When we’ve been victimized, it’s natural to focus on ourselves and whoever or whatever is to blame for the hurt we feel. We need to understand and process through our pain. But if we’re not careful, we may stay stuck in the past, wallowing in bitterness and regrets, too afraid or resentful to create new, improved chapters in our life stories.

Forgiveness heroes also have regrets and fears, but they learn from the past and focus on a brighter future. They use their struggles to become strong and help others.

How many politicians garner votes and media attention not by helping others, but through fear of “others,” convincing us that we are victims of the “bad” group? Life will get better if we just become enraged enough – and of course vote for them.

But victims aren’t heroes.

I listened to a pastor tell members of the LGBTQ+ community that he was a victim of their advocacy efforts – that they were trying to make him feel bad for refusing to preside at their weddings or allow them leadership roles in the church. In his defense, he said, “My niece is a lesbian and married her partner. I went to her wedding and she assured me she loved me and respected me, even though I wouldn’t officiate at her wedding.” I thought, “Your niece is a hero. She has compassion for you and loves you without conditions. You, however, are stuck being a victim.”

I taught a class where we discussed the issues of “white privilege” and “critical race theory.” One woman felt ashamed of her white privilege and didn’t know what to do about it. I said, “Feeling ashamed isn’t the goal. Being aware and using that awareness to make your community a more just and welcoming place is the objective.” 

When one group has oppressed the other, it’s common for both groups to become defensive and sometimes compete for victimhood status. No one should feel bad about who they are, but we should all feel bad about unjust or cruel behavior – even if it’s in the past and even if we weren’t directly involved. That’s the only way lessons will be learned and progress will occur.

Whether we’re talking about group or individual relationships, genuine forgiveness can only occur when past wrongs are acknowledged and their impact on the present brought into the light of awareness. Otherwise, both sides will dig in and exchange insults in a scenario resembling trench warfare, meaning horrible destruction with no productive results.

Forgiveness is all about the process of working through our grievance story so we can emerge from a house of sorrows into a garden of possibilities. It’s not about excusing, condoning, or overlooking wrongdoing. It’s about freeing ourselves from the burdens of bitterness and resentment. As a Lakota woman I interviewed said, “No one is going to make me hate.” She was a Sacred Pipe Carrier and a hero who overcame great pain to spread light and compassion.

There is darkness in the world and a very powerful part of our brain wants us to focus attention on that darkness. After all, to survive, we must see problems and recognize danger. But we can’t solve problems unless we shift our attention to the light.  

One of the forgiveness heroes I interviewed for my research said, “When I was able to overcome my dark emotions, it was like a cloud being lifted. Forgiveness helps you see people clearly and understand them better. I’ve learned to respect opinions that differ from my own and take offensive comments less seriously.”

Life is hard and relationships can be difficult, but we can empower ourselves with love and forgiveness. Mister (Fred) Rogers said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’”

We can all be forgiveness heroes. But first, we have to have the courage and compassion necessary to let go of being victims.

Photo by Curt Landry Ministries, curtlandry.com

Why Is It So Hard to “Let Go”?

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.

~ Psychologist Carl Rogers

I’m taking a course to prepare me to become a forgiveness coach. Our current assignment is to examine our personal lives and decide if we’re ready to let go of a story we’ve been telling ourselves about the past that’s causing us pain. I’ve been researching and practicing forgiveness for quite a while now and have gotten pretty good at letting go of regrets and resentments from the past. However, I’m in a personal situation now that calls me to let go of my desires for the future if I want to avoid needless anxiety and gloom. I’m working on it, but it’s not been easy.

Letting go is tough. When we are young, we learn things should be a certain way. We should get an education, have lots of friends, find a terrific job, marry our soul mate, have adorable kids, take exciting vacations that look good on social media. Failure, betrayal, abuse, divorce, mental illness, crushing debt, loneliness should not be part of our life story – but they often are.

I titled my book Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness because for most of us, it is hard to be human. If we can’t accept that – if we can’t let go of the fantasy that we shouldn’t have to feel pain, mess up, experience injustice – we set ourselves up for despair.

The Buddha taught that if we cling too tightly to our desires and expectations we will suffer. A friend reminded me that others will suffer too. She said, “When I try so hard to make sure things are perfect and just right, I get mean and controlling.”

 “Let go and let God” is a phrase that reminds us to lighten up and recognize we’re not in charge of the world.  Philippians 4:6-7 (New International Version Bible) advises:

 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

If we want peace and joy, it helps to unclench our fists, breathe deeply, and surrender to the mystery which is life.

