Home for the Holidays: 4 Steps to Forgiving the Unforgivable

Forgiving often seems impossible. We get badly hurt in life. Family may feel like an intimate enemy. Going home feels upsetting and hopeless.

My mother used to say, “There are some things that simply can never be forgiven.”  Mom was wrong—but I didn’t realize how wrong until I was past middle age.

By the time we’re 30, we all know the down sides of adulthood: addiction, debt, infidelity, abandonment, just to name a few. And beyond these are the unspeakables such as genocide and rape. Our lives get ruined. People die. How can we forgive that?

Jesus’s command to forgive feels so unrealistic: “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.” (Luke 17:3)  Do we just close our eyes, grit our teeth and somehow obey? “Just do it” doesn’t work, no matter how hard we try.

And what about forgiving ourselves? Can we ever forgive ourselves for the things we regret? We hear that God forgives us—but can we ever love ourselves enough to forgive and be forgiven? 

Is such forgiving even possible?

I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great Christian scholar in his book, The Book of Forgiving  (page 3).  

This is amazing.

If Tutu says it can be done, we can trust him. After all, he worked in South Africa to help people heal from genocide, racism and unspeakable violence, and he won the Nobel Peace prize.  

But even if we accept that it’s possible in some pie-in-the-sky world, how do we do it? Can an ordinary person ever do it? And should we do it? What about the pain that was caused? Does forgiving mean that was okay?

Tutu’s book changed my life. He showed me how to touch my very worst wounds, the things it seemed would never heal, and instead find a way to love others and love myself. I used his process and changed my life. The things that used to hurt just don’t any more. 

This is the healing we all deserve. This is the Divine plan.

But Tutu says it’s not easy or automatic. There is a process that must be followed. He’s not talking about blind obedience to God. He’s talking about deep healing for ourselves and for the world. When we forgive, we become free, he says. We do it for ourselves, to heal as the Divine wants us to heal. He says this:

Forgiveness is not dependent on the acts of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way….In this understanding, forgiveness is something we offer to another, a gift we bestow on someone, but it is a gift with strings attached.

The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us. Those are the chains to which the perpetrator holds the key. We may set the conditions for granting our forgiveness, but the person who harmed us decides whether or not the conditions are too onerous to fulfill. We continue to be that person’s victim. (p. 20)

Instead Tutu talks about unconditional forgiveness. He says this:

Unconditional forgiveness is a different model of forgiveness than the gift with strings. This is forgiveness as grace, a free gift freely given….When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past. (p. 21)

When we forgive, we become the heroes instead of the victims in our own life stories. We change our own life story and discover that healing and freedom are possible—but we must choose them.

Doesn’t that mean that the wounding was okay? Tutu says not at all.

Forgiveness is not some airy-fairy thing. It has to do with the real world. Healing and reconciliation are not magic spells. They do not erase the reality of an injury. To forgive is not to pretend that what happened did not happen. Healing does not draw a veil over the hurt. Rather, healing and reconciliation demand an honest reckoning….Behavior that is hurtful, shameful, abusive or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth. And truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury. (p. 24)

Tutu gently leads us through the steps we need:
  1. Telling the story;
  2. Naming the hurt;
  3. Granting forgiveness;
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship.

He sorts through the worst, most hateful injuries. He walks with us through confusion and feelings of unworthiness. In every chapter he offers wonderful rituals, meditations, prayers and journal writing to help people do the real work of forgiving. He says, “Peace is built with small and large acts of forgiveness.” (page 59)  The Christian meditation techniques in his book help us open to the Divine and grow closer in love.

So this time, when we go home for the holidays, when we feel the ancient wounds again, we finally have a choice. We don’t sweep everything under the carpet or stay locked in our anger.

Instead we have a healing process that works. It doesn’t matter if those who hurt us keep thinking that nothing wrong happened. Even then, we can choose peace and wholeness. Tutu tells us how to do this.

We choose to become the heroes of our own stories. And we choose this for ourselves, for our own healing and for the healing of the world. We set ourselves free. That’s how love comes again and again into the world.

Let’s end with one of Tutu’s poems:

I will forgive you

The words are so small

But there is a universe hidden in them

When I forgive you

All those cords of resentment, pain and sadness that had wrapped

Themselves around my heart will be gone

When I forgive you

You will no longer define me

You measured me and assessed me and

decided that you could hurt me

I didn’t count

But I will forgive you

Because I do count

I do matter

I am bigger than the image you have of me

I am stronger

I am more beautiful

And I am infinitely more precious than you thought me

I will forgive you

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you

When I forgive you

My forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me

(p. 26)


Click here to buy Tutu’s book

Where the Miracles Are

Can I really trust God? I mean REALLY?

The thought runs through my head, but the words keep changing. “Well, that’s not realistic.”  “Nobody can forgive that.” “No point in trying that again.” “That’s how things always turn out.”

What if, instead, it’s the thoughts themselves that block blessing? What if our smart little busy brains are churning out all sorts of roadblocks to God’s deep will—which is kindness, love and joy?

I do not know what is the best outcome in anything. I never know what SHOULD happen. That’s it— That’s all my wisdom. But it’s a lot, because it means I am not second-guessing God. All my clever plans, all my hard-won life experience and cynicism and sorrow, all of it is just thought-trash. Junk. Messy little packages of worry and doubt from my busy brain.

