Archive for November, 2016
Reflections from Prison: “Forgiveness Saved my Life”
Security was tight. Oh that….I had forgotten that I had the New York subway schedule in the winter jacket. Sorry about that. No paper allowed.
After going through two secured doors, we went into the courtyard. It was night and so the floodlights were bouncing off the razor wire that wrapped each fence. That wire looked almost festive as it gleamed and sparkled. But, of course, it represented a darker reality than the dance with the floodlights let on.
A little farther on we met Jonah (not his real name), who was coming to attend the talk on forgiveness.
“Hey, do you remember me?” Jonah asked as he extended a big warm hug.
“Yes, of course. How are you?” I said. It had been a while and I was very glad to see him.
Jonah’s is one of the many success stories we hear once those in prison go through forgiveness therapy. He went from max to medium because his constant anger diminished. Forgiveness has a way of doing that. As a person, as Jonah puts it, “gives the gift of forgiveness” to those who abused him, his inner world becomes healthier.
“Forgiveness saved my life,” he said with earnest and serious eyes. He knows of what he speaks. Anger landed him in medical facilities and eventually contributed to serious crime and long prison terms. Yet, his anger was cured by understanding, through forgiveness therapy, that the abuse he experienced as a young man turned to a poisonous anger which was destroying him.
“No one cares how angry you are. It’s yours and yours alone when someone gets to you in a big way.” He had to confront that anger, struggle to forgive the one who was so unfair, and now Jonah can meet me with a warm, wonderful smile, a hug, and a vitality for life that is so unexpected in juxtaposition to the floodlights and the officers and the dancing razor wire.
Jonah is set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and for many years to come. The past pain will not destroy him and any insensitivities, frustrations, and challenges that are part of max and medium security prisons will not crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger: forgiveness.
Forgiveness therapy is beginning to gain traction in prisons because counselors are beginning to see that it is one of the few approaches to corrections that actually works. To forgive is to take the floodlight of analysis off of the self and place it, paradoxically, on the one who did the harm. It is to tell a wider story of whom that other is. Forgiveness therapy allows the person to see the abusing person’s vulnerability, woundedness, and anger that “put me on the hook” as one of my friends in prison describes it. As the heart softens toward those who are cruel, one’s own inner poisons find an antidote in growing compassion. And it works.
One of the main insights I now see is this: As those in prison realize that they are capable of giving the heroic virtue of forgiveness to others, they understand that they, themselves, are stronger than they had thought. They realize that they are givers, human givers, men. “I am a man” not a number, is a common new and growth-producing insight, one that helps those in prison to stand tall in the face of grave challenges. “I am a woman” will be next as we move soon toward a max facility for females.
Long live forgiveness therapy in prisons. Oh, and by the way, did you notice that throughout this little essay, I never once used the word “prisoner”? You see, the word “prisoner” is a sweeping term, encompassing a person’s entire being by their address, by where they reside. Jonah knows he is more than “a prisoner.” He is a man, one who forgives.
If forgiveness is intended to quell my anger toward other persons, then what am I supposed to do when I find myself angry with circumstances or “fate”? For example, suppose a hurricane destroys my home. How do I get rid of that anger if I am not supposed to forgive? And why not forgive a hurricane?
Forgiveness is the offer of goodness toward people who have acted unfairly. You cannot be good to a hurricane and so forgiveness is not the appropriate response in this case. Instead, I recommend working on acceptance of what happened. It did happen, you cannot change that, and so fighting internally against the situation would seem to get you nowhere in terms of a rebuilt house. It is certain that your anger will not stop the next hurricane from barreling though your community. This is why I suggest acceptance which is a kind of surrender which can relax the muscles and calm the nerves so that anger does not take a toll on you. Further, you can take positive steps such as making plans to rebuild the home and making it, as best you can, strong enough to withstand at least some of the hurricanes that may occur in the future.
What are some dangers in reconciling with another who was not trustworthy in the past?
Here are three cautions for you:
- If you reconcile too quickly without the other showing any remorse, repentance, or recompense, then this could be a false reconciliation in which you may be hurt again in the same way.
