In my previous post we were left with a conundrum. We were exploring two scenarios of stuck conflict and damaged relationships. The conclusion we seemed to have reached is that our traditional understanding of forgiveness may not serve us in these situations. We may be stuck with the conflict. We may have to live with the ramifications of a broken relationship. Not a particularly appealing choice. Let’s continue where we left off.
Unfortunately, we too often do not understand or recognize the other choices to be made. We believe that our preferred choice, that of forgiveness and reconciliation, has been removed from us by the behavior and choices of the other person. We believe that we are now stuck in a broken relationship or what is sometimes referred to as a stuck or conflict story. In both cases, it is easy to feel helpless and at times hopeless.
To make sense of the situation we reflect on it repeatedly in our minds. As mentioned above we will talk to colleagues, friends, and family to get their input. In both situations we will craft a “story” which purports to explain the situation to make some level of sense to us. Given that the story is one of conflict and of a broken relationship, the story structure will be somewhat predictable. There will be a villain (the offender) and a victim (the offended). We will most likely attribute characteristics to the offender that may or may not be factual. In our story there is OBVIOUSLY something wrong with the offender. There must be. We did nothing wrong. Depending on the nature of the offense we may begin to demonize and vilify the offender.
This will very likely be true in our first story. The veteran colleague is a jerk. They are not somebody we want to work with, and we will make every effort to steer clear of them. To the extent that we now have a story about them, we will be attuned to evidence that will support our story. We will most likely ignore any of their behavior that is out of alignment with our story. For example, if they greet us cordially some morning, we will very likely ignore them.
In the second situation we are the offender, the friend who broke confidentiality has now become the offended or victim. What is wrong with our friend? Why are they ignoring us? We were only trying to be supportive. It is not as if we told everyone. They are really being unreasonable.
In both situations we have created a context that is stressful and, depending on the specific situation, may have a significant impact on our physical and psychological health and our overall sense of well-being.
So, we return to where we started, forgiveness. Is it still possible? It is still our choice. In a couple of previous posts, I introduced the notion of Completion.
Completion is about leaving burdensome energy behind, learning what there was to learn from an event/situation/relationship, and being able to move into the next moment from a clear, neutral, non-reactive place. Completion is ultimately an act of declaration that is based on forgiveness.
Unlike the process of forgiveness that I shared in the beginning, completion as a form of forgiveness requires only one person. It is an act of personal responsibility in which the offended declares that they will no longer live at the effect of the offense. It is an individual and, at times, a group choice to redefine the relationship to the offense and to the offender.
It is a choice to recognize the limitation of the conflict story and to acknowledge the cost individually and, at times collectively in maintaining this story. It recognizes the impact that this story has physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. It is not easy choice. It built from a practice, developing what has been referred to as “dispositional forgiveness”. Let me share some examples.
I have been reading a book by Desmond Tutu entitled, No Future Without Forgiveness. In it he describes the process of designing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission implemented in South Africa to deal with the atrocities of apartheid. He writes that the decision to choose this process for granting amnesty:
was consistent with a central feature of the African Weltsanshauung (Worldview) – what we know in our language as ubuntu, in the Nguni group of languages, or botho, in the Sotho languages.
He goes on to say:
Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu u nobuntu”; “Hey so-and-so has Ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons.” It is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: I am human because I belong. I belong. I participate, I share.” A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.
Harmony, friendliness, community are great goods. Social harmony is for us the sumum bonum – the greatest good. Anything that subverts that undermines this sought after good is to be avoided like the plague. Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness are corrosive of this good. To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me. It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.
From this worldview or disposition of Ubuntu was created a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that shocked the world and was foundational to the building of a new South Africa. Let me highlight, what is the key element of this quote as it relates to my exploration of this concept:
Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness are corrosive of this good. To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest.
Let me close with a second example, which for me is a bit closer to home. Several years ago, I lead a team of volunteers on a community development project in Mexico. It was part of a five-year process of partnering with an indigenous people group to build a sustainable community. During our time onsite, conflict developed between me and one of our other team members. We seemed unable to get “on the same page” as to our purpose for being onsite on this trip and our level of engagement with the individual families within the village.
On our last night in country the in-country program director and the two of us spent several hours discussing what had transpired, jointly debriefing, and learning from the experience. It was one o’clock in the morning and we had finished our conversation and were ready to turn in. We had worked through the events, resolved our interpersonal conflict and were ready to move on. My colleague turned to our host and said, “So _____________(name of host), was I wrong?” Our host, who was walking away, stopped, turned back to us and said, “Well _____________(name of colleague), at the end of my day I take the day” holding up his right hand, “and I drop it into”, holding out his left palm. “And then I”, and demonstrating, he blew on his left palm. This continues to be for me, a picture of forgiveness and completion.