Letting Go of the Desire to Change the Past

I have learned that letting go of the past means confronting its ugliness and messiness, dealing with shame, and understanding why something happened so we can prevent it from happening again. It does not mean looking back and thinking up excuses for what happened; it does not mean condoning or denying that something painful or unjust occurred.

For example, I’ve interviewed several people who had thought they’d forgiven, but were still haunted by their past. They eventually realized they hadn’t truly forgiven because genuine, deep forgiveness gets rid of the bitter taste of resentment and shame.

Why did some of the people I interviewed think they’d forgiven when they hadn’t? Often, it was because they’d told themselves a story that excused or condoned their abuse. The abuser had a bad childhood, was an addict, etc. Sometimes pain was denied because the person felt ashamed of their hurt. The problem with excusing, condoning, or denying is that the ache is simply buried and can’t make its way to the surface, where it can finally be dispelled.  

So how do we oust the pain? We talk about it, pray about it, and work on compassionately understanding it. One of the techniques used in forgiveness coaching is reparenting our inner child. We let ourselves go back in time and imagine comforting the hurt child or adult in us. We nurture our broken self in the way a loving, grace-filled parent would, and give ourselves the kindness we didn’t receive at the time. The goal is transforming our pain so we learn from it and feel safe and loved.

Letting Go of Expectations for the Future

The problem I’ve been working on in my class is how to let go of my expectations about the future. We naturally think we know the way life should be. We’ve been told by our families, schools, media, religious leaders, politicians, advertisers, that we should be a certain way and want certain things and live a certain type of life. But sometimes we need to let all that go and be willing to travel to destinations that seem foreign and frightening at first.

In my case, I desired a certain outcome to a personal dilemma and was clutching it too tightly. It’s hard not to have control over something we want so much and that we truly believe is for the best.  However, I reminded myself, “Who am I to think that I know what’s best?” and remembered the classic story that follows:

Story of the Farmer Whose Horse Ran Away

A farmer’s horse ran away. On hearing of the misfortune, the farmer’s neighbor arrived to commiserate, but all he got from the farmer was, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”  This proved to be true, for the next day the horse returned bringing with it a drove of wild horses in its train.  This time the neighbor arrived with congratulations, only to receive the same response.  This too was so, for the next day the farmer’s son tried to mount one of the wild horses and broke a leg.  More commiserations from the neighbor, with the same response, which was again validated, for soldiers soon came around commandeering for the army, and the son was spared because of his injury.

          The Dalai Lama tells us to “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” And I do remember times in my life when that has been true. But what about when it’s not? What about when disaster strikes?

Who Will Catch Me If I Let Go?

Letting go is difficult because we’re often unsure who and what will catch us if we fall. We need the nourishment and support that comes from spiritual and human relationships we can count on. We need to connect with our higher power and people who will listen patiently and without judgment.

When everything seems to be going wrong, it’s more important than ever to remember any little thing that may be going right. Without thankfulness for something – friendly dogs, a favorite food, a kind word from or for a stranger – we deplete our power source and find ourselves in the dark. Gratitude can light our way and lift us up when we fall.

William Kent Krueger’s book, This Tender Land, has a quote I love. The main character, Odie, is reflecting on his life and says:

It’s pointless to rail about the twists in the river . . . worry about where the current will take [you]. . . I still struggle to understand what I know in my heart is a mystery beyond comprehension. Perhaps the most important truth I’ve learned across the whole of my life is that it’s only when I yield to the river and embrace the journey that I find peace.

Letting go means freeing ourselves from thoughts and emotions that are blocking our creativity and ability to find joy and peace. When we are truly able to accept that “It is what it is,” we find the courage to become what we are meant to become.

Photo by Ankush Minda on Unsplash

Creating a Brighter Story for Ourselves

Creativity is the greatest expression of liberty.

~Bryant H. McGill

I still remember the moment when I realized I didn’t have to believe everything I was telling myself. Yes, I had a story, but I didn’t have to stick to it. Not if it was causing me unnecessary pain, keeping me from moving forward, preventing me from opening my eyes to a new and improved perspective on life.

It was a joyous, liberating feeling. I could create a new story that would benefit me and clear away some of the clouds that had obscured the light I needed to transform a painful situation. I acquired an amazing skill that made my life a little easier. Not easy. But brighter, more hopeful.

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful because they affect how we feel and behave. They determine our identity.

