You Choose the Consequences: Justice or Forgiveness

    Wednesday, September 19, 2012, 2:57 PM [Healing Power]

    The past week has seen widening violence throughout the Middle East and threats of violence on US college campuses.  What initially may have looked like isolated extremist reactions to an amateurish You-Tube video now looks like a bubbling up of deeply seeded anger and resentment aimed at local power holders in addition the US.  The long simmering discontent merely brandished the silly video in effigy to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The cascade of consequences seems to be an ever-escalating loop of one group retaliating for the destructive actions of another group in the name of “justice.”

    My spirituality group just finished reading Forgiving Ararat, a novel that explores themes of justice and forgiveness.  The notion of justice portrayed in the book, however, is limited to retributive justice, a kind of justice that seeks to settle the score by giving wrongdoers what they deserve.  It thereby juxtaposes forgiveness against justice, as if they are opposites.

    Who can’t identify with that?  Sometimes the ones who wronged us appear to be getting off scot free.  No one is holding them accountable for their misdeeds.  We might cling to resentment out of our sense of justice, to hold the wrongdoers to account.  But Oprah and Dr. Phil tell us holding anger and resentment is like eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  Our resentment really doesn’t hurt our offenders as much as it poisons our own lives.  Knowing this intellectually, however, doesn’t make releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness a slam dunk to do.

    When I am working with folks trying to escape their resentments, I try to get the offenders and what they deserve out of the middle of the matter.  I encourage folks to put their own spiritual reality and relationship with God in the center instead.  Our injuries impair how we respond to others.  Harms suffered get tangled up with harms done.  When we take a cold hard look at our own actions and can honestly say we care more about receiving forgiveness for the harms we ourselves committed than what our offenders deserve, forgiveness is within our reach.

    Are forgiveness and justice really mutually exclusive?  It’s a timely question in the Jewish tradition.  Today marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews examine their misdeeds over the past year, repair their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from those they harmed.  Making amends not only repairs harm to the victim but also restores the soul of the sinner.  Thus, the Jewish approach to justice makes both the wrongdoer and the one wronged whole. Through the healing power of forgiveness, this restorative justice promotes peace and reconciliation.

    Join the conversation.  What kind of justice are you going to seek today—the kind that restores wholeness or the kind that settles the score?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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    Holy Sparks

    Tuesday, September 4, 2012, 3:33 PM [Healing Power]

    How well do you know your shadow self?  A thoughtful commenter got me thinking more about Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and his insights on the evil we have intended or done.  Kushner asserts that even our meanest and most despicable acts have holy sparks buried in them somewhere.

    Of course, no one really wants to shine a light on his dark side or his weakest moments.  It’s easier just to move on, to focus on doing better next time and perhaps to maintain our pride by pretending it never happened.

    In the Twelve Step tradition, recovery seekers undertake a searching and fearless moral inventory in the Fourth Step.  Twelve Step literature recognizes the Fourth Step as one of the most difficult and avoided steps because we resist acknowledging, much less embracing, the shadow self we will find.  A popular methodology for approaching the Fourth Step wisely starts with identifying resentments.  Those are the things others did wrong, so it’s not quite so challenging to pride.  It is universally true, however, that injuries impair how we treat others, and the Fourth Step approach continues with examining our impaired responses.  A good Fourth Step is complete when the recovery seeker takes ownership for character weaknesses that fostered his impaired responses.

    Kushner is suggesting we shine the flashlight a little deeper, though.  He is encouraging us to find that shard of holiness our character defects encrusted with evil.  Yes, I had an impaired response, but what was the impetus for my response?  Was I seeking safety or emotional security?  Was I just trying to feel ok about myself?  Was I looking for love in all the wrong places?  Those are not bad things—security, affirmation and love.  Those are blessed things.  So what went wrong?

    Shifting from Jewish and Twelve Step perspectives to Buddhist ideas, we have attachments to security, affirmation and love.  Perhaps early life experiences left me feeling insecure, so my grip on inner security is a bit too tight.  Those attachments become priorities in my interactions with others.  Maybe I’m a bit quick to fend others off because I’m creating a safety zone for myself, for example.  Or I put others down to feel better about myself.  Or my simultaneous desire for and distrust of true love leads me to superficial intimate encounters.

