Reflecting on Forgiveness – April 2014

Spring Reflections 2014

Deserving Forgiveness

Alexis Johnson, PhD

I have always struggled with the idea of ‘deserving’.  I first heard it when I lived at Esalen Institute for a year a long time ago and people would often say: you deserve X in a very positive way.  It was said to be helpful, to allow people to expand their narrow self-concept into something both larger and holding more goodness.  It was always used in the positive sense: you deserve a good relationship, a good job, good health.  And it was always used in the context of expanding a sense of personal ownership.

I could see the goal.  I could understand wanting to be helpful.  But ‘deserve’?  That was a leap I could not make.  For me to deserve is to earn.  We DO something and something follows.    Deserve is a verb implying action, one things follows another.  I deserve to get a good grade on a test if I study hard and know the material.  That makes sense to me.  But translating that into wider concepts is much harder.  Do I deserve to get the job I apply for?  I want it.  I believe I am qualified for it.  But clearly other people are also qualified and they also ‘deserve’.  Do I deserve that material item I want?  How did I earn the right to live in the States and deserve a daily Starbucks?  I was born here.  I made no effort to get here.  Deserve brings me to the level of human consciousness in which there are winners and losers and that makes me uncomfortable even as I know it is true.

There is another level to the word, and that implies a state of being.  To be worthy or entitled of the good that comes our way.  But again I run into the world of duality, the world of win lose.  If I deserve the good, then do I deserve the bad?  If I want to take responsibility for my life, for my choices and decisions, where do I place the idea of ‘deserve’.  Do I deserve the good life?  Ill health?  What did I do to deserve either?

At the transpersonal level of consciousness we all are worthy of the good – that’s for sure.  American history taught me Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms that he laid out in 1941:  freedom of speech, freedom to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  He said everyone in the world is entitled to these basic freedoms.  I may not believe that these four freedoms are the most fundamental, the most basic but they are a good starting point for a just world.

But then I remember that the world is not just or fair.  It is up to me to make it more just, more fair as much as I can influence things; but so many aspects of life are beyond my influence and therefore for me, the concept of deserve hits a stone wall.  For me, too much of what life brings to us both positive and negative is beyond the concept of deserve.

And this is where my musings would end for years.  Increasingly as I came to understand the difference between action and worthiness and when I would hear the phase ‘you deserve’ I would translate it in my mind from a result caused by an action, to a positive spiritual possibility where the good can be experienced and I can hold the intent:  “May you experience the good in life”.

Flash forward to this winter when I watched the movie Nebraska.  In case you have not seen it, it is the redemptive story of the forgiving son helping the alcoholic father realize his dream.  Bruce Dern plays Woody, the old grizzled boozer, and Will Forte is David, his younger son.  They take a quixotic road trip together, the father wanting to hold on to his illusions and the son wanting the father to realize something, but what?  For the first part of the movie I am totally annoyed with the younger son.  In my mind, he is the classic enabler of the alcoholic system, full of denial and unrealistic hope.  If Dad wants to get to Nebraska from Montana on a wild goose chase, then son will take a few days off from work and drive him there.  He holds the position of why not let Dad have something good in his life.  The other two family members, Mom and older brother hold another piece of the story: Dad was never a good Dad, a good provider, a good husband, and is not a good man – nothing good will come of fueling his illusions that he has won a lottery in Nebraska.  From their point of view, only more humiliation and disillusionment will come from taking the trip.

I keep running the ‘enabler’ story.  This father does not deserve either the son’s hope for him or the crushing disillusionment of finding out the truth.  When is this kid going to get it?  He doesn’t have to be as harsh as his Mom and brother, but he does need to quit feeding this false hope that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  We, the entire audience, know this lottery is a scam, only pain and disappointment await them in Nebraska.  He needs to gently let the old man down, gently get him into reality, maybe get him focused on the non-working truck in the garage?  Something, anything that is not going to lead to yet another failure and humiliation.