In my younger days, when I was feeling unpopular and inept, I made myself miserable by thinking I should have lots of friends and darn it, people should like me. When I changed my beliefs and assured myself that it was okay to have just a few buddies, I reached out to others whose social skills were on par with mine and connected with the interesting characters I found in books.  And that was enough.

Sometimes the unhelpful story we’ve constructed about ourselves is that we can’t do something or that we need to be full of fear. Those thoughts block our positive energy and deplete our personal power. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

If we suspect that the narrative we’ve developed is harming, not helping us, we can ask ourselves questions like those recommended by Byron Katie in “The Work”:

Is it true?

Are you absolutely sure it’s true?

We can explore further:

How do I feel and behave when I believe that story?

Who would I be without that story?

When we realize that what society, or others, or our own sad self is saying isn’t the final word, we can summon up our courage, compassion, and creativity. We can reframe a chapter or paragraph in our life in a way that will bring peace and inspiration.

Sometimes the tale we are telling ourselves prevents us from moving on from past injustices. One of my favorite forgiveness stories is that of Holocaust survivor Eva Kor, who has been honored as a “Hero of Forgiveness.” For many years the story she told herself was that of victimhood because she was unjustly hurt by Nazis who conducted horrific medical experiments upon her and her twin sister. Members of her family were murdered. Kor had every reason to hate, but she came to this realization:

Hatred is an infectious disease.

She decided the narrative she believed about herself as a powerless victim was prolonging the trauma of her past. Her new story, one of forgiveness, was self-healing and self-empowering. She called forgiveness miracle medicine and said, “It’s free; it works and has no side effects.”

The story we tell ourselves about our pain determines our degree of suffering. When we tell ourselves that a situation can’t change because another person is to blame or we’re not good enough to do something about it, we become weak. When we ruminate obsessively over a past that inevitably remains the same, we are stubbornly refusing to direct our energy toward creating a better future.

Focusing on fault or regret takes us down a detour of defensiveness or shame. It delays our journey to a destination where burdens are lifted, problems are solved, and relationships are mended. One of my favorite anonymous quotes is, “Fix the problem, not the blame.”

When we’re able to control our harmful thoughts,

they lose their power to control us.

Self-control is a virtue encouraged in the major religions along with the goal of “mindfulness.” Being mindful means creating a distance between our thoughts and our identity, realizing our thoughts are not who we are. They are simply thoughts that appear based on a variety of factors such as our instincts, our past, our fears and desires. We can decide what we want to do with our thoughts and create the next chapter in our courageous, compassionate life story.

I’m a writer and it’s important that I edit my work. I go back to early chapters of a book, or paragraphs of a blog, and modify my words so their meaning becomes clearer and more illuminating. As a human being, I can go back to early chapters of my life and reflect on them with grace and the wisdom that experience brings me. I can use my reflections to create new, improved episodes in my life journey.

Creativity isn’t just about art. It’s about the ability to look at a situation from various perspectives and imagine new ways of being. About having the courage to question assumptions and “certainties” that aren’t really certain. About being determined and persistent as we create a story in which we become a person whom we respect.

Thomas Edison created a story that led him to the creation of the first light bulb. He had many unsuccessful attempts at his goal, but that did not deter him. He said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We will all have struggles in life. What’s important is that we don’t lose hope. That we take what we learn and create stories that brighten our paths and lead us to light.

photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

It’s vitally important to forgive, but we must never forget the truth behind the pain 

How do you forgive someone who has tortured you? Or someone who has murdered your mother and pregnant sister?  In what way do you forgive those who have oppressed and harmed your people, your community?

Do you forgive and forget?

Absolutely not. You remember, but you remember graciously.

Remembering graciously means remembering for the purpose of understanding and extending grace, as well as pursuing justice.  It does not mean condoning or excusing wrongdoing or oppression.

The people I interviewed for my doctoral research on the experience of forgiving injustices like those above told me, “I will never forget.”  One of the participants in my study said, “It’s important to remember with eyes wide open.” No denying, spinning, or avoiding.

Accountability and consequences were very important to the people I interviewed. Vengeance was not. Revenge would mean they were joining with their offenders in causing pain, not progress.

The man I interviewed who was tortured for his political beliefs said to his tormentor, “I will never forget what you’ve done to me because that’s my history. That’s my experience. I will keep it in my mind, so I keep working to stop this from happening to anyone else.” He forgave without forgetting because he knew that remembering would allow him to help create a better world. But he had to remember graciously, or anger and bitterness would harden his heart and prevent him from acting morally.

