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.

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)

Left Wing Loves Right Wing

What if I told you the left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird?

– Author Unknown

My husband and I have been married 38 years. My husband is a Republican who is quite content being part of South Dakota’s majority party. I’ve been a Democrat since I registered to vote at age 18 and am quite content to remain part of South Dakota’s minority party. What is perhaps surprising is that we both are also quite content to stay married to each other until death do us part.

Have our political party labels caused some problems? Yes.

My husband has been asked questions like, “How can you be married to a Democrat?” Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and powerful politicians say all sorts of horrible things about me based on my political party label. I know because I listen to KOTA radio and I read their tweets. Since I live in South Dakota, I don’t hear as much criticism of Republicans (unless they’re criticizing each other), but I realize nasty, demeaning name calling plagues both political parties.   

Marriage and relationships are difficult enough without certain politicians and media maniacs doing their best to hinder our efforts at understanding and unity. Powerful people are encouraging us to distrust and disrespect each other. It’s frightening because it wasn’t all that long ago that we had a horrible civil war in our country in which family members, neighbors – fellow Americans – fought and killed each other over issues that continue to plague us today.

I’m an educator and have spent my career in the service sector. My husband has spent his entire career as a businessman. I love teaching and the community service work I have done and do, but I count myself lucky to have fallen in love with someone who could show me a different perspective. I’ve studied and taught economics but being married to a businessman has helped me better understand the complexities of a sector I wasn’t previously connected to. My husband gets to hear from me about the education and service segments of our nation. Ideally, we will always appreciate the insights and awareness each of us brings to the relationship and use our diverse experiences to make wiser decisions and produce more intelligent opinions. And often (not always unfortunately) that is just what happens.

There’s a myth out there that we can’t talk about politics or religion in polite company. We’re just too different and can’t agree. It’s true that our pride, egos, and lack of self-control can really derail a conversation and ruin a dinner party. But if we don’t communicate, we’ll never understand those with different life experiences and concerns. We’ll never see the whole picture and we’ll be stuck with our limited vision, unable to let in the light of knowledge and empathy, unable to courageously explore new ideas and adapt to an ever-changing world.

Another myth is that it’s weak and wishy-washy to change our minds or consider compromise. If we believe it’s weak to admit uncertainty or seek balanced solutions, we certainly won’t listen to anyone who challenges our self-declared righteousness, especially if they’re from a group or political party we’ve been told is inferior and trying to ruin our country. We cover ourselves with a shield of defensiveness and pride and attack those who disagree with us. Just as detrimental can be hiding behind a shield of shame and denial, afraid to challenge lies and injustice.

Tolerating uncertainty, listening to different perspectives, and striving for cooperative, win-win solutions isn’t just kind and nice; it’s productive, intelligent, and wise. Imagine if we tried not to impose our views on others and not to conform to the demands of others. Instead, we shared our thoughts freely and respectfully, without fear or manipulation, and listened to the stories of others with open minds and open hearts. That behavior could result in genuine dialogue that focused on solving problems and finding answers that unify, not divide us.

If we want to fly, we need our right wing, our left wing, and everything in between working together. We can trade in our shields of defensiveness and denial and pick up the shield of love and compassion. That takes courage and effort.

My husband and I may be labeled differently when we go to vote, but we, like most Democrats and Republicans, have so much in common. Both of us support equal rights, affordable health care for all, clean water and air, parks and wilderness areas, freedom from unnecessary regulations, sensible gun laws, responsible fiscal policies, child protection, and the list goes on. We value generosity, honesty, hard work, conscientiousness, compassion and respect for others, and the list goes on.

There will always be conflict and struggle because we’re humans who have different needs, experiences, and personalities. We’re not always logical or rational and we get emotional about issues that matter deeply to us. But we don’t have to be enemies, and we don’t have to listen to people who try to convince us that we are. We can dare to fly using both our wings.

The Gift of Forgiveness

Wondering what to get and give for Christmas and the holidays? I suggest the gift that fits every budget: forgiveness.