Of course, I am ‘right’ – there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and only humiliation is found there.  But this road trip, like all good road trips is a journey of transformation and slowly I too am transformed out of my dualistic addict-enabler, he doesn’t deserve to have such a good loving son story.  It is true, in the sense of ‘earn’ he doesn’t deserve to have such kind caring son.  He continues his frustrating boozy ways, as we learn about his past, his having been to war, his generosity, his humor.  Woody emerges out of a two dimensional ‘alcoholic loser’ role into a complex human being who has lived a very engaged life, often failing, sometimes succeeding.  Most importantly we discover that his dream is less about being rich and more about legacy.

Woody wants forgiveness in the ultimate sense of being seen as a good man.  He does not want to ask for it; he probably would not even call it forgiveness.  But he wants to be restored, to be re-storied, from a loser to a winner.  Through David’s actions, Woody regains his dignity, is made whole again, is loveable in his brokenness.

It is David who does the extraordinary forgiving.  Robert Karen writes that to overcome terrible loss, we must employ imagination and agency.  David does exactly this.  He can enter his Dad’s dreams to find out where they are heading and then act on his behalf.  At this level, the level of dignity and forgiveness, Woody does not nor can he, earn these spiritual gifts.  At the same time, we see that he is worthy of these gifts, he is worthy of being forgiven even by those he has most wounded, and he is worthy of having his dignity especially in front of those who have most scorned him.  Aren’t we all?

Reflections on Forgiveness

Judith Schmidt, PhD

The poet T.S. Eliot called April the ‘cruelest month’ of the year. Indeed.  April is the month of testimony to two genocides, in Europe during World War 11 and in Rwanda twenty years ago in 1994 when the Hutus were ordered by the government to massacre the Tsutsi people.

Family members saw loved ones killed by machetes.  People survived by playing dead or fleeing to the forest to hide like animals from their hunters.  Somehow, after the massacre, the force of spirit prevailed and people went on despite scars on their bodies and spirits.  I have met young Rwandans here in the States who had been witness to the killing of their families.  Their resilience to more than survive, to go on to get an education and have families of their own is a testimony to the human spirit.

At the same time as people go on, they are never the same.  As a young boy, the survivor Eli Wiesel took the watch he had received for his thirteenth birthday, celebrating his entering manhood, and buried it in the back yard of his home before fleeing the Nazi invasion of Poland.  As an adult, Wiesel returning to visit that home was asked: did you dig up your watch?  He said something like, ‘no, for that boy is no more.  That boy no longer lives to claim his watch’.

For the last two weeks, I have two things sitting on my writing table. One is a series of photographs of victims and survivors of the Rwandan genocide published in the New York Times.  The exhibit is called ‘Rwanda 20 Years’, exploring the theme of forgiveness.

The photographer said that the relationships between victims and perpetrators varied widely.  Some showed up and sat easily together chatting about village gossip.  Others arrived willing to be photographed together but unable to go much further.  He said that there are varying degrees of forgiveness….”in the photos the distance or closeness you see is pretty accurate.”

What I see as I daily stop at my table and gaze at the faces in the photos are people whose souls seem to have left their bodies.  Their faces seem emptied of life.  I recall what the philosopher Jonathan Lear, referring to what a a Crow said  after the Tribe was placed on the reservation, thus losing their way of life, “After that, nothing happened”.

I look at the faces of Rwandan murderers and victims and see how ‘after that, nothing happened’.  I have seen the same eyes staring out of empty caves in the faces of survivors of the Holocaust.  People somehow going on while exiled by the horrors they knew into a certain kind of silence. Something in the eyes of the most resilient seems to say that things have happened that I cannot begin to imagine.

Beside the photos in the New York Times Magazine sits an op ed piece, written by a Rwandan attorney on April 4, 2014.  It is called, “Following Orders in Rwanda”. Jean-Marie Kamatali ponders the mystery of why so many ordinary people followed orders to kill their neighbors.  She says that the key to understanding this mystery resides in a culture in which orders from above, even if evil, are followed because they are confused with the law itself.