- Please do not think of forgiving and reconciling as the same. You can forgive from the heart, but then not reconcile if the other continues to be a danger to you. If you equate the two, then as you forgive, you may feel a false obligation to reconcile.
- If you are still angry and not forgiving, then, without realizing it, you might use reconciliation as a weapon, in which you come together in a superficial way and then you keep reminding the other of how bad he/she has been and how good you have been. This is why you need forgiveness to occur before a deep reconciliation occurs.
How do I know—-really know—-that I am ready to reconcile with someone?
Reconciliation is different from forgiveness. When we reconcile, this is a process of two or more people coming together again in mutual trust. Reconciliation is conditional on the other person’s willingness to change, if he or she was the one who acted unfairly. Forgiveness, in contrast, can be offered unconditionally to the other as a form of respect, understanding, compassion, and even love, even if there is no reconciliation. So, you can forgive without reconciling.
With all of this as background, here are four questions which might help you decide if you are ready to reconcile (and I am presuming that the other is the one who has hurt you):
1) Has the other shown an inner sorrow about what he or she did? We call this remorse;
2) Has the person verbally expressed this sorrow to you. We call this repentance;
3) Has the person made amends for what happened (and we have to ask if he or she has done so within reason because sometimes we cannot make full amends. For example, if someone stole $1,000 from you but truly cannot repay it all, then you cannot expect that he or she can make amends in any perfect way). We call this recompense;
4) If the person has shown what I call the “three R’s” of remorse, repentance, and recompense, then do you have even a little trust in your heart toward the person? If so, then perhaps you can begin a slow reconciliation, taking small steps in rebuilding the relationship. Your answer to these four questions may help you with your question: How do I know that I now am ready to reconcile?
Forgiveness and the Presidential Election of 2016: 7 Tips
The presidential election results and the tumultuous aftermath have left people scarred and angry. I have heard often that people are afraid of the fallout in their own families: brother against brother, partner against partner. Here are 7 tips to help you bind the wounds and move forward well:
- It is important to realize that when you forgive, you are not throwing justice under the bus. Yes, forgive, but fight the good fight for what is good in the country.
- Each side has an argument against the other side. Yet, my questions are these: What are the intentions of the people at whom you are so angry? Do you think they are saying, “My method is bad and my desired outcome is equally bad”? Even if you disagree with the actions, can you see that the desired end—from the others’ viewpoint—is the quest for the good, even if you think that is misguided?
3. Did you know that many of the people on the other side once were children who suffered hurt in childhood. He ran to his mother when he fell down and bruised his knee. She talked with her father, through her tears, when bullied at school. These are real-life persons with real-life struggles and wounds that started a long time ago, when they were growing up.4. You may not be aware of this, but those on the other side did not have an easy time in adolescence, because, well, few make it through that time period unscathed. Did you know that people on the other side have been wounded by rejection of peers when in adolescence, struggled with romantic attempts that were awkward for them, and fought through the demands of high school?
- Did you know that people on the other side have hopes and dreams? They, like you, are hoping for a little place to live, a well-meaning job, and meaningful relationships. And did you know that none of this is coming easily to many of them? Some are really hurting inside because of this.
- Did you know that each one of the people on your side and on the other side are striving for a little happiness in this troubled world? It is not easy to find that happiness. Sometimes we look in the wrong places, but it is for happiness nonetheless that we seek. Those who have hurt you are seeking happiness and it may not be the way you would have chosen, but that is their quest nonetheless. They are human. They are fallible. They share with you one important thing: a common humanity.
- Can you, each of you on the other side of the divide, commit to doing no harm to the other? I know you are angry, but what now will you do with that anger? Will you pass it along to your children? to you partner? to your co-workers? Or, will you stand with the pain, that eventually will end, for the sake of the humanity of those who have hurt you…..as well as for those who are innocent bystanders who now could be hurt by that anger?
Perhaps it is time to forgive as you seek justice. The two, forgiveness and justice, go well together.