Our tough experiences have the capacity to teach us essential wisdom. They can provide valuable insights. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said:

To forgive and forget means to throw away dearly bought experience.

Forgiveness has different meanings for different people, but overall, forgiveness is a virtue with the purpose of leading us to better lives. Genuine forgiveness helps us feel at peace and improves our relationships.  Fake forgiveness extends or even deepens hurt. Buried hurts are toxic because they deprive us of our need to grieve, to lament, to process and release our pain.

People who’ve been mistreated may have a hard time with the word forgiveness because they fear abuse and injustice will continue if they forgive. People who are concerned they will be blamed or shamed may have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness because they fear retribution. 

“Just get over it,” sounds so easy when we aren’t the ones who need to get over something that is churning inside us, affecting our health, our relationships, our future.

We see the desire to forgive and forget in conversations about what’s being labeled “critical race theory.” The message seems to be, “Let’s not talk about the parts of our history that are painful. Let’s just feel good about ourselves and forget the past.” But as author William Faulkner said:

The past is never dead, it’s not even past.

We are all a product of our past. It has shaped us. The same is true about communities and nations.

I was leading a conversation class for adults from various countries who were learning the English language, and one woman asked me, “Why are so many of the homeless people in our community Native Americans?” I paused for a moment, realizing that answering that question was complex. Another woman in the class piped in before I could respond, “They’re lazy. If they have arms and legs they should be working.”

Ugh! It’s so easy to judge others harshly and comfort ourselves by thinking they surely deserve whatever misfortune has befallen them. Psychologists call that “just world hypothesis” – or more accurately, “just world fallacy.” We don’t like unfairness, and it feels better to think good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. And if all is fair, there’s no need to alter our personal behavior or our society. Just world fallacy is intoxicating because it comforts us and releases us from any responsibility to change ourselves or a situation that may, in fact, not be just.

 You’ll be relieved to know I didn’t start spouting psychological theories to the class. Instead I replied, “To understand why, you need to know history. Every person, every group, has a story to tell. You will not understand why until you learn their story.”

We talked about the history of Native Americans in our nation and in our community. We talked about historical trauma, prejudice, and differing perspectives. About what a tough time we humans have being compassionate and treating others – all others, no exceptions – with respect.

It takes time to learn history, to listen to people’s stories. It can be difficult because some things are hard to hear. We wish they had never happened.

We like to hear a lovely story of unending progress – what’s sometimes called a “whiggish” interpretation of history. That version of history tells us that if we are satisfied with the present, the past must have been a good thing and needn’t be examined for flaws. It’s nice to feel good about our history, but sometimes we need to hear truths that make us feel bad so we can heal and learn from them.

If a trail of damaged, wounded people has been left behind, whether it’s in a family or in a nation, understanding their history will help create beneficial paths forward. When past wrongdoings are acknowledged, those who have been harmed gain confidence that lessons have been learned from that past, and they gain trust and hope for the future.

Forgiveness and progress flourish when people come together for gracious remembering. The goal is recognizing a painful past, hearing each other’s stories, and reimagining the future. Ishmael Beah, Sierra Leonean author and human rights activist, said:

A lot of people, when they say forgive and forget, think you completely wash your brain out and forget everything. . .What I think is you forgive and you forget so you can transform your experiences, not necessarily forget them, so that they don’t haunt you or handicap you or kill you.

There is nothing easy about facing a painful past, so it’s understandable that we may wish we could simply extinguish agonizing memories, and there is research going on right now with the purpose of physiologically doing just that.  In some cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, that could be a good thing. But erasing a painful past could also turn into a way of making us vulnerable to a tragedy’s repeat performance. We may eliminate an opportunity for greater awareness and transformation.

It takes courage and compassion to remember graciously. But that is the way to create a brighter future.

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

The Gift of Humility: Holiday Stress Reliever

The holiday season can be stressful. I’d love to be able to host a delightful Christmas party, bake delicious cookies, make excellent gift choices, send inspiring cards, decorate like an interior design pro, and create world peace. However, I’m not capable of all of that and if I don’t reduce my expectations to a realistic level the “most wonderful time of the year” will become the most anxiety-ridden time of the year.

Seeing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” on several festive decorations caused me to look up who wrote the song with that title. I found out it was written by two men – Edward Pola and George Wyle. I can’t confirm this, but I’m guessing they never worried about holiday baking, gifts, decorating, greetings, or event planning.

