Chaplain Kennedy asked us this month to wonder about compassion and central to our virtue of the month is the statement, “You forgive mistakes.” Let’s consider how compassion and forgiveness are connected. To begin let’s recognize that the etymology of the word “compassion” comes from the phrase “to suffer with”. Please consider that and our month’s scripture phrase, “we bear one another’s burdens” as you listen to me this morning.
So… let’s put ourselves in a certain head space. Do these quotes sound familiar?
“I cannot believe she said that about me?”
“How could he do that to me? I don’t deserve that.”
“I am such an idiot. I can’t believe I just did that.”
How many of us have said one or more of those sentences in the last 5 days? Or the last 5 hours? Or perhaps even the last 5 minutes?
Don’t worry, friends. I will not ask for a show of hands.
Feelings of outrage, revenge, and embarrassment are among the most common emotions we humans feel. When we become angry at ourselves or others, our palms sweat, our hearts race, and our breathing quickens. This change is a result of the adrenaline that anger releases into our system, and it only exacerbates the retention of our anger. Adrenaline has been shown by researchers to be one of the most powerful memory creators in the brain. Experiences that cause strong emotion are seared into our memories in a most powerful way. Biology has stacked the cards against the human ability to “forgive and forget”.
In today’s reading from Ephesians, Paul wishes for his readers to eliminate this bitterness and malice - to find God’s peace - and he attaches it to finding compassion and forgiveness. This hoped-for goal so central to Christianity is one that stretches across many of the world’s religions. The Zen of Buddhism, the internal struggle of jihad as a path to inner peace in Islam, the shalom of Judaism are all branches of the same tree. It is that longing for inner harmony that all humans share – “the peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day”, to quote one of my favorite hymns. The peace that Paul wants for us flows directly from our ability to overcome our biology and “forgive and forget”. This includes forgiving not only those people who have wronged us, but also and perhaps most importantly forgiving ourselves.
This well-spring of peace starts first with acceptance of the human condition. Whether or not we literally believe in the story of Adam and Eve and the establishment of original sin, it is undeniable that we all have within us a natural inclination to moral failure. Nobody’s perfect, and that realization needs to start with the person in the mirror. It is often the case that the person one finds it most difficult to forgive is oneself. In my own faith tradition of Catholicism, the sacrament of confession or reconciliation is the point at which we find the space to do that. In confessing our sins and doing penance, we admit out loud our failings, ask for forgiveness, and pledge to amend our lives. A priest once counseled me that God is like the perfect parent who corrects but does browbeat his or her child for the child’s mistakes. The priest’s point was that if God does not batter me emotionally for my sins, neither should I. I have found that in God’s unconditional love for me, and God’s acceptance of me, warts and all, I am better able to accept the shortcomings of those around me. In releasing this burden, accepting the existence of sin in myself, and feeling the healing power of forgiveness from God, it becomes easier to understand my tormentors’ negative behavior. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” as Christians say in the Lord’s Prayer. Catholics and other Christians, of course, have not cornered the market on confession and forgiveness. In Judaism, forgiveness is wrapped tightly with the tradition of Yom Kippur. In Islam, one of the central goals of the haj to Mecca is to ask God for forgiveness. In Buddhism, it’s the principle of karma.
The second step comes in addressing our sense of entitlement. When someone is the target of negative behavior, the natural inclination is to respond by saying or thinking, “I can’t believe they did that to me!!!” or “why are they picking on me?!! I don’t deserve that.” This state of mind can be particularly acute in a community like ours where we give and receive messages about how special we are. It becomes easy to fall into the trap that we should somehow be exempt from the impact that human sinfulness has on the rest of the world. The reality, though, is that we are all children created in the image of a loving God; we are all equal and therefore none of us are immune from the suffering that can accompany human interaction. This acceptance removes the sense of aggrievement and victimization that can be so internally destructive. We are less likely to say “Why me?” or “That person is out to get me” and more likely to understand and forgive.
As an aside I would point out that I am not suggesting that we should simply accept specific injustices as part of the permanent human condition. There are horrible injustices in this world that we should work to eliminate. Perhaps this one of the many paradoxes of life – two seemingly opposing ideas that together unlock a greater truth. We will put ourselves in a better state of mind to reduce injustice if we accept that it will always exist. However, I’ll leave that to someone else’s chapel talk.
Our third step toward Paul’s peace comes with understanding the work it takes to achieve this state of mind. Carol Dweck, an educational psychologist at Stanford, wrote in her brilliant book “Mindset” about two types of attitudes concerning human growth. The first called a “fixed mindset” believes that humans are naturally endowed with certain gifts or talents and that performance flows from those gifts. The second, called the “growth mindset” believes that performance is achieved for the most part through hard work. Her research showed that those people with a growth mindset of hard work were much more likely to seek out challenges, fail, learn from their mistakes, and ultimately be much more successful than those with a “fixed mindset” of talent. I ask you to consider that on the issue of inner peace and forgiveness, this is good news. We do not need to be endowed with some special gift to be habitual forgivers. It is open to all of us through hard work.
The fourth step is empathy. It can be hard to forgive someone who has wronged us because we so often are completely unable to understand why on earth they would be so mean, so destructive, so awful. The best thing I have ever heard on this subject came from a wise old priest who once said to me “To know all is to forgive all.” Let that sink in for a moment. “To know all is to forgive all.” In other words if you could know absolutely everything about the person who has harmed you, who needs your forgiveness - their upbringing, their situation in life, maybe what just happened to them five minutes before they encountered you - if you could know all those things, you would understand why they were so horrible to you. You could then forgive them.
Embedded in that statement is two facts. One, the first step to forgiveness is often empathy. Walk in someone else’s shoes and you can better understand how they behave. Two, often someone’s anger toward you really has little to do with you. Rather, it is a reaction to long ago pain they experienced.
Therefore, I would suggest that the essence of compassion, forgiveness, and finding peace is a four part and enduring message. First, sin is around us and always will be. Second, we are all children, made in the image of a loving God. Third, moral goodness is achieved through challenge and struggle as evidenced for Christians through the story of Christ’s passion and crucifixion.
Fourth, our spirit must first embrace the spirit of our neighbor. Understand our neighbor.
So, where does that leave us? What role can forgiveness play in our lives? I would offer that somewhere at the intersection of these four ideas – the acceptance of original sin, the rejection of entitlement, the valuing of hard work, and the sense of empathy - lies the path to forgiveness and reconciliation. Both the internal struggle to forgive ourselves for our own failings and the skill to accept and understand the inherent weaknesses in others will lead us to find Paul’s peace. As Head of School it is my goal for each of you before you walk out these doors for the last time that you have some foundational belief system, some inner core that allows you to access this peace. Let’s get to it.