I’ll Take a Mulligan, Please

Sometimes we veer off course.  It happens to the best and the worst of us.  An adroit reader responding to a post about apologies last week commented, “I wish I could go back and UNDO a few of my sorries.”

Boy, do I identify with that.  I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to magically erase from history, as if they never happened.  If I’m honest about it, though, my desire to undo the past reveals a little unfinished business.

I come from a faith tradition (Christianity) that teaches anyone can be forgiven.  We don’t deserve it, but by grace we can receive it.  The only condition is that we forgive others who did us wrong.  Now that is easier said than done, and I do not want to trivialize how difficult forgiveness can be, but other traditions have a somewhat higher bar.  The Jewish tradition teaches that one must make amends and receive forgiveness from those harmed before seeking God’s forgiveness.  The Twelve Step tradition encourages folks to recognize their wrongs in the Fourth Step and to make amends for them in the Ninth Step.

We Christians can look right past that amends step.  I regularly practice religious confession to a priest, which is a lot like a Fourth Step and a little bit like the vidui, or prayers confession at Yom Kippur.  The Episcopalian practice makes me think hard about my resentments and releasing them in acts of forgiveness.  But the religious practice doesn’t require me to look as hard at repairing the harm I caused.  Of course, I don’t really want to do that anyway, but I can’t help wondering about the wisdom other traditions recognize in making amends.

The conclusion I reached is God doesn’t revise history.  He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good.  When we make amends, we build on our own history, taking something that fell short and lifting it up a notch or two.  It is possible to feel peace with the past, but also to feel disconnected from it.  I speak from personal experience on that count.  I imagine that making amends builds a bridge to that past and redeems it, so that it is no longer something I wish never happened or that I could do over.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner poetically asserts that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and be reconciled to our past.

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it.  We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do.  This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations.  We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again.  And thereby transform them and ourselves.  When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

Join the conversation.  Can you find a holy spark in the meanest, most hurtful things you have done?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.


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I Sure am Sorry I Got Caught Robbing that Bank

This is my new expression whenever I hear someone close to me offer a pseudo-apology.  Readers who have kept an eye on this blog lately know I have posted instructions on the correct—and incorrect—ways to apologize.  Not to throw anyone under the bus, lately I have heard quite a few apologies that, candidly, miss the mark.

To recap the basics, “Robbing that bank was wrong,” expresses regret for my actions.  “I sure am sorry I got caught robbing that bank,” expresses regret for the consequences of my actions but no regret for my actual actions.  Other consequence statements are:

I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’m sorry you misunderstood me.
I’m sorry you took it that way.
I’m sorry you got frustrated.

See the difference?  All this regret is about what YOU did, not about what I did.  It says, “This situation went south on your side of the street.  My side of the street is looking pretty good over here.”  A genuine apology requires taking responsibility for what I chose to do or to say.  Expressing sadness or regret for another’s response is nothing more than deflection thinly disguised as an apology.  It is not a legitimate apology.

Now let’s throw in a curve ball for extra credit.  Are either of these statements a legitimate apology?

I’m sorry my words frustrated you.
I’m sorry my actions hurt your feelings.

Nice try, but these examples STILL express regret for consequences.  Just throwing “my words” or “my actions” into the sentence does not constitute taking responsibility for the wrongness of my words or actions.  That would look more like this:

I said something I shouldn’t have said.
I didn’t intend harm, but I see now I caused it and I regret what I did.

Now for advanced placement apology, what should you do if you actually believe you did absolutely nothing wrong?  Let’s say you are convinced your side of the street is spic-and-span, and the person who is upset with you is overreacting or is reacting to something other than what you actually did.  I always say when in doubt, go with the truth.  Acknowledge the person’s feelings and ask for their help to see their side.  Something like this:

I see you’re upset.  That’s distressing because I care about you.  Will you help me understand exactly what I did?

I hope you don’t get, “It’s your tone of voice,” or “You flashed that look,” because subjective observations aren’t terribly actionable.  I hope you get an answer that is truly illuminating, and you should be prepared to receive (i.e. don’t block) those rays of illumination shining your way.  You might, however, get an answer you don’t understand.  You may have to ask questions to grasp exactly what sparked the response.  You might also sense the person is responding to something you didn’t actually do or say.  Sometimes a harmless comment triggers a harmful memory.  Can you find a gentle and compassionate way to ask the person if there is an older, deeper wound swirling into the present angst?  Draw on your spiritual strength and compassion to turn conflict into an opportunity to encourage healing and intimacy.

If, failing all of this, you can’t rise above the blame game and remain convinced of your blamelessness, ask for time to think before further discussion.  A little distance can change your and the other’s perspectives.