2020 has been a tough year for many of us. COVID-19, divisive politics, natural disasters and more have created mental and spiritual anguish. We may find ourselves with relationships that need mending, regrets that need healing, and anger that needs to be transformed into more thoughtful, productive energy. Forgiveness has been a method of lightening our burdens and spreading joy for millenniums and is a caring, priceless gift to give ourselves and others.

Forgiveness Is the Gift of Freedom from Past Pain and Hope for the Future

When I was young, I was uplifted by hearing Janis Joplin singing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Those words helped me accept my past mistakes and losses, plus reminded me to lose my expectations and desires for a perfect life so I could experience freedom. Freedom to create new ways of thinking. Freedom to just enjoy being me.

We experience freedom when we let go of rigid beliefs as to what we and others should be. Life is inevitably full of struggle with detours and wrong turns along the way. Shoulding all over ourselves and others is rarely beneficial.

When Plan A goes amiss, we don’t have to beat ourselves or anyone else up about it. We can instead free ourselves of unworkable expectations, accept and make peace with the past, and embrace the opportunity we have to learn, grow, and create a Plan B, C, or D (whatever it takes). We can break free of the personal prison we create when we become entangled in destructive thoughts and emotions. The gift of amazing grace is waiting for us to graciously receive it and extend it to others.  

We’re All a Little Crazy Sometimes and Need the Gift of Forgiveness

If you’re feeling a little crazy, you’re not alone. We all deal with tough stuff at some point in our lives and 2020 has been a challenge for most of us. You don’t have to be hard on yourself even if life is being hard on you. Give yourself some love and forgiveness and pass it on.

If we think everyone else has the glorious life we often see on social media or cherry-picked holiday card narratives, our stress is compounded by shame, confusion, and loneliness. Sometimes just knowing we’re not alone helps us understand and accept ourselves better. A person once told me, “I found out other people were feeling what I was and so either I wasn’t crazy, or we were all crazy together. Either way, I was comforted.”

A long time ago, a book called I’m Okay, You’re Okay inspired me to work towards more humility and acceptance of what I am and what others are. I don’t like being burdened and in pain due to bitterness, resentment, pride, or fear. The joy I receive by letting go of troublesome, detrimental thoughts and emotions motivates me to forgive myself for being less than I’d like to be; to forgive others because they’re just being themselves and doing the best they can; to forgive the Creator because there’s good out there, all the time, and I can work on becoming a small part of that.  

Forgiveness Is For Giving

Forgiveness is a wonderful gift to give ourselves, and once we do, we can give more of ourselves to others. Unforgiving people tend to be angry, bitter, distrustful, and arrogant.  They may create headlines and add a lot of drama to life, but at what cost? At times, it does feel good to vent about the things that frustrate and disappoint us, but a steady diet of rage and stress creates a cortisol overload that damages our physical health as well as hardens our hearts (figuratively and literally).

When I’m being unforgiving, I don’t have much good to give. It’s likely I’ll add to my list of regrets and shameful behaviors, not my list of generous gifts of kindness. I realize my naughty list will inevitably grow, but I do try to keep my numbers down. Accepting myself and others, reminding myself that the world doesn’t exist just to please me, and evaluating a painful situation with curiosity and compassion, rather than self-righteous indignation or pity helps.

When we unwrap the gift of forgiveness, we are delighted to find freedom from hostility, resentment, and shame. We discover the compassion needed to accept and understand human weaknesses (our own and others) and the strength and courage needed to create a brighter future.

Give yourself and others the gift wise philosophers and spiritual leaders throughout history have advised generously sharing: forgiveness.

(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

Fuel Up On Gratitude This Thanksgiving

I’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving all my life by eating a big turkey dinner and then making myself slightly miserable by topping it off with pie and whipped cream. When I think Thanksgiving, I often envision food, which fuels my body. However, I’ve learned that fueling my spirit with gratitude and thankfulness empowers me in ways turkey and mashed potatoes never will, plus there’s fewer calories involved.

