The Courage to Change

I’ve written a number of posts about forgiveness recently. Forgiveness is about harms that have been done to us. But what about harms we have done to others? In this case, forgiveness is in the hands of another person. I can’t force a person to forgive me. Yet, just as my forgiving another is a step toward healing a relationship, so is being forgiven.

In my 12 step program, we are encouraged to seek forgiveness for harms we have done. But before that, we go through a process that helps us to examine the exact nature of the wrong we have done. Are we talking about a thoughtless act in which we inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings? Or are we talking about a full-blown character defect? In other words, do we have a habit of ignoring other people’s needs and feelings when speaking or making decisions? In the first case, we may have an excuse for our thoughtlessness. We were rushed, perhaps, or had something troubling on our mind. When this is the reason for a thoughtless act, a simple apology seems to be enough and hopefully will be accepted by the other person.

But when I learn that I have a character defect that pushes people away or makes them fear me in some way, then amends need to be made. I need to mend or fix something, namely myself. This is one reason apologies are often rebuffed. A person may apologize for a thoughtless act and yet continue to be thoughtless. One can say they are sorry for an act of violence while continuing to be a controlling person. To expect forgiveness in this case is unrealistic.

Those in recovery talk about “living amends” which means actually becoming different. They are letting go of one way of being and taking on another. For example, a person who is guilty of always looking out for one’s own needs and interests becomes person who is looks outward considering the needs and interests of others.

It takes humility to admit that one has done something harmful to another person, but it takes courage to admit that one has a character defect that underlies the harm. Admission is only the first step. Changing one’s character takes hard work and the deeper seated the defect, the harder the work.

From Guilt and Resentment to Acceptance and Forgiveness

It was a flier that passed me by recently, an advertizement for a conference, the key speaker’s topic: “Moving from Guilt and Resentment to Acceptance and Forgiveness.” I’m no counselor but I know a think or two about this. My Higher Power has provided me with plenty of life situations to practice guilt and resentment and feel what that is like. Also, HP has proveded me with lots of guidance to move me toward acceptance and forgiveness. This is what I have found: the latter is a much happier place to be, or as my friend Dennis likes to call that place: serenity. Dennis suggests that while happiness depends on one’s circumstances, serenity is lasting and one can experience it even in the midst of turmoil and loss. I like it. It rings true.

The transition from the darkness of guilt and resentment to the light of acceptance and forgiveness was not easy. Guilt for things I have done or not done – this was difficult. But Acceptance was needed for me to stop feeling guilt for my imperfections. As strange as it seems, it was quite a revelation to me to say, “Judy, you are simply a human being. You are not perfect. No human being is. That is how God created you – imperfect. Like a piece of art, this is what makes you interesting. Stop arguing with the Potter.”

As for things I have done or not done, out and out harms, I learned ways to ask for forgiveness in word or to make amends by changing my behavior. Improved behavior required, I learned from  experience, a change of attitude.  Unless my attitude has changed any successes at reconciliation are short-lived.

Instead of loving my enemies, my HP told me to stop labeling people as enemies. These were also works of art, equally imperfect, equally loved by their Creator. Calling them enemies was an insult, I discerned, not to them but to the Creator.

Time will heal…if you have enough time.

I heard someone say, “Time will heal…if you have enough time.” That was a powerful thing to say to a person in her 7th decade of life.

Over the past 15 years of recovery, I have been nudged by my fellows to think seriously about my relationships. I am told that holding onto resentments is harmful. Humorously, I have been told, “Hanging on to resentment is like letting someone live in your head rent free.” They were right. And when I let go, I felt relief. It was like the apartment in my head had been cleaned out and someone opened the windows to let sunshine and fresh air in.

This was good advice for dealing with my anger toward others, but the fact is there are people in my life who are angry at me for harms I have done to them.  I am also nudged by my fellows in recovery to make amends when I know I have harmed another, but this is not always easy. Sometimes it has been assumed that I harmed a person intentionally and no amount of denying or explaining will change their mind. I have to simply live with their judgment and condemnation. Sometimes I may tell a person I am sorry for hurting them but they simply won’t accept my apology either because they don’t believe in my sincerity or they just want to hang onto their resentment toward me. I guess they are letting me live rent free in their head.