I wonder if Ed and George were ever concerned about being alone at Christmas or not being invited to holiday parties. For some of us, it’s the loneliest time of the year because it seems everyone has happy families and friends to party with . . . except us. We feel pressured to be happy and that makes us unhappy.

The lyrics of the song read like something out of a Hallmark movie, and I do enjoy Christmas shows now and then throughout the holiday season. I love gazing upon the perfectly decorated homes and neighborhoods in the movies. The characters always have some disagreements and misunderstandings, but I rest assured knowing all will be forgiven by the end of the show. Often an episode ends with a gorgeous couple taking a sleigh ride through something that’s supposed to look like snow, and I feel content knowing they will live happily ever after. But then I switch off the TV. The kind, beautiful people have vanished and it’s just me and my undone to-do list.

 I googled, “What is the most stressful time of the year?”  The holiday season was the overwhelming first choice. A OnePoll survey found that 88% of Americans thought holidays were the most stressful time of the year.

The holiday season comes when daylight hours are at a minimum, temperatures are icy, and spring seems way too far away. At this time of year, we need a holiday very badly to cheer us up, and that won’t happen if we’re too stressed. We need to be enjoying as many Hallmark moments as possible. That’s where humility comes in.

Some dictionaries list “meekness,” “unassertiveness,” and “submissiveness” as synonyms for humility. But spiritual humility is the opposite, because it means the willingness to accept, and the ability to clearly perceive, one’s strengths and weaknesses. It takes some daring to let go of the idea that we need to do all those things we think we should do, and instead discern what we are capable of based on who we genuinely are and what gives us joy. People may not approve.

Think about what you truly love about the holiday season and decide what helps you make the shortest daylight hours of the year more livable. Remember that you’ll be receiving all sorts of ads and messages about what you need for a Merry Christmas and ignore as many as possible.

Maya Angelou advised, “If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” That’s why humility is such a gift. Humility is accepting the ways we can’t meet society’s norms and rejoicing in the ways we can share our own unique gifts and talents. If we spend Christmas preparing treats for our dog and the squirrel that somehow found its way into our home, so be it.

The Japanese have a word, wabi-sabi, that means “finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.” That isn’t an easy task because we want things to be perfect and may fear criticism and feel ashamed when we are unable to meet standards we believe are vital to belonging and respect. But I’ve found that an imperfect dinner or performance is just as satisfying as a perfect one when the people involved are filled with a joyful, loving spirit.

Humor can also help get us through a less than perfect holiday season. My mother had a plaque that I inherited with a saying that most likely helped her survive and thrive during many a holiday season. It read, “Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.”  Human beings are perfectly imperfect if we can be compassionate and take ourselves lightly. Laughter and humility are great companions and are all about the freedom of letting go and enjoying life – and the holiday season – in all its craziness.

There are many enticing holiday activity choices. But if I choose too many of them, it becomes like overeating. Sure, all the food is great, but the more I eat, the less delicious the food becomes. I need to choose what not to eat orI risk ruining what could be a very satisfying meal. During the holidays I need to realize I can only handle so much before I face diminishing returns.

We can choose what we want to worry about, too. Have you ever asked or been asked, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  When I’m asked that question, I answer, “I’m enjoying the beautiful lights and decorations as well as the music.” I want to delight in the holiday season, not prepare for a single day’s event.

I want to have the humility needed to be comfortable with the limitations of what I can cheerfully accomplish in the darkest weeks of the year. And I also want to do my part to spread light and warmth during a time that can seem bleak and cold. If I’m stressed and worried about being ready for Christmas and whether or not my Christmas will measure up to that of others, I may find myself on Santa’s naughty list with my inner Scrooge annoying those around me.

Humility truly is a gift to enjoy. The holiday season will very likely not go as planned and that’s just fine. Humility means letting go of expectations and opening up to the unexpected – to the mysteries and the magnificence of a holy time devoted to love and what’s beautiful about being human.

The most wonderful time of the year is whenever we can share our blessings generously, and gratefully rejoice in whatever kindnesses we are fortunate enough to receive.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Tough Paths Lead to Beautiful Destinations: Choose Forgiveness

I was asked to give the message at my church, Canyon Lake United Methodist, Rapid City, SD, and what follows are the stories and words I shared to express why forgiveness is a life-giving practice. If you wish to listen to the service that was focused on forgiveness follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRz3CsyYg_A or check out CLUMC’s website or Facebook page.

