Carolyn Phelps, Ph.D

November 10, 2014

In case you were wondering, when I said in the intro to last week’s show that I had been “truly transformed” by the conversation that I had with Don and Mary Streufert, I meant it. It wasn’t a “this will sound good for TV” kind of thing. I am not that kind of girl. Since that conversation, I have been thinking about forgiveness as a general principle and with respect to my own life a lot. What does it mean to forgive? Are there things that are unforgivable? And whom do I need to forgive. How am I hanging on to resentment and what is that doing for me? What is it doing TO me?

I have half decided that we need a different name for the forgiveness of the big stuff. Both Mary and Don talked about the fact that most of our life (and it is true) we are put in the position of forgiving the trivial.                     You accidentally bumped into me, or spilled my coffee, or didn’t do something that you told me you would do and that I was counting on you to do. And then you said “I’m sorry” – in effect asking for my forgiveness and I said “It’s OK.” Because it is. There. I forgave you. Sometimes it’s all reversed: I bump into you, spill your coffee, don’t do something I said I would and that you were counting on me to do. And so I say “I‘m  sorry” and you say, “It’s OK.”  And we forget about it because it really isn’t worth remembering. And that’s the practice we get with forgiveness. Based on all of this practice, we learn that forgiveness is pretty easy. It becomes associated with “being ok” and with forgetting. Forgive and forget.

So when the big stuff comes along, we think, “Well now wait a second – I can’t possibly forgive you! The thing you did is not OK! And I have no intention of letting you think that it is ok by forgiving you. And as for the forgetting part – the only way I see that I am forgetting this great big thing EVER is if I get a brain disease that wipes my brain clean. So I think I’ll just be hanging on to my anger and resentment because I have no idea how to forgive.”

But maybe if we called it something else we wouldn’t get hung up on the word and all it has come to mean to us which it was never meant to mean at all. It was meant to be there for the really big stuff as well as the trivial. When the Dalai Lama was asked how he could possibly forgive the Chinese, he responded “They took my country. That is enough. Why would I want to give them my mind too.”  That is what Mary Streufert was talking about. That our choice becomes to live our life steeped in anger and resentment allowing the ugliness of the way we have been truly and deeply harmed to invade and take over who we are, or we can work our way to back to being part of the light.

I remember an instance in my own life where I was so angry and so resentful about a thing. It was a big thing – not a trivial one. I was, in the immortal words of the Dixie Chicks “Not Ready to Make Nice.” For awhile, in fact, that had become my theme song. And it brought me great comfort. I could be as angry as I wanted for as long as I wanted and no one was going to tell me when I was done being angry. Except there came a time when I didn’t want to be angry anymore but didn’t know how NOT to be.  And then the fact that I didn’t know how NOT to be angry made me angry. Back then, all roads led to anger. (It went something like this: I am angry. I no longer want to be angry. Even though I have a right to be angry. But I don’t know how not to be angry. See, if you would not have done that thing to me , then I wouldn’t be in this position of having to figure this out. There you go again making me angry.) At some point, I figured out that even when I didn’t know WHAT to do to stop being angry, I could at least just stop doing what I WAS doing. So I stopped saying over and over and over that I was so angry. And I would just start breathing. Until it left me for awhile. And that is when I started making some headway. And then I started being open to the idea of letting it go. That letting go was not saying that I had not been done wrong. In letting go, I was not being disloyal to myself or my own truth. I was not saying that I was forgetting. Or that the original event was OK. I was saying that it was OK for me to move forward. I no longer had to be the person who held the wrong-doer accountable. The rest of the universes could take care of that. I was saying that I could accept this bad thing happened. I was ready to give up all hope that the past could be anything but what it was. I could accept responsibility for my own feelings and know that I had a choice in whether I was going to give my soul to anger or to compassion. That at the end of the day, it is up to me to decide what kind of person I want to be -  no matter what has  happened to me.

Mary and Don Streufert were very clear that this forgiveness business (of the truly big stuff) is a process. A thing we do for ourselves. Which means when we are wronged in the truly big ways, it takes us awhile to even get to the point of considering forgiveness as a  thing we might want to try to do. Which means we have days when we are better at it than others. Maybe it’s the difference between forgiveness and FORGIVENESS. The Dalai Lama talks about “my daily practice of compassion.” Which is to say that if the Dalai Lama has to practice compassion, I do not think any of the rest of us have an asterisk by our name which serves as an “exempt from practice” clause.  When I look at Mary and Don Streufert, and when I look at the Dalai Lama, I am forced to draw the conclusion that the practice is worth it.  When I practice forgiveness and compassion in my own life, I see for myself, first hand, that the practice is worth it. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.

Here are two resources you might find helpful:

  1. Madonna Badger’s TED Talk on Resilience. (You MUST check this out – it is incredible. Don’t deny yourself this inspiration.)
  2. The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler MD. Also incredible.

Carolyn Phelps PhD

Licensed  Psychologist

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