I am disturbed, not just when there are hurts between myself and others, but also when relationships between people I care about are damaged. Watching relatives, friends, or even people I care about from a distance live in their anger or continue to hurt one another pains me greatly. I am told by my recovering fellows that I cannot do anything about these relationships. “Let go and let God”, they tell me. Pray the Serenity Prayer.

But this is difficult. I have been gifted with tools in my journey that, when put to use, give me direction and bring me serenity and joy. Because of them, I have been reunited with people that I once could not trust and now am developing meaningful, open and honest relationships. I would give anything to make these same gifts available to everyone, especially those I care deeply about.

I have been comforted over the years by the maxim, “Time heals all things.” Believing this has enabled me to trust that the God of my understanding will work things out among and between my loved ones if I only give him time to do his work. But my friend’s addendum to the maxim, “…if you have enough time,” is disconcerting. I think about Jesus facing his imminent death praying for those who still did not understand what his message was about. “Love one another,” he had told them and “Forgive even your enemies.” How sad it is that so many of his followers even to this day do not understand, or I should say, are not willing to do what he suggested.

I don’t know how much time I have left on this earth. I suppose I should be at peace with the idea of going to heaven where I probably won’t feel pain over the relationships I left behind. But I am still on this side and the pain is one I feel here and now. This I know to be true: with all the thinking and pondering I have done about the work of the divine among us, I still don’t understand. As for letting things go into the “hands” of God, well, I am still working on it.


Live and Let Live

One of the meditation books I am using right now has a message about the saying “Live and let live”. It is a good one for me as I am spending time with family members and meeting new people. At first glance, the phrase sounds void of emotion, loaded with indifference, something you would apply to the eccentric old guy down the block instead of loved ones.

Upon reflection, I have to admit that when I have “cared” about the way others live their lives, it often expresses itself in discontent and in criticism. Discontent…a sort of discomfort when I am in the presence of a lifestyle foreign or distasteful to me. I have to be honest and admit that how another person eats or finds enjoyment, how they dress or the way they keep their environment, the choices of friends they keep…these are about them and if I am in their presence, I should not expect them to change for me. Nor should I assume that the lifestyle choices I make are in some way superior to their choices. I needn’t wallow in discontent…I can adjust my attitude. I can accept them as they are and watch the way they live with interest and curiosity, not judgment. If I am open, I can even learn from them new ways of being in the world.

As for criticism, I do not have to verbalize negative thoughts about others whether to them or to others when they are not around. I try to remember the story of the weeds in the bible. Jesus told his friends that pulling out the weeds in a field can result in pulling out the good plants as well. I try to make a point of “watering the good seeds”, that is, giving voice to the good I see in people’s lives and not worry about the bad. Calling behaviors bad or good is a judgment on my part, after all. Most behaviors that I see in others are not good or bad; I just perceive them that way. I may think that something someone does is counterproductive or unhealthy, but it isn’t my place to go around putting moral labels on things.

What I have written here does not necessarily apply when I see harm being done. How to deal with those situations may or may not require that I speak up. Prayer is one action that I can always take…and wisdom helps me to know what to do.

Patriarchy Talk

I am following a long discussion on Facebook about Patriarchy in families as supposedly taught in the bible. It is refreshing to see the light go on for folks who have lived in homes where the father was head of the home, wives submitted in all things, and children stayed home in obedience until marriages could be arranged. (That is probably an extreme of what I am reading.)

I have to say that it is my generation that has had the task of wiggling out of this way of being in relationship. The fact is that the biggest problems between my husband and I over the years have come because I have tried to exert my power where power was not welcome. Often these were situations where I was better informed or was more gifted than my husband. A whole genre of jokes have emerged, known as male-bashing, that have helped women to maintain a sense of humor when things were difficult.

I find the discussions interesting, but there is one part that disturbs me. The participants often defend  their rightness by quoting the Bible and it never sounds pretty. There is a passage in the Bible that likens the word of God to a sword (Eph. 6:17).  Sword indeed! I wish they would to look less at what someone else says their relationship should look like and open their eyes and see tell the truth about just how they are doing in their relationships. This is what my husband and I had to do. And the truth was, Patriarchy, no matter what color you paint it, was harmful to both of us.


When I was young popularity meant that when you sat at the lunch table in school, four other little girls would clamor to sit next to you. When I hear my grandchildren use the term, I know that they are more apt to be talking about social media. How many friends do you have on Facebook? How many people visit your blog?

