Forgiveness in Jail

forgiveness in jailWe’re talking about forgiveness in the Dallas County jail this week.  Everyone in jail has been charged with some offense, obviously, and many long for forgiveness from victims or family members who suffer consequences from their actions.  Many also struggle to forgive themselves for the direction their lives have taken.  Many are mothers who grieve not being there for their kids, and they can’t forgive themselves for falling down on that job.

A startling number of incarcerated women became victims of sexual abuse and violence long before committing any crime.  In some cases, the signs of abuse are physical, permanent, and quite visible.  Other signs are hidden.  Child abuse has its most insidious and lasting effects when children are made to feel culpable in some way for the abuse against them.  Sometimes they blame themselves for not preventing abuse against others, too.  While some trauma survivors want to forgive their abusers in order to heal painful pasts and to find personal transformation, others need self-forgiveness for being crime victims.  In short, the undercurrents nudging us to forgive and to seek forgiveness rampage like tidal waves through this group.  Self-forgiveness proves the toughest nut of all.

Many of the inmates with trauma histories are incarcerated for criminal behavior consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder behavior patterns.  When we talk about forgiveness, anger management, or any psychological issue in the jail, we use particular care not to trigger trauma memories.  Jail for most is not a safe place for processing the wounds of trauma.  Trauma memories can trigger PTSD behaviors that endanger other inmates, and that has severe consequences in jail.  Jail is not a treatment facility, after all.

Hence, the forgiveness discussion requires a “trauma informed” approach.  One way we prevent exposing inmates to triggers is not giving anyone a chance to share trauma stories.  I make it clear that the introspection exercises they do in class are for their eyes only.  Another way we steer clear of trauma triggers is to focus exercises on current resentments the participants are experiencing in jail.  Those might result from tensions with other inmates or tensions with friends or family on the outside.  It’s rare that an inmate does not have one or the other.

To be candid, I have an “elephant in the room” feeling about focusing introspection on current irritations.  On the one hand it is easier to learn the steps to forgiveness with resentments that are not deeply held or woven into the fabric of one’s life.  On the other hand, it’s also something of a missed opportunity that makes my heart ache.  When I do forgiveness workshops with church groups, the hunger participants have to be healed once and for all from old wounds is utterly compelling.  Of course, one who hungers, in all likelihood, is in a physically and psychologically safe place for confronting past hurts.  As much as I want to expose inmates’ deepest wounds to the healing power of forgiveness, our first obligation is to keep everyone safe.

An exquisitely talented therapist leading the class with me is more than capable of managing any difficult psychological situations that arise.  I’ll probably throw in a closing comment about applying the steps to process deeper wounds when one is in a safe place to do so.  Tune in next week for some observations about what we all learned.

Join the conversation.  What conditions make it safe to start the forgiveness and healing process?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Advertisements

How to Forgive in 5 Steps

how to forgiveIt wouldn’t be terribly helpful to ponder why forgiveness is hard without considering what exactly we can do to overcome the obstacles. It seems to me there is a lot written about the healing power of forgiveness but very little about how actually to do it. Here’s where spiritual conditioning can help us do the right thing, even when it’s difficult. These are the steps that help me.

1. Name the Action
I am looking for specific action verbs, here. Putting a name to the wrong done against me sets that action apart as unacceptable. It establishes a healthy boundary defining what is and isn’t ok with me. In the process of pinning down the exact action that upset me, however, I might realize the offense wasn’t so bad. Maybe hunger or fatigue exacerbated my response. Maybe my offender made a harmless remark that triggered a harmful memory. Realizing this gives me an opportunity to look deeper within for the true source of my resentment. It also allows me to release resentment for one who meant no harm.

2. Name my Feelings
The key here is a simple, blame-free statement. “When you X, I feel Y.” Most things that upset me result less from malicious intent than people intent on their own agenda, oblivious to repercussions. Showing someone the unintended consequences of his actions creates the opportunity for genuine remorse. Even genuine remorse might not pry the lid off my resentment if I fear being hurt again. A candid conversation about how to prevent repeat performances can restore trust. Sometimes wrongdoers have good ideas for that.

3. Own my Response
There’s no question that the absence of remorse makes forgiveness hard. The thing I do here is take the unremorseful offender out of the matter and focus on my side of the street instead. I take a cold hard look at how the wounds I received played a role in the wounds I inflicted, and I take responsibility for my actions. This is not victim blaming. It’s control claiming. Confronting my misdeeds leads to the realization that I stand in need of forgiveness, too.

4. Ask for Grace
I believe we act out our relationship with God in how we treat others. Recognizing how I treat God in the face of how God blesses me fills me with remorse and desire for renewal. When I can honestly say I care less about what my offender deserves than I care about restoring my relationship with God, I’m on the home stretch to forgiveness.

5. Respond to God’s Grace
It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what my offender deserves but as a response to God’s grace towards me!

Join the conversation. Which step do you think is the hardest? Which helps the most?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

5 Reasons Forgiveness is Hard

forgive and forgetHas anyone ever told you to “forgive and forget” or “just let it go”? They make forgiveness sound easy, as if it’s an automatic response to deciding forgiveness is in our own best interest.  But releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness can be monstrously difficult, even when we genuinely want to leave old episodes in the past. It helps to see clearly what holds us back from the forgiveness we desire.  Here are five things that make forgiveness hard.

