Carl Thoresen, a professor at Stanford University, has studied the psycho-social factors connected with cardiovascular problems for more than 20 years. He has also designed training programs that incorporate life changes to reduce health risks. Recently, he solicited volunteers to participate in a forgiveness study, because he believes that people who take less offense and pardon others show fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and other physical symptoms. But Thoresen’s study hit a glitch right away. Although almost 200 people volunteered to participate, all of whom had an offense they were willing to consider forgiving, the vast majority of volunteers were women, not a diversified sample. "Men just don't seem to connect with the term 'forgiveness,"' he said. A simple name change, however, attracted droves of male volunteers. He changed the title from "forgiveness training" to "grudge management!"
Attitudes toward forgiveness, contrition, reconciliation, and grudges – reflect not only our gender and upbringing, but also our theologies. As UUs, used to discussions like “Build your own theologies” we may have adjusted our religious or atheistic philosophies over time, but do we retain the forgiveness teachings of our youth? Let’s test this on ourselves. I will share a true story of a family that offers lots of opportunities for both grudges and forgiveness. As I do, please think about how you would handle the situation. After that story, I’ll share the clemency teachings of the five major world religions and the results of some scientific/academic studies about forgiveness. At the end of the sermon, I’m to ask you to choose an approach and apply it, today, to one transgression for which you wish to be forgiven, and one transgression against you, by someone else you wish to forgive.
A man I met on a church campout last year told me the following story, which was very much on his mind. Fifty years ago, when his brother and he were toddlers, maybe 2 and 4 years old, their father abandoned the family and the parents divorced, apparently in absentia. The boys had no further contact with him. No cards, no child support, no extended family relations. Their mother subsequently moved to Arizona and remarried, and the step-dad adopted them (since there was no contact with the father to dispute it) and gave them his last name. This was particularly significant for the big brother, whose name had been junior. Fast forward fifty years. At a business convention, the big-brother heard a colleague extolling the virtues of the Internet for genealogical research. Maybe some of you have enjoyed that hobby. Not only was he able to research long dead ancestors, but also long lost relatives. So, he decided to research his dad.
He had no idea whether his father, who would have been in his 70’s, was still alive, much less where he lived. All he knew was that, at the time he left the family, his father had been a brand new Baptist minister in a remote, rural, southern town. So he searched for and found a database of Baptist ministers. Lo and behold – he found his father’s name (all the more touching because it had been his own). He was alive and still ministering, now to a much larger, southern congregation. Without much ado, he called the church and when he reached the minister, he said, “I believe I am your son; my name is xxx.”
Can you imagine the emotions on either side of that phone line? I had goose bumps as Rob told me this story. What feelings can you envision? Guilt, grudge, hope, anxiety, worry, joy, “gotcha”? Over the course of this and several subsequent conversations, the brother learned that his father had remarried. His second wife knew that he had had a prior family, but none of their three adult daughters knew, nor did the congregation. The father decided to tell his family about the call from his estranged son. Can you imagine that series of conversations! Well, the upshot is that the whole family invited both brothers to come visit for a weekend.
The big brother did go, with his wife and children. They were welcomed with open arms. The sisters were delighted to meet a brother they had never known. The father and his wife extended invitations to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas, and started sending cards and checks to the grandchildren. However, the man who told me the story, the younger brother, felt very uncomfortable with this. In his view (and his mother’s), the father had abandoned the young family long ago when they needed him, and he didn’t feel the need to reconnect now. Still, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps under pressure from his brother, he did go one weekend to meet the family. There, he formed two indelible impressions. First, he was startled by the striking physical resemblance of his father and brother. Second, he was severely disappointed that his father never apologized – never said the words. So he returned to Houston, distributed the cards and checks to his children, but did not feel the need to re-establish a relationship with a man he had not remembered in the first place.
I’d like you to take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of these various characters, the father, the mother, the older and younger brothers, the second wife, and her daughters. Some of you can relate very personally to this story, because of abandonment OF you or abandonment BY you. Others of you can empathize. What grudges have you held, or what apologies or forgiveness have you sought or granted?
Now, I’d like to move this from the personal to the theological and scientific. Let’s consider the forgiveness teachings of the five major religions and some health and university studies. In the interest of time, I’ll simplify each one with the full recognition that not all members of each faith believe my simplistic summary. I’d like you to think about your own grudges and forgiveness experiences in light of each of these approaches. Which one reflects your personal views and approaches? Are there others you would like to try?