I wonder about this crazy need we have to be known by many. What does it mean to be known, anyway? Does someone know you when they recognize your face in a crowd? Do they know you when they hear your name and are able to match the name with their picture of you? Do they know you when they have heard your words spoken or seen your work. By the way, I know Pablo Picasso and Thomas Merton. And just because one is known, does it also imply that one is liked or has the approval of those that know them?

Being known has practical application in this world. People make money selling themselves, their ideas, their talents and their products or services. Each of my four adult children are engaged in work that requires that they “put themselves out”, become known in some way. This can’t be a bad thing. It provides food and shelter for their families. But this seems to me to be such a burden, a drain on the human psyche.

When one’s livelihood depends on not just people knowing you but liking you or preferring you or your product, it seems to me there is an added dimension to every act one performs. It poses the question “Will people notice? Will they want what I have to offer?” Spontaneity is lost. People have to be worried about outcomes and those who they meet become a means to an end.  At the same time, anyone who criticizes us or our product looms as an enemy. Some of us super-sensitives can feel this even if we are nobodies being criticized. But when one’s livelihood is at risk, critics can feel especially threatening.

When I left church work years ago, I remember a moment when I realized that I was leaving a place where I was known by people I admired. People I tended to put on pedestals recognized my name if it was spoken to them. I probably had grandiose ideas about any esteem they afforded me, but being in that place did wonders for my ego. Loss of my income impacted Bernie and I, but not to the point of emptying our table or throwing us out into the streets. But it changed my relationships in a way that I appreciate today. There have been moments when I have been put in a position to “sell myself” since then, when I was seeking a new job, for example. But for the most I feel free. It is a gift to be able to have encounters that have no hidden agenda. It is liberating to have no concern what people may think of me. I don’t care how many people read my blog. I just love writing.

I don’t know if there is another way for the world to function without setting people up to play this popularity game. I just know that I feel so free since I’ve been able to set that behind me that I would want it for anyone and everyone. I know  that God knows my name and that has become enough for me.


Looking for “That of God” in Everyone

I really like what I read in The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Eileen Flanagan this morning. Flanagan is a Quaker. It is a Quaker belief that there is that of God in everyone.  She writes, “If we look for ‘that of God in every person’ – treating people with compassion, rather than judgment – it can change the dynamic between us.” She quotes Rabbi Erin Hirsh who worked in a men’s maximum-security prison who said, “It is my responsibility to go through life looking for that spark of holiness in someone. If I don’t find it, it’s not because it’s not there; it’s because I haven’t done my job.”

Flanagan shares several examples of where she treated individuals with this special way of seeing. In each case, something shifted and what could or should have been a negative encounter, it turned out to be positive. Her attitude was perceived by  the other person and they, in turn, responded in a positive manner. I found this true when I taught perenting in the Morrison County jail. I assumed that each person who attended my class loved his children and wanted to have a good relationship with them. I knew that many of them were plagued by addictions and some had done horrendous things. I was not naïve. But I believed that the spark of God in them had been in some way buried and by assuming that it was there and treating them with love and respect, the spark would grow brighter.

It can be much harder to see the spark in someone who is close to us and may be pulling our emotional strings or someone who has hurt us in some way. Yet what I stated above about the inmates and the jail is true of those who seem to be my “enemies”. Seeing “that of God” in others may not always create change in a visible way, Flanagan writes. “Most of us have no idea what ripples we’ve created, whether positive or negative, but as surely as a boat leaves a wake, our actions have an effect that may continue out of our sight. We may open a door for someone…and never learn whether or not they went through it.”

This is where faith comes in, trusting that God will “make good of all things.” Sometimes people talk about “planting seeds” when they say or do something that may not show any visible effects immediately. I like to see myself as part of a community of lovers. An inmate in my classroom at the jail, for example, may not seem to respond to something I said, but the other staff members at the jail, the minister who comes to offer services, the AA community that holds meeting – all of these plus any other “lovers” that come into their lives…together we form a whole that may chip away of a shell that hides this divine spark.

AA members will say to a newcomer, “Let us love you until you can love yourself.” In order to do that for someone, we have to see that self in the other as precious and worthy of love. The spark of the divine will grow into a flame when it gets the oxygen of love.