Instead, I can smile, bless my thoughts and let them go. I can say, “That’s just a thought. I don’t know what was or what will be. I do not know what should be.”  

The great Christian scholar Rev. Richard Rohr says this:  

Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and, clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite.

People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.  Click here for Rohr’s discussion.

I meditate because I want to relax into the profound reality that is NOT thought. Trusting God means transformation—Not a new version of my busy brain’s plans, not what everybody thinks would be best, given the situation.

God dances to music more exquisite than anything I can imagine. God offers joy so new that I gasp and weep. It’s an opening that rips through what I think is real. Light pours in and drenches us all.

The key is saying “I don’t know.” I have to surrender to God, let myself fall into God and trust the Divine Emptiness—because when I lift away all my little plans and thoughts, all existence opens to God’s possibilities.

And that’s the miracle.

 

 

5 Steps to Healing and Peace

Meditation helps us heal. It’s a healthy, smart thing to do. It eases pain by changing our bodies and by changing how we manage thought. Doctors know that patients who meditate feel less pain, and psychologists know that meditation helps people handle stress better.

I sit down to meditate. I turn off my phone, close the door, light a candle. I sit in silence with my eyes closed, taking slow deep breaths.

So what’s the big deal?

1.“I can watch my thoughts go by. I don’t have to be inside them.”

When we begin to sit in meditation, thoughts crowd in on us. In beginning meditation, the very first thing we learn is that it’s okay to just watch thoughts and release them.

This is new. Since we were babies, we believed that our thoughts were what’s real. In fact, we think that our thoughts are who we are.

Thoughts seem to have us by the throat. But instead we can just release them. It’s as if we are lying at the bottom of a river watching thoughts from a distance. It’s a huge idea. What a relief!

2. “My thoughts are a bigger force in my life than I realized. But I can manage them.”

When we see how tough it is to release thoughts, we comprehend their power. On one hand, it’s a huge relief to know it’s okay to release them. But on the other hand, it’s not easy.

Just seeing thoughts as optional is huge. But sitting and trying to relax without thinking shows us something even bigger:  Thought is powerful!  

Thoughts push us around. Thoughts are bullies. Certain thoughts are the very worst of our bad habits. “I’ll never be good enough.”  “Life’s a bitch and then we die.” “Let’s face it—No one really cares.” “Nobody knows if I’m alive or dead.”  Allowing certain thoughts to run unchecked is one way many people abuse themselves. And it’s emotionally unhealthy.

Instead, it’s possible to harness the power of thought. Thoughts can be healthier and more healing.

But first you have to realize how powerful thought is. 

Thought is…
  • A powerful oppressor that we allow to hurt us;
  • A punishment we use against ourselves and others;
  • A tool for caring and kindness;
  • A way to manifest new goodness.

 

Let’s go back to lying on the bottom of the river, watching as our thoughts float above on the surface. What’s the big deal?

It’s that “I” am not up there being the thoughts. There’s a separate reality that is me, that is NOT thought.

Wow–Another huge insight! There’s more to what’s real than what I think. And this reality, where I am separate from thoughts, is healing, peaceful, and simple. This is the Child of God.

3. “I am not my thoughts. My thoughts are not my identity.”

I see that I am more than my thoughts. No matter what my thoughts are—good or bad—there’s a part of me separate from my thoughts.

More huge growth—My deepest identity is separate from the crazy circus characters of my thoughts.  Many of us have thoughts that repeat again and again. Others of us have thoughts we hate so much that we would rather die than have people find out about them.

Meditation soothes that shame because we see that our thoughts are NOT our essence.  Thoughts are like clouds that hide the sky. They come and go but they are not the sky itself.

In meditation we learn how to watch the sky instead of the clouds that come and go.

4.  “I’m in charge of my thoughts. I am not a victim of my thoughts.”

We can use thought to heal, and this is a wonderful life skill. Once we recognize that thoughts can be bullies, we can step in and take charge.

Here are three traditional ways to use thought for good:

  • Visualization: There are thousands of traditional meditations in which we visualize good images. For example, to help someone heal, we can visualize warm bright light soaking into their bodies. For ourselves, we can visualize the safety of a hidden glen or an angel’s protection. Here’s a great link to get started with visualization.
  • Affirmations: We can create positive thought patterns to replace the destructive ones. For example, instead of thinking “Bad things always happen to me,” we can tell ourselves, “I am worthy of joy.”  For many, this thought itself heals. Here’s a link to a great article on healing affirmations.
  • Guided Meditations: There are thousands of meditations available online in which a teacher uses images to guide us to a healthier truth. For example, there are guided meditations for healing kidney stones or for healing depression. Here’s an excellent link to a guided meditation for anxiety.

5. “I’ve discovered an openness apart from thought.”

After we’ve practiced meditation for a while, we discover a wonderful new reality. We don’t stop thinking—but we’re no longer trapped inside our own thought patterns. We’re comfortable with watching our thoughts from a distance—In fact, we love the relief we get when we sit to meditate.

For many people, this is an opening to God. Many Christians call this spaciousness the “Christ Consciousness.” In this state, it’s easier to feel God’s love and to receive God’s healing.

Thought is not true or false. It just is.

Thought is not who I am. I am a Child of God, no matter what my thoughts.

Thought is not what is real.

What I know is this: God’s love is what is real. It is forever, and it is my essence.