Christianity teaches that humans are innately sinful, through Original Sin in the Garden of Eden, but that we are redeemed by God’s unending grace. He is wholly merciful, and forgives us even before we forgive ourselves. Still, it is important for us to admit our wrongs and solicit that clemency. We can confess our sins directly to God. If we seek absolution from a priest, it is God’s mercy he confers; not his own. Jesus taught that when we are sinned against, we should forgive our transgressors 70 x 7 times, and that God will reward us for that. I envision a model of Christian forgiveness is linear – a communication between the individual who sins or forgives and God, who pardons or rewards her.
Judaism teaches that a sinner can and should confess sins against God to God, but that sins against other people need to be resolved between those people, as in the Hassidic story I read. God sort of recuses himself from that process. Teshuvá is the key concept in the rabbinic view of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. In it, repentance requires five elements: recognition of one's sins as sins (hakarát ha-chét'), remorse (charatá), desisting from sin (azivát ha-chét'), restitution where possible (peira'ón), and confession (vidúi). Whereas the Christian model is linear, the Jewish construct is circular, because one must seek forgiveness from the one hurt, AND be forgiven, for the circle to be complete.
How many times do we hear apologies as though the words alone should end the conflict – “I said I’m sorry”, when in fact, the other person does not believe an insincere statement or is still too mad to accept a contrite apology? Not only may each person have his own timeline for forgiving, but a verbal apology may not seem equivalent to what transpired. Judaism teaches that appropriate restitution is fair and right. This reminds me of some of Judge Ted Poe’s creative yet logical penalties, before he ran for congress, such as a drunk driver who had to pay child support when he killed a parent, or a thief who had to make car payments in restitution for the car he stole and wrecked.
Islam, of course, adopted both Jewish and Christian elements into its own theology. Like the latter, Allah is Merciful (127 times in the Koran) and Compassionate (115 times), but this quality is not guaranteed, as it is in Christianity. For example, He does not extend his mercy to those who are, themselves, unmerciful to others or who refuse to repent of their sins. Allah will accept the repentance we offer, and can release us from punishments if we express contrition later on, because He is patient. As in Judaism, an apology should be accompanied by an appropriate offer of payment. The one harmed has the right to request it, and can accept or decline what is offered.
Hinduism and Buddhism are markedly different from the three Monotheistic religions because they do not believe in a personal god at all. In Hinduism, Brahman is impersonal. It does not know that you exist. It cannot hear, respond, or forgive. Therefore, there is no need for prayer or atonement to an external Form. The Hindi’s ultimate goal is to achieve transcendent peace, or moksha, which is like Nirvana in Buddhism. The impediments to that peace are what westerners call sin, such as selfishness or pride, and both Hinduism and Buddhism see these as self-created, and potentially, self-diminished. Those feelings that tend to make us most ill tempered are attitudes or feelings that bind us to our egos or our physicality. Our goal should be to free ourselves from both. Forgiveness is an important virtue because it helps us shed that ego. When you forgive someone for hurting your feelings, you are admitting that your feelings are not really all that important in the scheme of things. When you forgive yourself, you move along to a larger world in which you are not the center of attention – even your own! Interestingly, at each of four stages toward moksha, or peace, forgiveness is important, but in a different way. For example, at a lower level, forgiveness demonstrates kindness and empathy toward others (and ourselves). Later on, the choice to hold grudges and resentment indicate a person’s preference to cling to ego rather than advance spiritually to transcendence, where there is no ego.
Buddhism’s teaching are similar in regards to forgiveness. God is not part of it. We suffer because of our own choices to cling to greed, anger, and delusions. When we are lenient toward others, we become compassionate toward ourselves. Good karma includes accepting mistakes – ours and others. Bad karma is creating bad feeling. Rabbi Kushner, author of “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” said something that sounds very Buddhist: if after two days you still haven't forgiven something, now it has become your problem. One of my favorite quotes on the subject of forgiveness and resentment is this: Resentment is a poison you drink, hoping the other person will die! In the Hassidic story I read earlier, God was the river. In Buddhism, life is a flowing river of constant change. To hold a grudge against a person because of an event years ago is to create over and over an image of something that no longer exists. It is to perpetuate an illusion. You are different now, the other person has changed, and the event itself has transmuted in the minds of those one who care enough to cling to it, and, sometimes, to change the story.