Join the conversation.  Can you share examples of an apology gone wrong?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Inviting Life Change

Good things are happening in the Resolana unit at the Dallas county jail.  The life skills class continues exploring self-esteem, and last week the discussion centered on making life change actually happen.  Have you heard the joke about the three frogs on a log?  If one decides to jump off, how many frogs are left on the log?  Anybody who has been around Twelve Step programs knows the correct answer is three.  Deciding to make a life change doesn’t necessarily mean one follows through and does it.

How does one actually follow through and make a meaningful life change?  The women learned three steps for doing it: becoming aware, making a choice and making a plan.  There were some heart-felt moments and also some laughs as the women described becoming aware of things they want to change.  One woman realized something needed to change in her relationship with a sibling.  She had always thought their relationship was great, but within the past week she recognized how her sibling’s addiction reinforced her own addictive behavior patterns, and she acknowledged something needed to change to protect herself from relapse.  Her mother had long cautioned her about that relationship, but she hadn’t understood her mother’s concern.  Another woman seemed almost unsure of herself as she revealed awareness she has an anger problem, whereupon there were stifled chuckles among others aware of that already.  That led to a humorous recognition that when we come into awareness of something we need to change, the people around us may be well acquainted with that need and, furthermore, be willing to offer us support in making those changes.

The women tended to gloss over the second step—identifying the choices we have once we become aware—but they also came to see its power.  Status quo is an option.  Changing is an option.  It is important to embrace the full spectrum of choices available.  If we give short shrift or write off options, we are in danger of making a premature (i.e. not fully considered) decision.  Giving all our options their full due, no matter how unappealing or unattainable they may seem, makes our choices conscious choices.

The last step is where the webbed toes meet the bark.  It’s the action plan delineating what we will do that is different than what we did before.  The more detailed it is, the better prepared we will be to exhibit different behavior in the heat of a stressful moment.  The women’s comments on this step revealed the true depth of their commitment to changing their lives.

Perhaps most touching of all was the awareness breakthrough for some inmates. Followers familiar with my book manuscript about the healing power of confession know how passionate I am about the hard work of honest introspection.  Some of us have been around the block.  We know our material cold.  The truth, though, is that this posture is a defensive mechanism, something that protects us from discovering something true about our vulnerable selves.  No matter how happy or content we feel in our present circumstances, honest introspection and greater self-awareness have the potential to bring us greater peace.

Join the conversation.  What is your secret for converting decisions into action?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Growing Up is Hard Work

A friend and I were talking last night about adolescence.  We all follow the examples our family role models give us in childhood, and we all decide which examples to continue following and which to discard at some point when we “grow up.”  My friend said she had a “screw you” attitude in her 30’s when she did that work.  My parents were enormously supportive and supported me financially through college.  Despite that, however, my adolescence was so tumultuous so early, I pressed the eject button (boarding school) at 15.  I told my friend that as a mother, I wondered how to prepare my daughter to make those decisions with hopefully less volatility than I had experienced.  She told me I should write a blog post about it, so here it goes.

My daughter was a prolific little writer at a young age.  By kindergarten, she was capturing observations and ideas, albeit with atrocious almost-phonetic spelling.  We didn’t (and still don’t) have cable or other TV service, but we did have an old TV hooked up to a VHS player (remember those?).  Watching the occasional Disney program was possible and kind of a treat for her.  In exchange for that treat, I asked her to do a 3-part written exercise.   The first part was choosing a character and writing five observations about the character’s behavior.  The second part was indicating for each of the five observations whether that character liked that quality about himself.  The third part was indicating whether she would want that quality for herself.  We did this repeatedly for years (until she became a better negotiator), and her observations were just sublime and very, very cute.  My hope was to inoculate her at an early age against the ravages the media project onto young girls.  If she had a deeply rooted habit of filtering what she saw in the media, then perhaps she wouldn’t indiscriminately ingest or emulate whatever she saw on-screen.

We also routinely undertook this 3-part exercise focusing on various family members, and none more often than me, her most influential role model.  She got bored of making observations about me, but she was pretty good at ginning up new material, nonetheless.  My hope here was that she would gain proficiency in distinguishing specific behaviors and know on a deep level that she was free to make choices about her own behaviors.  To be just a little bit more honest about it, I hoped she would be able to hate things about me without hating me entirely.

That, my friends, is the grand experiment.  She is 13 now, and  I don’t have an objective vantage point from which to assess whether the media inoculation or individuation preparation is working.  I marvel every day at the exquisite creature she is becoming, though.  What I admire most is how comfortable she is in her own skin.  She must have inherited those genes from her father.  To one acutely uncomfortable until her 30’s, it’s alien, astounding and the most outlandish blessing.  Whether it’s her father’s genes or somehow traces back to those early childhood exercises, she seems ready for the next stage in her life.  You’ll have to check back with me in another five years to see how the experiment panned out.

Join the conversation.  What helped you find your individual identity?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.