Have you ever noticed that in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” follows right behind “give us this day our daily bread?” I think it’s because forgiveness and bread are both life-giving and both are needed daily.

I know I make mistakes and do things I wish I hadn’t or wish I had on a regular basis. If I can’t forgive myself, or others, for simply being human, I’ll waste a lot of time and energy being angry and ashamed. Forgiveness allows us to spend more time smiling than frowning, being relaxed instead of tense, moving forward instead of backward.

I personally know how life-giving forgiveness can be and I chose to research forgiveness for my doctorate in psychology. I did qualitative research, meaning I analyzed stories and looked for patterns and themes in those stories. I interviewed people from different sacred belief systems who had forgiven a major transgression and looked specifically for what their stories had in common. I feel very blessed because I was led to people whose stories were insightful and their stories continue to inspire me today.

Forgiveness means different things to different people, so I like to start by explaining what I mean by forgiveness. First, forgiveness is NOT excusing, condoning, or ignoring bad behavior. It’s the opposite. It’s like Micah 6:8. We’re to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Forgiveness means balancing justice and mercy and remaining humble as we walk with our loving God.

It means having the courage to uncover and confront destructive thoughts and feelings so we can let go of our shame, anger, bitterness, and resentment. That takes time, but it’s worth it because when we experience genuine, deep forgiveness our health improves, our relationships become healthier, and we learn and grow spiritually.

The forgiveness experiences of the people I interviewed had four things in common that helped them forgive, and I call them the 4Cs: connections, courage, compassion, and creativity.

Connections

I first want to talk about connectionsbecause connections make the other 3 Cs possible. Connections are what led the people I interviewed from being victims to becoming forgiveness heroes. None of them were able to forgive without help. They all described spiritual, religious, or social connections that gave them two main things: support and guidance.

So how did their connections support them?

First, they did not pressure anyone to forgive. Pressure to forgive can backfire. Why? Because it can make someone feel worse. If you’re struggling to forgive and someone tells you, “Just let it go,” they’ve added to your shame, to your angst – because deep down you can’t do what they want you to do, what you may think a “good” person is supposed to easily be able to do. If you want to please someone, maybe even God, you may pretend to forgive and deny your genuine feelings. But holding your pain inside and trying to please others will add to your stress and hurt your health.

After I did a talk on my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, a man came up to me and said he appreciated the book and he surprised me with why. He was struggling with forgiveness issues and it reassured him to hear that genuine forgiveness of something major is difficult and takes time.

Connections are important because they provide support and also because they provide guidance. They show us the way through the forgiveness process and serve as role models.

One of the stories in my book is about William (pseudonym), who was Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He and his family had experienced horrible acts of prejudice and trauma; William became resentful and as can happen if we’re filled with bitterness, he took his hurt out on others. His major turning point came when he heard Black pastors speak about their painful experiences, which he felt were even worse than his. One had helplessly watched his sister be set on fire and burned to death by prejudiced people who were never punished. “How were you able to forgive?” he asked them. And they said, “You talk about it, and you pray about it.” When William had trouble forgiving, he thought about the Black pastors, read the Bible, prayed, talked to his pastor and the people in his church.

We don’t have to do forgiveness alone, and that’s what helps us with the second C, courage.  

Courage

Forgiveness work takes courage because it means becoming vulnerable. It means uncovering and confronting things that may be shameful, embarrassing, humiliating, traumatic.

One of the people I interviewed, Katherine, said, “Before I discovered forgiveness I wasn’t open enough and willing to admit mistakes. I would have unknowingly kept secret certain things that would have been the heart of what needed to be heard and I wouldn’t have been able to get to the healing part. I wouldn’t have been able to see another’s viewpoint because I would have been too busy protecting my ego. Now I try to remember that it’s not all about me.”

Katherine had a strong connection to God and could feel the Holy Spirit within her. She said, “I’m always praying for the courage and strength to face forgiveness issues because I know that even though it’s scary, I will feel so liberated, relieved, and joyful to be a part of something that is healing.”

Sometimes we need the courage to listen to a perspective that’s different from our own and may seem threatening. At other times, in order to forgive, we may need to have the courage shown by the first person I interviewed for my research, a woman I called Esther, who taught me the importance of standing up for yourself and setting boundaries.