The Thanksgiving holiday was officially declared in the midst of the Civil War (1863) by President Lincoln. Sarah Josepha Hale is known as the Mother of Thanksgiving because she lobbied to create an official day of thanksgiving which she hoped would help unify the nation and reduce tensions between the North and the South. People across the world have long desired a special time to be set aside for thankfulness and celebrating the harvest season. All the major world religions emphasize the importance of spending time appreciating whatever blessings have been bestowed upon us, whether large or small.

Gratitude Is Especially Important When Our Lives Are at Their Worst

I’ve known factually that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, but it has only been in the last decade or two that I’ve truly realized what a wonderful blessing gratitude and giving thanks is to our spirits. I’ve become truly grateful for the opportunity to spend time thinking about what’s good about the world and my life. And I appreciate gratitude time the most when my life is a horrible, painful mess and the world seems to have gone crazy.

I try to take regular thanksgiving breaks in which I allow myself time to focus on the delightful things I appreciate about life. Worries and fears are placed in temporary storage while I count blessings. My personal list includes morning coffee, chocolate, loved ones, kind words, birds, dogs, humorous videos, dancing, singing, sunshine, naps . . . the list goes on and doesn’t include anything extravagant or difficult to achieve. It’s based on gratitude for being, but not for being anything in particular.

Being grateful doesn’t mean worries disappear or we become Pollyannas, oblivious to hard realities and inconvenient truths. It doesn’t mean overindulging in things we’re grateful for – like chocolate chip cookies or an excellent merlot. It does mean being aware that even though much in our lives might be no good, terrible, awful; digging deep and finding that which can light our paths will keep us from despairing. Gratitude is the fuel that empowers us to move forward, especially when times are tough.

I’ve been researching forgiveness for the past 7 years. When I first started, I wasn’t too impressed with studies that showed a relationship between gratitude and forgiveness. Why was that significant? Then I had a very painful experience and became more aware of how essential gratitude is to forgiveness. When I found my mood sinking, my thoughts becoming bitter, and my body losing energy, I found the nourishment I needed to keep going down a positive path through gratitude breaks. I picked a calming place and counted my blessings instead of my worries and hurts. It was a mini vacation away from shame, regret, anger, and resentment. Gratitude breaks can energize us, change our perspective, and provide the lift we need to create new and improved chapters in our life story.

Gratitude Improves Relationships

The people around us are grateful when we take gratitude breaks. Sharing smiles, laughs, and kind words – even for a short time – can improve relationships and change the atmosphere in a home or workplace.

If we really want to go all out with the gratitude theme, we can make a point to tell family, friends, and anyone else we’re thankful for, how much they mean to us. There may be all sorts of things that annoy us about someone, but seeking to find that which we respect and admire can smooth out many bumps in our relationships. Especially if we’re willing to tell the person we’re annoyed with. Would you rather cooperate with someone who appreciates your strengths or someone who constantly reminds you of your weaknesses?

Sometimes the person we’re annoyed with is ourselves, but giving ourselves credit for what we do right may be a better path to self-improvement than scolding ourselves for what we do wrong. And we can work on being thankful for all those things we’ve done wrong because we can learn and grow from those experiences. (I know – that’s easier to say than do.)

Gratitude Breaks Are Like Living in the Moment

Gratitude breaks are like the current advice to live in the moment. We can’t forget the past; we need to learn from it. We can’t forget about the future; we need to plan for it. We can, however, treat ourselves to joyful, peaceful moments in which we simply bask in the delight of whatever brings us happiness.

Take time to be thankful. It’s advice that’s been given to us through the centuries and throughout the world. Gratitude enables us to see the light in dark situations and empowers us to face our worries and fears with courage and hope. Giving thanks is like letting the sunshine come in and clear away the dark clouds that inevitably appear from time to time, leaving us with a rainbow of possibilities and brighter days.