    What would happen if I released my attachments to security, affirmation and love, or at least loosened my grip?  Furthermore, what would happen if I increased my awareness, not only of my own vulnerabilities but, more importantly, the vulnerabilities of others?  Perhaps with greater awareness and less attachment, I could encounter another and become aware of his need for security.  Since seeking security for myself would no longer be my top priority, I would be free to engage with that person in a way that creates a safe place for her to be herself and to feel loved.

    I have been praying this week for spiritual strength to let my holy sparks manifest in caring and compassionate ways.  In breathing prayers like this, one inhales what one desires and exhales what gets in the way.

    Inhale: Awareness Exhale: Attachments

    Join the conversation.  What have you learned from your shadow self?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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    I'll Take a Mulligan, Please

    Tuesday, August 28, 2012, 5:32 PM [Healing Power]

    Sometimes we veer off course.  It happens to the best and the worst of us.  An adroit reader responding to a post about apologies last week commented, “I wish I could go back and UNDO a few of my sorries.”

    Boy, do I identify with that.  I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to magically erase from history, as if they never happened.  If I’m honest about it, though, my desire to undo the past reveals a little unfinished business.

    I come from a faith tradition (Christianity) that teaches anyone can be forgiven.  We don’t deserve it, but by grace we can receive it.  The only condition is that we forgive others who did us wrong.  Now that is easier said than done, and I do not want to trivialize how difficult forgiveness can be, but other traditions have a somewhat higher bar.  The Jewish tradition teaches that one must make amends and receive forgiveness from those harmed before seeking God’s forgiveness.  The Twelve Step tradition encourages folks to recognize their wrongs in the Fourth Step and to make amends for them in the Ninth Step.

    We Christians can look right past that amends step.  I regularly practice religious confession to a priest, which is a lot like a Fourth Step and a little bit like the vidui, or prayers confession at Yom Kippur.  The Episcopalian practice makes me think hard about my resentments and releasing them in acts of forgiveness.  But the religious practice doesn’t require me to look as hard at repairing the harm I caused.  Of course, I don’t really want to do that anyway, but I can’t help wondering about the wisdom other traditions recognize in making amends.

    The conclusion I reached is God doesn’t revise history.  He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good.  When we make amends, we build on our own history, taking something that fell short and lifting it up a notch or two.  It is possible to feel peace with the past, but also to feel disconnected from it.  I speak from personal experience on that count.  I imagine that making amends builds a bridge to that past and redeems it, so that it is no longer something I wish never happened or that I could do over.

    Rabbi Lawrence Kushner poetically asserts that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and be reconciled to our past.

    We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it.  We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do.  This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

    We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations.  We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again.  And thereby transform them and ourselves.  When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

    Join the conversation.  Can you find a holy spark in the meanest, most hurtful things you have done?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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    Elephants and Lies

    Monday, July 30, 2012, 12:16 PM [Healing Power]

    The county jail program I write about from time to time is operated by a nonprofit organization named Resolana.  Resolana helps incarcerated women make life changes to reap their true potential, which includes staying out of jail.  The program has a life skills class, and last week we started a unit on self-esteem.  As always, the women exhibited admirable candor and had profound insights.  It’s fitting to share some of those insights here, as they illustrate the lies we believe about ourselves described the last post about shame.

    The self-esteem unit starts with a rather sad description of how captive baby elephants are trained not to roam.  By tying the baby elephant to a stake it isn’t strong enough to break, the animal is trained to think it can’t overcome the obstacle, and eventually it gives up trying.  Adult elephants are easily strong enough to pull the stake out and to roam free, but they are trained to think they can’t, so they don’t.  The adult elephant believes a lie about itself.

