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

Becoming Wonder Full

I combed the calendar aisles in the bookstore several times but couldn’t find my usual Audubon yearly planner for 2022. Darn! During the last several years, I’ve loved the pictures of cute and exotic animals, amazing natural wonders, and peaceful scenes. Change was inescapable though, so back through the aisles I went, searching for beautiful, inspiring photos that would spark joy and add wonder to the unimaginative numbers and days of the week that help me organize my life.

My seeking led to my engagement calendar for 2022 which is entitled, “1,000 Places To See Before You Die.” The creator of the calendar, Patricia Schultz, warned me that life is short and adventure beckons. The first page of the planner featured just one quote by writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton:

We are perishing for lack of wonder, not for lack of wonders.

G. K. Chesterton lived from 1874 to 1936, but I think his observation holds true for all human history. What a wonder full place our world is. And if earth isn’t enough, there’s a whole universe full of wonders we can ponder upon if we are willing to do so.

When I get feeling down about all the crazy disputes we humans create, climate change, pandemics, personal regrets – I am revitalized by upshifting my thinking to the wonders and mysteries that surround us. By appreciating surprises like the furry red fox that recently scampered about in our back yard. I wondered where she was going, where she lived and with whom, whether she was cold or comfortable in ten-degree Fahrenheit weather.

Of course, the wonders and mysteries of life aren’t always uplifting. They can be frightening. It’s natural to feel afraid of things we don’t understand. And the older I get, the more I realize how much we humans don’t understand – how much we can’t control. If I’m not careful, fear may eclipse my wonder and dampen my curiosity. I may become a curmudgeon who has lost the ability to experience awe.

My favorite Albert Einstein quote reminds me I can spark joy through curiosity. Albert advised:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.

As an educator, I saw the importance of curiosity frequently. I supplied my students with the Einstein quote and tried to emphasize the joy of learning over worries about grades. If we’re not curious, we won’t ask questions, we won’t wonder, and we won’t increase our understanding. And we often fear that which we don’t understand.

I’m guessing most of us would say we seek truth, but when a new idea or perspective seems threatening, we sometimes dig in and refuse to be curious – preferring to stick with the “truth” as we’ve known it in the past. A quote from Nadine Godimer, South African writer and political activist, reminds me to hang in there and keep my mind open even when it’s tough to do so:

The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.

It isn’t pretty to look at our personal faults or the failings of groups we identify with. There are many unpleasant realities in our world that can and should disappoint and sadden us. But when we pursue justice and truth, when we’re curious and try to understand “truths” that appear different from our own, that is when we become wonder full.

When I taught sociology, I asked students to seek out articles about different cultures and different ways of doing things and present them to the class. I soon learned that if I wanted learning to occur, students needed to go beyond presenting information, because the conclusion that was being drawn was simply, “That’s weird. How strange.”  I realized I was facilitating ethnocentrism, which is what I was trying to prevent. Ethnocentrism means evaluating another culture according to the standards and customs of one’s own culture. It therefore leads to judging other groups as inferior to one’s own.

I needed to add to the assignment. Go ahead and present the different way of doing things, but then question why. Do some wondering. Be curious. Research the culture and discover the reasoning behind a tradition or event. No need to evaluate according to good or bad, inferior or superior. Instead discover function and effectiveness.

For example, when I was teaching organizational behavior to a diverse mix of students at the college level, our curriculum included information on building self-esteem – something I and most of my students assumed was a good thing. That is, until a student from Japan commented, “I think focusing on self-esteem makes people too self-absorbed and less likely to care for others.”  Her point of view came from a collectivist culture and mine from an individualistic culture and she made me wonder. A good discussion ensued regarding the meaning of self-esteem and perspectives were shared as to how it could be considered beneficial or detrimental. No criticism, but lots of curiosity, discovery, and expanded awareness.

The world can appear dark and ominous, full of challenges we fear we cannot overcome. Accepting that is hard, but once we do, we can start taking responsibility for creating light. We can pray, meditate, sing, dance, spread kindness, laugh at ourselves, seek out beauty. That helps us balance dark and light, the yin and the yang. We can embrace the holy, loving spirit within us that is urging us to find our joy, to experience wonder.

My new planning calendar has got me wondering what adventures I should be plotting next, what new things I can learn in 2022. There is much to discover close to home and, if all those microscopic viruses behave themselves, I also plan to travel to new places that may seem strange at first. That is until I open my heart and mind to acquiring a better understanding of why people are doing and thinking about things differently than I do. Until I become wonder full.

Photo by Anneliese Phillips at Unsplash

Critical Race Theory Is About Our Identities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash