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.

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4 Types of Choices: Passive Choices

Of the 4 types of choices, passive choices are the most overlooked but potentially the most deadly.  What opportunity for injustice are we creating when we allow ourselves to be swept up by cultural currents or we go along with the crowd?  The Holocaust is the inescapable example.  It was made possible by people who stood by because they thought they had no choice.  They were mistaken about that.  The choices may have been all bad, but they had choices.    

If the Holocaust seems distant, let’s turn to something nearer.  On the consumer level, how do I benefit from the oppression of others, and how do I choose oppression?  When I drink the fancy bottled water in my hotel room, am I patronizing a company in cahoots with an oppressive regime?  When I choose cheap prices at a superstore, am I supporting an industry that capitalizes on underpaid offshore workers and contributes to domestic underemployment?  I may be powerless as an individual to change an industry, but my individual actions still have consequences.  When replicated millions of times across a nation, the cumulative consequence matters. 

Turning nearer still, our culture encourages consumption, even excessive consumption.  Do I take more than I need?  What are the consequences?  Am I generous with the excess that I have?  The Jewish tradition offers guidance for prioritizing tzedakah and for establishing what, exactly, counts as tzedakah under what circumstances. 

Perhaps the most harmful of our passive choices are when we stand by on the playground or in the gossip circle.  The United States is suffering from a bystander crisis playing out in the nation’s schools.  No less than ten US government offices and agencies have initiated a dozen summits, campaigns and reports to get a handle on bullying.  Tellingly, one report concludes, “Student-witnesses appear to have a central role in creating opportunities for bullying.”  We now have massive government machinery in motion to address our passive choices. 

Cultural currents do not sweep us to compassion.  “So much of what passes for entertainment is about being rude, nasty and crass,” said Meline Kevorkian, who studies bullying at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Fla. “What we see as comedy is actually making fun of other people.”  Am I a customer of this kind of comedy?  If I submit that the failure of individuals often relates to the weaknesses of society, how does my commercial support for mean media contribute to cultural conditioning of young people? 

Virtually all world religions teach the golden rule and draw us to compassion.  “Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of thy fellow man,” is a biblical commandment. (Leviticus 19:16)  The Hebrew word is not “akhikha,” Jewish brother, but “réakha,” fellow human being, Jewish or not.  In the New Testament, The beatitudes make clear that God calls us not to stand by but to stand up, especially when doing so is unpopular.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) 

Examining passive choices is not meant to heap the weight of all society’s sins on your shoulders.  All actions have consequences, however.  Sometimes a minor adjustment replicated by enough thoughtful individuals is all it takes to induce a cultural course correction. 

Join the conversation.  Has choosing ignorance helped you avoid action? 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

4 Types of Choices: Reactive Choices

Every person has some element of his upbringing to overcome.  Some have pretty smooth sailing, yet childhood challenges that seem easily manageable still trip them up as adults.  Others endure injuries so devastating it’s hard to imagine how they could survive to adulthood, much less to function normally, and yet they thrive.  Each of us develops patterns of behavior in response to experience, and we all have hurts, habits or hang-ups to overcome.

Our inner inventory should include not only those choices we made when we had a wide range of options within reach but also those that are reactions to experience, especially experiences that impaired our ability to choose in some way.  It may be counterintuitive that taking inventory of our own wrong choices involves examining the wrongs committed against us.  Maybe we are eager to point to point those out, as if they absolve us from responsibility for our own action.  Or perhaps we prefer keeping old injuries buried because they are too painful to face.  If we are to own up to our actions, there’s no room for blaming our victim or our perpetrator, even when they are one and the same. In the process of untangling these wounded-wounding patterns, we can’t escape looking at both.

Start by acknowledging your victimization with tender acceptance and compassion for self.  There is no blame for receiving injury.  One of the most injurious long term effects of child abuse is the shame that gets wired into a young person’s psyche.  If shame’s tentacles reach in unexpectedly and strangle your other feelings, set aside time to focus specifically on shame and the other feelings it crowds out.

Extending compassion to the one who hurt you may seem preposterous.  If this task is too great, simply ask God to be present with you in the recollection of the offense.  Be present to the compassion God has for you.  Then be present to the compassion God has for the one who hurt you.  Contemplate the unhealed wounds or the brokenness that led her to act in the hurtful way that she did.  Your intellectual understanding your offender’s failings does not make the offense is acceptable, but it can smooth raw emotional edges.  When satisfied with your intellectual understanding, set the injury aside for now.

Turn to the reactions.  Did I imitate the bad example of my offender, for lack of any other role model?  For example, did I imitate the physically violent relationship between my parents in my intimate relationships?  Do I try to exert control over those close to me? Or has my mechanism for coping with an overly controlling parent led me to retreat to “the cave” instead of offering an honest response to someone who didn’t mean harm?

Reactive choices include those that result not only from injury but also from some other weakness.  Was I so full of entitlement and resentment that I failed to experience or to express gratitude?  Did I miss opportunities because I was afraid and played it safe?  Did I choose ignorance over action?  Selective ignorance is no excuse, but it could explain a coping mechanism.  Similarly, poor self-control and preoccupation are not excuses, but they could explain what limited the choices available to me.

Join the conversation.  With more wisdom, internal reserve, self-control, or resilience, what better choices might have been within your reach?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Remembering Hurts: Part 3

There are memories, and then there are consequences.  Recognizing that we have veered off course or missed the mark on something we tried to accomplish can be discomfiting.  Consequences – incarceration, legal action, foreclosure—can be excruciatingly painful.  So is facing what has been irretrievably lost.  It’s natural to feel grief concerning the loss of a relationship, an opportunity, a job, another’s trust in you, your trust in another, years gone by, money spent foolishly, pleasures given up, and, of course, the loss of life itself in death.

When mired in grief over the consequences of our actions, we can take some comfort in knowing that grief is not a permanent state but a journey towards something else.  The destination—acceptance—can give us hope.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.  We can examine past choices, and while regret for them may be heartrending, we can look forward with hope that they won’t be repeated.

The honest seeker will, at some point, stop defending himself from the truth.  In an effort to rationalize our actions to ourselves, we erect barriers to truth.  We hold our victims culpable in some way for our actions against them.  When we release ourselves from the self-defense pretense, we have an unobstructed view to the pain we caused others.  Feeling their pain, compassion, is a natural consequence of confronting this truth.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, is present to all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, and the compassion I feel for the one I hurt. Perhaps most heartbreaking is God’s faithful and unwavering presence to us even when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.

Imagine how it feels to be in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual shows of love and support are overlooked or taken for granted.  Your intervening help saves the day over and over, but your partner acts as if she had it under control all along and you didn’t have anything to do it.  You work hard to dream up the perfect gift and are excited to give it, but it is left unopened, not even important enough for her to bother unwrapping.  What kind of relationship is that?  It is how I treat God.

When we own up to all the ways we turned our back on the one who never stops seeking us, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This compassion bears an exquisite kind of pain.  To feel the pain God feels over you is to grasp just how much he loves you.  It is a big step into intimacy with God, and it is perhaps our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What becomes possible when you release yourself from the self-defense pretense?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Making God’s Will Personal: Step Three-Examine Compassion

In a quest for intimacy with God, we have been discerning the will of God by accepting the talents he has entrusted to us and putting them to bold use.  Just any use won’t do, however.  We can use our gifts boldly to lift others up or to cut them down.  By what rubric can we measure how a bold use aligns to God’s will?

Escalating Judaism’s teaching of justice and fair treatment of fellow man, Jesus preached and practiced radical egalitarianism.  If Jesus was only starting a new religion, the Romans would have left him alone.  Rome tolerated religions.  What Rome did not tolerate was challenge to the authority status quo.  His “kingdom of God” language was an affront to the power holders of Jesus’ day.  Threats to the social pecking order are uncomfortable for those at the top of the power structure.  It might be worthwhile to pause here to consider where you sit in the social pecking order of the world today.

Jesus used numerous parables to describe the revolutionary rearranging of power that he called the kingdom of God.  Historical Jesus scholar and Jesus Seminar fellow John Dominic Crossan summarizes Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom in two points: free healing and open table.  The Greco-Roman system of patronage served the powerful by giving them a means to influence and to control the peasant class.  By complying, peasants averted social ostracism wrought by no association with a patron.  Against the backdrop of the Greco-Roman system of patronage, Jesus’s offer of free healing disrupted the status quo.  It offered the peasant class something radically better than patronage.  Not only that, Jesus welcomed the despised and outcast, including women, to his table.  As dining customs echoed in miniature the social pecking order in the culture at large, Jesus’ open table symbolized a flagrant challenge to deeply held Mediterranean cultural values concerning status, honor and shame.

One way to examine how we use our gifts is in this context of open table and free healing.  Another way to examine them is in the context of tzedakah.  The Hebrew
word tzedakah is often translated “charity,” but the Jewish concept of tzedakah
is the opposite of charity in many ways.  Whereas charity is at the discretion of the giver, tzedakah is the giver’s obligation.  Whereas recipients have no claim to charity, recipients are entitled to tzedakah.  Tzedakah is more accurately translated as the giving that fairness and social justice demand, and it is commanded of all people (including those in need of tzedakah).

Am I going about my daily life and work in a way that promotes egalitarianism or in a way that excludes?  Does my daily life and work contribute to the well-being of others or only to my own well-being?  Do my actions promote God’s glory and the welfare of my fellow man?  Or do they garner earthly possessions for me?  Do I focus on safety
for my inner circle or peace and security for all?

Join the conversation.  What are the questions you ask yourself to measure your actions?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Charting a Course: Sources of Hope

Many years ago, a friend’s beloved black lab was diagnosed with cancer.  It was a particular kind of cancer that was proven to be treatable in dogs, but the treatment had severe side-effects.  Doctors can tell human patients, “There’s good news and bad news.  The bad news is it will feel like this treatment is killing you.  The good news is it will actually save your life instead.”  You can’t communicate that to dogs, though.  Dogs receiving treatment gave up on life and died in distress in such great numbers that veterinary best practice evolved to making dogs comfortable as long as possible before euthanizing.  Dogs couldn’t bear the journey without some concept of the destination.  They couldn’t endure without hope.

The destination can be a source of hope for us, too.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.
The destination also gives us hope when we look inward to determine the course correction we need.  Looking inward is difficult.  Confronting the fact that we veered off course can be painful, and the pain can arise in a number of ways.  Here are three of them.

Consequences:  Incarceration, civil damages, foreclosure, loss of relationship, health, job, or life…some consequences are exquisitely painful.  So is genuine grief for years one can’t get back and opportunities that won’t come again.  Someone who spent her childbearing years in an unfruitful relationship might grieve the years gone by.  She
might morn the lost opportunity to put a little sock on a little foot every morning or to teach someone how to eat an apple.  Facing what is lost is one way we encounter pain.

Compassion:  The earnest seeker will, at some point, stop defending himself from the
truth.  In an effort to rationalize our actions to ourselves, we erect barriers to truth.  We hold our victims culpable in some way for our actions against them.  When we release ourselves from the self-defense pretense, we have an unobstructed view to the pain we caused others.  Feeling their pain, compassion, is a natural response to confronting this truth.

God’s pain:  Imagine being in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual demonstration of love and support is overlooked or taken for granted.  Your intervening help saves the day over and over, but your partner acts as if she had it under control all along and you didn’t have anything to do it.  You work hard to dream up the perfect gift and are excited to give it, but it is left unopened, not even important enough for her to bother unwrapping.  What kind of relationship is that?  It is how I treat God.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, experiences all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, the compassion I feel for the one I hurt.  Perhaps most significant is what God feels when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.  When we come into a full realization of the impact our choices have on our relationship with God, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This is a special kind of pain.  To feel the pain God feels over you is to grasp just how much he loves you.  It is a big step into intimacy with God, and it is our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What hope sustained your honest look inward?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgiving Myself

Recent posts have focused on responsibility and compassion as the secret keys unlocking forgiveness.  But what if the person I need to forgive is me?  What if I don’t feel accepted and loved—by myself, God or anybody else?  How do I find the place where honest introspection feels safe so that taking responsibility and finding compassion for myself are even possible?  

An adroit Beliefnet commenter shared a great insight in response to a post on shame.  Pastorsrus said, “Most do pretty well in loving God (although that love can be distorted because of life experience) and somewhat well in terms of loving others. Most fail miserably at loving themselves.”  And she concludes, “In short, people need to see themselves from God’s perspective, through His eyes.” 

Her insight harmonizes with the approach previous posts contemplated to forgive unremorseful offenders.  Namely, get the offender (in this case, myself) out of the center of the matter and put God there instead.  Rather than focusing on what I deserve, I can focus on what God desires.  Does God want to punish me for all the ways I fall short and miss the mark?  Or is God hoping and waiting for me to turn to him, and in so doing to turn away from the earthly cares that pull me down and away from him?  What kind of relationship will this be? 

What we believe about God informs how we relate to him, so part of the journey entails exploring our beliefs and coming into an understanding, or a deeper understanding, of God.  That will be the topic for the next series of posts, but let it suffice here to look to the analogy Jesus used—that of God as a forgiving parent.  

All summer, my youngest daughter has been persistently breaking all of the few house rules we have.  Do I sit tapping my fingers waiting for the next infraction so that I can leap into punishment?  No, I hope against hope that she will choose to cooperate with her family.  Frankly, we’ve all grown weary of escalating consequences that impact everyone around her, limiting her sisters’ fun to some degree and making more work for parents to enforce than for kids to endure. 

What does God do when we make bad choices?  Scripture does not say whether God gets frustrated or disappointed or exhausted or crestfallen like human parents.  It does say God never stops seeking us, continually giving us grace in his infinite love, and that he is overjoyed by our turning to him.  Christians believe Jesus came into the world to save sinners, helping them return to relationship with God.  On that basis, reconciliation is the whole point of Christianity. 

Reconciliation and healing are mysterious processes.  While we can’t summon them like a twinkie out of a vending machine, we can take concrete steps to expose ourselves to God’s healing power.  Hope arrives when we decide God’s desires for us are more important than what we think we deserve.  When we put God’s desires first and surrender to his unending desire for relationship with us individually, surely we are on the path to healing and self-love.  

Join the conversation.  How have you released resentment and found compassion for yourself?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com