Friday, 22 March 2013

Defining Forgiveness

Shortly before Christmas and on the heels of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy, the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail ran an article entitled, How do we forgive?  While I was thrilled to see the article in the paper, the article troubled me.  While the author of the article proposed a definition of forgiveness, it was clear that those interviewed were not necessarily operating out of the same definition as the one proposed.  Those interviewed were not only talking past each other, they were also talking past the person doing the interviewing.  Much has been said about forgiveness over the past 20+ years, yet we still do not seem any closer to a definition to which we all or many can agree. 
The key points of dispute are this:
·       Does forgiveness require the offender to ask for forgiveness or is forgiveness something we do for ourselves, regardless of the repentance of the offender?
·       Is forgiveness the same thing as saying “it’s ok”? 
·       Does forgiveness equal reconciliation?
·       Can we forgive on behalf of others?
According to my own attempts at a definition, forgiveness is the opposite of saying “it’s ok.”  To forgive means there was something that in fact was “not ok.”  And while it is often easier to forgive a repentant offender, we forgive first and foremost for ourselves, to release ourselves from the pain of the event. 
But here it gets tricky:  To genuinely release ourselves from the pain of the event usually involves coming to a place where we are able to see the other as complex, capable of good and bad, just as we are complex, also capable of good and bad.  Sometimes when this happens we are able to extend the hand of grace to the other – when this happens we observe a quality in the human spirit that is so profound, it can only be described as holy. 
Notice though that so far none of this is the same as reconciliation.  Forgiveness – precisely because it is so much a personal journey – can easily be unconditional.  Genuine reconciliation on the other hand goes beyond the personal to directly include the other, it must always depend on the movement of the other as much as on the movement of the self and as such, it is always conditional. 

Friday, 8 March 2013

Recovery From Big Hurts

I have the privilege now and then of walking with people who have encountered deep and profound hurts in their lives.  They wonder aloud to me whether they will ever be better.  Big hurts are so profound they make the very act of breathing hard.  They sear into our souls to a degree that we can hardly imagine life returning to “normal” again.  And the hard truth is that life never really does return to its old normal again.  Our only dying hope in these valleys of pain (and it is a type of death) is that we will emerge on the other side alive.  Perhaps wiser, perhaps stronger but in our darkest moments, emerging alive is enough.

The hard truth is that the big hurts of our lives will change us.  The question is how.   Buried in this question is also the source of our strength – because the question of how we will be changed depends significantly on ourselves. Will we become wiser, stronger, more compassionate people?  Or will we become embittered, angry and sullen?

Again and again I come back to a quote that was shared with me more than 15 years ago:  Hanging onto resentment is like drinking poison but expecting the other person to die. Sometimes we know we are drinking poison but it has become like an addiction and it is hard to stop.  Sometimes we want to stop but don’t know how.  Sometimes the pain is so deep it is as though the poison is being thrust into us by an unseen hand that refuses to let up.  But every now and then, the glory of our human spirit is greater than the resentments that threaten us.  And in those moments, our spirits soar - sometimes tentatively, sometimes boldly – but always with great courage toward a future more profound and more whole than the hurts that once were killing us.