How is it possible that such Orders can be given for Hutus to kill their Tsutsi neighbors? How is it possible that such orders can be followed?  How is it possible that people in Germany could throw stones into the windows of Jewish shop- keepers who were their long -time neighbors now hated?

The faces in the photos stare out as I pass them. I see victims and perpetrators, beside one another.  I see: nothing happened after that. Not for the perpetrators.  Not for the victims.  I imagine their souls hovering over them, watching them stand beside one another.   I imagine the souls of the perpetrators watch over those who violated human life, suffering to become human again: reaching out to the victim, carrying her water because her husband and sons have been killed by these same hands that now lift the pail in place of her lost loved ones. Deeds of redemption.

I imagine the souls of the victims wandering close to the bodies they left, watching, waiting for the human wails of grief, for the instincts for revenge, for the guilt of survival to ride wave by wave through the frozen bodies and to be witnessed. Souls will wait forever, for generations to gather to do the hard work of coming to true forgiveness. I look at the photographs and pray that the souls of those who followed orders to murder and the souls of the survivors will somehow find a way toward an unfolding of forgiveness, of mercy, of fierce protection and reverence for all life so that something may happen after that.

What I imagine and hope for has little to do with the law that has been passed in Rwanda:  there are no longer Tutsis, no longer Hutus, only the ‘people of Rwanda’.  The op ed piece speaks of a culture of unquestioning deference that existed even before the genocide. The author tells us, “What is less noticed is that it persists today- in less lethal form, but not without danger for the future. Rwandans have memorized the slogan of ‘only Rwandans, no longer any Tutsis or Hutus’ well, they repeat the mantra…but its acceptance springs from the same vulnerability as the complicity in genocide did: the instinct to obey rather than to choose”. One woman, when asked if she really forgave the murderer of her children said, “The government forgave them.  What can I do? I also forgave him”. Is this forgiveness?

What is real forgiveness?  I hold this question deep within like a seed waiting to grow into an answer.  The ways of the heart are mysterious.  The souls wandering outside the bodies will wait forever for the torn lives to do the stitching that can once again trust the movement of life in a human community.  In such a stitching of the soul, it would never again happen that a massive slaughter would take place in a church in which Hutus trusted they could take refuge. True forgiveness takes a standing by one another, eyes looking into eyes, face to face, heart into heart, takes time for redemption to be birthed, for comfort to touch the people.

May the life destroyers serve the lives of the survivors.  For how long? Only each individual soul will know.  No law can dictate this healing into forgiveness, into the bearing of heartbreak and mercy for the things we humans can do to one another.

During the memorial services in Rwanda, several survivors began to wail.  They were carried out of the room.  Why were they carried out?  Were they disturbing the decorum?  How can true forgiveness begin without a willingness to witness the  wailing of grief and protest?   The wails of both perpetrators and victims, unfreezing grief and shame for what has been loved and lost, for one’s own loss of being human.

Forgiveness cannot breathe, cannot live in the suffocating air of compliance.  May the perpetrators in these photos carry the pail of water, thatch the roof of the victim’s home, chop the wood to keep the survivors warm, protect their children and grandchildren.  May they come to do these things from the depths of their hearts, deep beneath obedience, where the living waters of forgiveness flow.  One day, may they face one another and cry together.

May each one of us be witness to our own inclinations toward compliance to the powers that be, whether to teachers or gurus or doctors, or to our own inner voices occupied by authority.  May we each see the moments in which we give up our real selves and re-turn home to the true gestures of our hearts. May this be a ritual we do for ourselves and for one another and for our wounded world so in need of naked raw hard earned forgiveness.

Jonathan Lear, in his book ‘Radical Hope’ tells of the Crow Chief, Plenty Coups, going on a vision quest for his people.  He has the vision of a little chickadee who tells him how his people are to go forth with their lives on the reservation after ‘nothing happened after that’. How can a little bird guide a people who are in soul loss?  All I can say is: not by law but by our deeds and dreams shall the forgiveness that allows a going on being arise.

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