Esther was working in construction with men who didn’t appreciate women and she was being taken advantage of and disrespected. She grew resentful and extremely angry, and at first, she kept it inside. But one day she’d had enough and set some firm boundaries. I asked her how that helped her forgive. She said, “Once I set my boundaries and felt safe, I experienced an expanding of space. I started being able to see more deeply into my offender’s situation and I could better understand him. Releasing my fears allowed me to open up and have compassion.”

Once Esther felt safe, she could see her offender as a human being, instead of an object of hurt.

At a church conference this summer one of the speakers said, “I supported my addiction by blaming my parents.” He had what everyone would consider horrible parents, but he knew that he couldn’t serve God and help others unless he  accepted his imperfect childhood and figured out how to move beyond his past.

We may be a victim of oppression and someone else’s bad behavior and that’s awful. But we’ll never become empowered and liberated if we get stuck in victim status. To get unstuck, sometimes we need to set firm boundaries or possibly even walk away from a relationship that is harmful. At other times, we may need to swallow our pride and have the courage to really listen to perspectives that are uncomfortable. Those forgiveness issues are tough and require not just courage, they also require the third C, compassion.

 Compassion

Courage and compassion are best buddies because it’s hard to be kind when we’re in pain. It’s hard to be loving and grace-filled when we’re hurting.

But opening our hearts and minds to compassionately understanding ourselves and those who hurt us is a key to forgiveness.

Martin Luther King Jr. said:

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

We sometimes like to think of ourselves or others as either all good or all bad – it’s simpler that way – but that leads to forgiveness problems. We may refuse to believe anything good about someone who’s hurt us. When we do something hurtful, we may blame others because we are afraid our wrong action means we’re a bad person. Or we may retreat in shame and miss the opportunity to share our gifts and talents.

A Muslim man I called Basil forgave the person who tortured him and it definitely wasn’t easy. But he had compassion for his torturer, and that helped. He said, “I felt like he was a poor guy. I looked at him like he really, really needs help. From my experience with him, he was always worried, always wondering. He had this weird feeling he was not safe, and he wondered which one of his friends would betray him.” Basel was physically tortured in prison, but Basel realized his torturer had created a personal prison in his own mind and was letting his paranoid, fearful thoughts torture him.

When people hurt us, it’s natural to become bitter and resentful. But I remember the words of the Lakota woman I interviewed who had amazing compassion and forgave the people who murdered her mother and pregnant sister. She said, “No one can make me hate.”

I love that because hate isn’t good for us. Hateful, unforgiving thoughts can torture us. They keep us from experiencing the life Christ wants for us. I asked one of the women I interviewed why she thought God wanted us to forgive. She said simply, “Because it’s good for us.”

Forgiveness frees us and helps us give to others. Have you noticed that the word forgiving can be separated into for and giving? Forgiving is for giving because when we break free from the chains of bitterness or shame we can give more to others.

But forgiving a major transgression isn’t easy because it requires us to write a new, improved chapter in our life story. We need help from the fourth C, creativity.

Creativity

Forgiveness is about learning from our painful experiences. It’s about adjusting our perspective and transforming our thoughts so that we can create a healthier, more peaceful and joyful way of being.

James, brother of Jesus, experienced tough times with a great attitude. In James 1: 2-4 he advises us:

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.

Wow, that’s awesome inspiration, though I must admit I think considering trials of any kind nothing but joy seems a bit over the top.  I do agree that what makes forgiveness possible is knowing that tough paths lead to beautiful destinations. I don’t know why some of our best learning experiences involve humiliation, embarrassment, disappointment, and pain, but if we can accept that inconvenient truth, I know we are on the road to more joy, love, and peace.

We’re all on a journey and we’re all at different places on our journey. I often remember the words of Valerie, one of the woman I interviewed. She said, “We’re all on our own paths.” That’s so true, but often so hard to accept. Her words remind me to focus on compassion versus judgment. To relax my expectations and need to control, take deep breaths, and “Let go and let God.” 

When forgiveness is really tough, thankfulness and gratitude are more important than ever. During my toughest times, being grateful for the beauty of nature, acts of kindness, music, good books, friendly dogs, the ability to laugh at myself – those things have given me the positive energy I need to create something good out of something painful.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul, no stranger to adversity, counsels:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Why? Because gratitude shines a light for us, so we can see what path to take.

Some of the people I interviewed described forgiveness as a cleansing of the heart, and the forgiveness process as a way to scrub your heart clean and experience a liberating rebirth. David in the Bible saw it in a similar way. Listen to the words he uses when asking God for forgiveness in Psalm 51: 10 -12

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

I pray that we feel the Holy Spirit within us as we strive to shine a light of love and grace for our world.