Let’s wrap up this section by reviewing a few forgiveness studies in the scientific community. Michael McCullough, director of research at National Institute for Healthcare Research said that recent studies suggest that people with vengeful personalities and a chronic desire to retaliate (because of their high hostility), may put themselves at much higher risk for early death through cardiovascular problems. (Don’t you already think that when you witness road rage?) A University of Wisconsin study found that older people are more likely to forgive, and concluded that forgiveness is a form of wisdom learned in stages. The University of Northern Iowa has developed psychological treatment plans for adult women who had been victims of childhood incest, certainly one of the most difficult transgressions to forgive. The results indicated that those who went through forgiveness therapy experienced less anxiety and clinical depression than a control group, and that gains for the forgiveness group also persisted after the therapy ended. Elderly women, according to the journal Psychotherapy, who scored well on a standard test of forgiveness traits had higher self-esteem and fewer episodes of anxiety and depression compared to those who scored poorly. And finally, one study at the University of Miami at Ohio suggested that people whose partners had been sexually unfaithful might recover faster if they exacted some kind of emotional revenge on the guilty party. If you think about it, each of these examples correlates to one or another of the theological teachings.
Now, what might you glean from these teachings that you could apply to the story of the two brothers?
Christianity might say that the father should confess his mistakes to God and that God has already forgiven him. The sons should forgive their father 70x7 times as Jesus taught, meaning, until they really, really mean it and can move on.
Judaism might say that the father can have two separate conversations – one with God and one with his sons. He was right to open his home and family to the boys, in reconciliation. Perhaps the invitations and the birthday checks are a form of implied compensation, but he should explicitly ask forgiveness, and, perhaps, offer to pay back child support, which the sons (or mother) can accept or decline.
Islam teaches that Allah would not forgive the dad until/unless he repented, and would expect both an apology and an offer of restitution.
In contrast, both Hinduism and Buddhism say that no God is involved in this process. There is only self. The father and the sons should look within themselves and address whatever emotions hinder their spiritual development. If these feelings include, for example, guilt on the father’s part, or resentment and anger, on the parts of the sons and mother, the individuals are keeping themselves from finding peace. The river of life includes rocks and shoals of experience.
Among the scientific studies are results that indicate that if Rob and his brother attributed any depression or anxiety or rage they may have suffered to being abandoned by their father, it was within their power to alleviate some of those conditions by forgiving him, rather than blaming him, and that doing so not only improves one’s health but also indicates a form of wisdom, gained with age.
This sermon has included a lot of information. I want to challenge you to apply it to yourselves. I want you to write down two personal conflicts you have experienced that have bothered you for a long time. In one, you want to forgive a person who hurt you. In another, write down an incident for which you wish to be forgiven for harming someone else. Now I want you to commit to apply one of the approaches you have heard today, and then monitor the effect of that commitment a week or more from now.
If you are most comfortable with the Christian teachings, then ask God to forgive you. He already has. Then forgive yourself. In addition, forgive your transgressor 70 x 7 times (which really means say it until you really mean it and believe it and can let it go).
If the Jewish or Muslim perspective resonates with you, then pick up the phone or a pen, contact the person, apologize, and be prepared to offer some form of appropriate restitution – maybe a kindness or a repayment or a service. He or she may or may not be prepared to accept your apology. That’s his or her right. Half of the value of this is for you. Alternatively, if someone has hurt you, you have the right to be merciful and forgive him/her, but also the right to ask for an apology and fair compensation – whichever will close the circle and put it in the past. Again, even if the person refuses, half this process is good for you.
If the Buddhist or Hindu teachings make sense to you, then think of that flowing river and how much water has flowed since the incidents in your mind. You are hurting yourself by dwelling on them. You are drinking poison yourself. Let go of both your guilt and your resentment to feel a sense of relief in your shoulders, or in your gritted teeth or in your despondency. This is not as easy as it sounds. It means giving up expectations that others should behave as you wish. That’s your ego talking. Don’t expect contrition, apologies, or payment. Your peace of mind is all you can control. It is up to you. Let go.
If the scientific results are meaningful to you, review your health in light of your grudges. Are you taking medications for depression, anxiety, stress, blood pressure or other cardiovascular ailments? Do you tend to hold grudges or resentments or a persistent sense of victimization? Are there any mental choices you can make that might introduce measurable physical improvements? Do you want to ask your doctor about this?
In conclusion, it occurs to me that when one has first suffered a wrong or a tragic loss due to someone else, it's often pointless to speak of forgiveness. That often comes only with time and reflection, because forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. Forgetting is easy.
Forgiveness is all the harder because it may involve neither forgetting nor understanding. It may require us to ignore who is right and wrong. It may necessitate giving up any hope of an apology. Finally, it can deprive us of the pleasure of strong feelings, often long held, about our memories, our roles, and our sense of self. How sensible, how human, that religions and psychologists and doctors and universities teach us to forgive others simply because it is good for us and good for those around us.