    The women pondered the lies they believe about themselves.  One shared that she believes she is a bad daughter.  Her parents divorced when she was young, and like so many kids who experience the loss of a parent, she blamed herself for her dad’s choice to have a relationship with his girlfriend’s children instead of with her.  Another described being indulged as a child.  Her mother invariably protected her from the consequences of her own actions.  As an adult, she had an attorney who extricated her from legal tangles.  Her lie was that rules don’t apply to her.  Somebody else described a home where keeping up appearances was all that mattered.  She believed she had to project an enhanced image of herself because the truth could never be good enough.  It was heartbreaking to hear one woman describe a widespread family pattern of sexual abuse, a pattern that she and another young family member together managed to break, but not before being imprinted with the lie that being used sexually was all she was good for.

    After calling out these lies, the women wrote affirming statements that tell the truth about themselves.  I am a good daughter.  My dad’s addiction kept him from being a good dad.  I have to follow the same rules as everyone else.  My truth is better than my image.  I am a worthwhile human being and child of God.  I love myself.  For many women, the affirmations felt good and true.  Other women were so accustomed to the lies, they struggled to find affirming statements that felt authentic.  One woman was moved to tears when pulling away from a painful stake in her past left her feeling suddenly free to be.  The class ended with encouragement to speak the truth to oneself—and to others—70 times a day for seven days.  It is the surest way to find hope for healing from shame.

    Join the conversation.  How has your “training” held you back from reaping your true potential?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

     

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    Healing from Shame

    Wednesday, July 25, 2012, 12:53 PM [Healing Power]

    The tentacles of shame can reach through decades of a person’s life, wrapping around seemingly unconnected events and wrenching the joy from life.  I have friends whose shame originated in childhoods in which they never felt up to grade.  They always felt deficient in some significant and identity shaping way.  For some it was a constant stream of criticism.  For others it was as seemingly benign as a home focus on appearances rather than on the truth, subtly but unmistakably suggesting that the truth is never good enough.

    I also have friends whose shame reaches up out of childhood trauma.  That trauma might have been the sudden loss of a parent or, as the Penn State abuse scandal tragically highlights, more often than we want to acknowledge it is child sexual abuse.  The child is made to feel that he is in some way culpable for his own abuse, or in an insidious distortion of logic, the child believes the fact that the trauma happened stands as proof that it was deserved.

    The truth, though, is that shame has little to do with the bad things that happened to someone or the bad things someone did.  It has everything to do with the lies that someone believes about himself.  I can’t take credit for that insight.  It comes from Remy Deiderich via a blog I follow, Cathy’s Voice Now.  Believing a lie—that the truth is never good enough or that children are responsible for adult actions against them or that you are not credible and no one will believe you—keeps the tentacles of shame alive and strong.  Deiderich points out that even incredibly successful people suffer from shame.  In fact, it is their unending need to prove to themselves that they are good enough that propels their success.

    While some lies are memories from a long past childhood, or “childhood tapes,” other lies get constant reinforcement.  Many messages propagated in our media, particularly those that connect one’s worth to appearance or wealth, are lies.  Anyone with a TV is constantly exposed to them.  When thinking about parents who won’t forgive, I realized that elderly parents can perpetuate shame lies also.  In the case of forgiveness, people may hold on to resentment because it is the only connection to another person they think they need in their lives.  Paradoxically, the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection.

    Similarly, disapproving parents might ache for the time when their kids prized their parents’ approval.  As kids grow up, they find their satisfaction not from parent approval but from the mark they are leaving on the world—in their careers, relationships or communities.  Parents may perpetuate criticism hoping against hope that the adult child will respond by seeking the parent’s approval again.  In any case, it is a lie.  More specifically, it is a manipulation designed to elicit a certain response rather than an honest observation grounded in reality.  The notion that one needs a parent’s approval is a lie as well.  Is it nice to have?  Certainly.  Is it necessary for happiness and joy?  By no means.

    Healing from shame doesn’t happen magically when we recall the events that triggered it.  When we tried to make sense of the events, we started believing lies about ourselves.  It is when we call out those lies that true healing begins.

    Join the conversation.  Are there lies that you believe about yourself?

    Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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