Sunday, August 23, 2009

4 Elul. Let bygones be bygones?

At the end of last week, I came across the following quote floating in the header at
Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.   -Landrum Bolling
I've been contemplating this quote for a few days, finding it both insightful yet limited simultaneously.  Forgiveness is a form of letting go that does not always directly involve interaction with the one you felt has wronged you, although it is better if that interaction is possible.  Much has been written in recent years that shares the psychological wisdom that our inability to forgive often causes us much more harm, in terms of our state of mind and even our physical well-being, than it inflicts on the person who wronged us.  In the introduction to his book, 'Forgive for Good', Frederic Luskin reflects on our inability to let go of past experiences in a way that feels very familiar, and brings a smile to my face.  He asks us to think our mind like a house, where we choose the tenants to whom we rent the various rooms.  What kind of accommodations do we want to give our wounds and grievances?  We can rent our grievances the master bedroom and build them a hot tub out back.  We can give them a great lease with terrific terms that never expire, or we can grant them a day-to-day tenancy.  We can allow them to put their stuff in all the rooms of the house, or we can restrict them to a small room in the back.

The quote attributed to Landrum Bolling who, by the way, has spent a lifetime working in conflict management and peace resolution (including as an advisor to the US government in early attempts to bring the PLO and Israel to the negotiating table), reminds us that we have little hope of moving forward in our lives, or resolving past hurts, if we remain in the past or, using Luskin's image, if we allow that past story to occupy every room in the house.
But, I don't entirely agree with the literal reading of the quote.  I believe that it is possible, sometimes, to create a better past.  Not when terrible acts have been committed (although, even then, forgiveness is possible - for our own sakes).  But many family conflicts, or fall-outs between friends, occur over events where there is more than one narrative to explain what happened.  In our certainty about the intentions of the other, and our inability to let go of the hurt feelings we felt so intently at the time, we close ourselves off to the possibility of another explanation.  
A daughter may remember the past as 'My mother never loved me as much as my older sister - she never gave me as much attention.'  Through attempts at reconciliation, and a willingness to hear each other's story, perhaps the narrative might change to: 'My mother loved me very much, but there were times when my older sister was having problems that I wasn't aware of, and she needed more of her attention.  I remember feeling left out, by I realize now that my mother still loved me'
Two friends haven't spoken for 3 years because one felt that the other didn't care and could not possibly be a true friend because she didn't coming running when her husband was diagnosed with skin cancer.  She did not know that her friend had slipped into a clinical depression some months after her mother passed away, and was not able to be present for her in the way that she needed.  Both friends felt abandoned.
In scenarios like these, communication is the best way to break out of the old narrative.  When it is hard to pick up the phone, writing a letter may be a way to begin, or an email.  It is important to speak in terms of 'I thought...' or 'I felt...' rather than the more accusatory 'You did...' or 'You made me feel...' - the latter communicates that you have certainty that your narrative is the correct one, and is less likely to open the door to reconciliation and forgiveness.
By opening up the channels of communication, and opening up our hearts to the possibility of another way to understand our life stories, it may well be possible, in partnership with others, to create a better past and, from this, forgiveness can flow.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz
What do you think?  Please share your reflections by clicking on 'comments.'

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