Addicted to Escaping Reality

The t-shirt said, “Life isn’t easy. Life isn’t perfect. Life is good.” I enthusiastically bought it for my daughter who is studying to be a mental health counselor and wished they also had one in my size.

Life isn’t easy, and we may struggle with the belief that life can be hard, imperfect, and good at the same time. Reality is often painful, and it’s natural to want to escape for a while. Life is full of difficult issues and when those issues get extremely difficult, we may want to escape for a good long while.

A break is sometimes just what we need to recharge our batteries and embrace the “life is good” philosophy. Complications occur when our break turns into a vacation so extended our passport expires – when it turns into an addiction. Our reality deteriorates and our need for an escape escalates.

When we talk about addiction, our minds generally picture alcoholics, illegal drug users, and gamblers. But we can become addicted to many things such as comfort foods, video games, pornography, social media, and even cleaning. We may try to get rid of the object of the addiction – the alcohol, the meth, the casinos – and assume the problems will then go away. But cutting off the supply won’t be effective if the demand remains. If one type of addiction goes away, what will stop us from simply seeking another way to escape a reality we find too complicated and unbearable to face?

If our need to evade our pain has become destructive to ourselves and those around us, making the object of our addiction illegal won’t be the cure. The cure will revolve around two components: making our reality less frightening and more hopeful; and finding healthy, short-term escape outlets.

Making Our Reality Less Frightening and More Hopeful

When life overwhelms us and we’ve lost hope in our ability to manage it, we need to know we’re not alone and we’re not doomed. We need to know we’re loved and have purpose. Help may come from people who care and provide support. It may come from spiritual sources that assure us we are forgiven and valuable.

As a society, we can look at what there is in the environment and culture we’ve created that is causing despair. Happiness researchers tell us that the amount of money we have is not related to our satisfaction with life once we have the resources to meet our basic living expenses. We don’t need fancy cars or huge houses, but we do need enough money for food, clothes, and shelter plus a little extra so we can fix the car when it breaks down and get medical help when we need it. Most importantly, we need to belong to a community that respects and cares about us.

Healthy Short-Term Escape Outlets

Life will never be a worry-free, gleeful path forward. There will be bumps and detours. We need to find positive ways to deal with hurt and shame. If we want to say “no” to an unhealthy addiction, we need to find healthy choices to say “yes” to.

I’m a big fan of reading myself and love any form of fiction that allows me to jump into the lives of characters I can care about on a pain-free level. Watching a thought-provoking movie or silly comedy takes me out of myself and into another world without worries of a hangover or gaining weight. Exercise, music, gardening, art, prayer, meditation, service to others, or whatever form of flow we enjoy can take us to a happy place and give us a needed respite from whatever concerns may be haunting us. 

We need to be wary of trying to escape our own difficult reality by gossiping about our neighbor’s shortcomings and displacing our personal angst onto others. Conspiracy theories and fake news may consume us because they are easier for us to digest than inconvenient truths concerning ourselves. Instead of being curious and open-minded, we become close-minded and addicted to passing judgment on others.

Communities can create healthy environments that reduce the demand for harmful substances and activities. Envision economic development plans that truly value making a community healthier, not just wealthier. Where progress is measured not just in quantity of dollars, but also in quality of life.

Loneliness can be deadly, and caring communities provide opportunities for connection so people can enjoy time together. Parks, gardens, and trails encourage time with nature, and the arts beautify our environment and educate us, inspiring positivity.

Health and medical writer Anne Fletcher stated, “Nobody stays recovered unless the life they have created is more rewarding and satisfying than the one they left behind.”We can create a more rewarding and satisfying reality on both a personal and community level.

On a personal level, we can lift ourselves up by finding moments that deliver us from our gloomy thoughts and feelings in a beneficial way. We become addicts because our lives are filled with pain and we don’t know how to stop spiraling out of control.  It’s hard to see the good in life when we feel good for nothing. We can, however, follow Maya Angelou’s advice “Do your best until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

On a community level, we can make reality less frightening by being more compassionate and accepting. By looking beyond a harmful addiction to what has harmed the soul and spirit of the person suffering with the addiction. We all need care at some time and we all can experience the joy of making a difference in the life of someone who needs care. Physician and poet William Carlos Williams advised, “The only way to be truly happy is to make others happy.”

As the t-shirt reminded me, life doesn’t have to be easy or perfect to be good.

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.

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