In the summer of 2004, my wife and I spent a week living on a Blackfeet Indian reservation in western Montana. We were members of a volunteer project sponsored by a national organization that gives a helping hand to needy communities. It was a little like CPC's High School Mission trips, except ours was not church-sponsored.
We spent time with some very friendly Blackfeet Indian families, and were invited to their community meetings. On one occasion, a tribal elder shared a lesson I still remember, even to this day.
"An old Indian grandfather said to his grandson who came to him with
anger at a friend who had done him an injustice . . . . 'Let me tell you
'At times, I too have felt a great hate for those who have taken too much,
with no sorrow for what they have done. But hate wears you down, and
does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy
would die. I have struggled with these things many times.'
"He continued . . . .'It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good
and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and he tries to
practice forgiveness. He will fight only when it is right to do so, and in the
right way. He saves all his energy for the right fight.'
'But the other wolf, ahhh. He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him
into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He
cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger,
for his anger will change nothing.'
'Sometimes it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of
them try to dominate my spirit.'
"The boy looked intently into his grandfather's eyes and asked . . . .'Which
one wins, Grandfather?'
"The grandfather smiled and quietly said . . . .'The one I feed."
But, could this wisdom really be relevant to us . . . . we live so far from that reservation?
Let's look at the two sides of this dilemma. What message does the word FORGIVE convey?
Webster's dictionary tells us it means ceasing to feel resentment against an offender.
But, there is a lot to be said for not forgiving people who have done us wrong. Why should people who have upset our lives, leaving us bleeding in their wake, expect us to forgive everything and act as if nothing went wrong? We are not talking about the petty slights that we all inevitably suffer. We are talking about forgiving people who have wronged us deeply and unfairly. If forgiving leaves the victim exposed and encourages the wrongdoer to hurt again,
If you hurt me and I retaliate in kind, I may think I have given you only what you deserve, no more. But you will feel it as a hurt that is too great to accept. Your passion for fairness will force you to retaliate against me, harder this time. Then it will be my turn. And will it ever stop? This is how family feuds progress, and go on and on until everyone is dead . . . . or gets too old and too tired to fight.
Now, let's look at forgiveness. It is not the alternative to revenge, just because forgiveness is soft and gentle. It is the best alternative because it is the only creative route to less unfairness. Hard as forgiveness seems at the time, forgiveness has creative power to move us from a past moment of pain, block us from an endless chain of pain-giving reactions, and to create a new situation in which the wrongdoer and the person wronged can begin in a new way. There is no guarantee, but forgiving is the only door open to new possibilities.
So, how do we forgive? Forgiveness means accepting others . . . . and ourselves . . . . as human and not divine. Forgiveness means resisting a defensive response when we are hurt
. . . . a response that could mean cutting off the other person. Forgiveness means risking the pain of living, and holding to the hope that disappointments and hurt do not have to be the final word.
Therefore, our forgiveness is a process . . . . a journey. As much as we might like forgiveness to be a "forgive and forget" moment, our lives do not work that way. Old hurts have a way of resurfacing so we are led to examine a new facet of the wound we had hoped had healed. Forgiveness requires a commitment to face life with a posture that takes risks, rather than seeking mere self-protection, while struggling with the fact that there are times when self-protection is the wise choice.
Forgiveness is not passivity. It is an active response to brokenness. While refusing to return evil for evil, forgiveness can also be an act of resistance, refusing to let evil continue. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s tactic of non-violent resistance is an example of forgiveness that refuses to let evil continue. By resisting segregation, civil rights workers were saying no to racism, but by being nonviolent they were inviting the enemy to join the community. Forgiveness loves the sinner while saying clearly that the sin is unacceptable.
So, feed the love within you and your anger will starve to death!
These thoughts are brought to you by the Adult Spiritual Development Team at CPC, hoping to encourage your personal spiritual growth this winter.