1. Misconceptions
Sometimes what forgiveness is NOT poses obstacles to forgiveness. Forgiveness does not condone the offense, liberate anyone from consequences, or restore trust. Forgiveness does not compel anyone to forget anything, to tell anyone they’re forgiven, or to stay in relationship at all. If I’m laboring under the misconception that forgiveness requires any of these things, I might quite understandably find forgiveness impossible to do. Fortunately, forgiveness is simply the release of resentment and claim to retribution—no more and no less. It is possible to release resentment and then end a relationship or return to a different kind of relationship with less trust.

2. Accountability
Most of us expect a little recognition for good deeds and to be held accountable for our mistakes. When someone does us wrong, we want that person held accountable. It flows from our sense of justice. If our offender appears to be waltzing off scot free, with no one holding her to account for her wrongdoing, we naturally feel drawn to fill that void. Thus, our desire for justice and accountability can work against releasing resentment.

3. Superiority
Being the victim of someone’s harmful choices can have several consequences. It can really hurt of course, but being the victim can have subtle payoffs as well. Recognizing another’s moral failings can make us feel better about ourselves, or at least better than the moral flunky who did us wrong. In addition to feeling superior, we might feel entitled to something from that person. Our attachment to superiority or entitlement pulls us away from releasing resentment.

4. Connection
In a badly tattered relationship, resentment may be the only thing left between two people. If it’s someone I think I need in my life, I may cling to the resentment because it’s all that’s left. This phenomenon sometimes plays out in parent relationships with adult children. A parent might cling to resentment for adolescent behavior as her only connection to a time when her child needed her. That desire for connection is at odds with releasing the past.

5. Remorse
The big kahuna of forgiveness obstacles is a lack of remorse. Genuine remorse on the part of our offender gives us a sense that forgiveness is complete. Without it, forgiveness feels one-sided and unfinished. Sometimes offender remorse is impossible, though. An addict deeply in denial, for example, doesn’t have the capacity for remorse. In the case of long past childhood wounds, the offender may have died. Even in stubborn cases without any offender remorse whatsoever, there are steps we can take to lead us to the healing power of forgiveness.

Join the conversation. What has made forgiveness most difficult for you?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

You Choose the Consequences: Justice or Forgiveness

The past week has seen widening violence throughout the Middle East and threats of violence on US college campuses.  What initially may have looked like isolated extremist reactions to an amateurish You-Tube video now looks like a bubbling up of deeply seeded anger and resentment aimed at local power holders in addition the US.  The long simmering discontent merely brandished the silly video in effigy to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  The cascade of consequences seems to be an ever-escalating loop of one group retaliating for the destructive actions of another group in the name of “justice.”

My spirituality group just finished reading Forgiving Ararat, a novel that explores themes of justice and forgiveness.  The notion of justice portrayed in the book, however, is limited to retributive justice, a kind of justice that seeks to settle the score by giving wrongdoers what they deserve.  It thereby juxtaposes forgiveness against justice, as if they are opposites.

Who can’t identify with that?  Sometimes the ones who wronged us appear to be getting off scot free.  No one is holding them accountable for their misdeeds.  We might cling to resentment out of our sense of justice, to hold the wrongdoers to account.  But Oprah and Dr. Phil tell us holding anger and resentment is like eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  Our resentment really doesn’t hurt our offenders as much as it poisons our own lives.  Knowing this intellectually, however, doesn’t make releasing resentment in an act of forgiveness a slam dunk to do.

When I am working with folks trying to escape their resentments, I try to get the offenders and what they deserve out of the middle of the matter.  I encourage folks to put their own spiritual reality and relationship with God in the center instead.  Our injuries impair how we respond to others.  Harms suffered get tangled up with harms done.  When we take a cold hard look at our own actions and can honestly say we care more about receiving forgiveness for the harms we ourselves committed than what our offenders deserve, forgiveness is within our reach.

Are forgiveness and justice really mutually exclusive?  It’s a timely question in the Jewish tradition.  Today marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when Jews examine their misdeeds over the past year, repair their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from those they harmed.  Making amends not only repairs harm to the victim but also restores the soul of the sinner.  Thus, the Jewish approach to justice makes both the wrongdoer and the one wronged whole. Through the healing power of forgiveness, this restorative justice promotes peace and reconciliation.

Join the conversation.  What kind of justice are you going to seek today—the kind that restores wholeness or the kind that settles the score?

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

4 Types of Choices: Non-Choices

We don’t think about our habits.  We just do them.  Unconscious choices are the fourth type of choices that belong in our inner inventory.  Most of us have some habits that are healthy and some that are destructive.  I once heard destructive habits called nuisance sins.  They may not be the most obvious obstacles in our relationship with God, but our habits inform our character.  Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character.  Character is everything.”

Our thoughts inform not only our character but also our feelings.  Many of our poor choices are fuelled by feelings like hate, greed, envy and entitlement.  Feelings aren’t a choice, but thoughts are.  Exercising self-control in thinking is shown to have an impact on feelings.  Therefore, developing habits of resisting negative influences in our thinking will inform our feelings as well as our words, deeds and habits. 

Some habits are more than nuisance sins.  They can interfere with or even destroy everything of value in our lives.  Someone fighting addiction can testify to the fact that habits left unchecked will eventually rob us of choice. 

The opposite of a mindless habits is a mindful habit—doing everything, even small things, conscientiously with thankful hearts in the service of God.  19th century priest and author, Edward Meyrick Gouldburn (1818 -1897), best known for his tenure as Dean of Norwich, urged the following:

As far as human frailty will permit, each little trifling piece of duty which presents itself to us in daily life, if it be only a compliance with some form of social courtesy, should receive a consecration, by setting God – His will, word and Providence – before us in it, and by lifting up our hearts to Him in ejaculatory prayer, while we are engaged in it.  The idea must be thoroughly worked into the mind, and woven into the texture of our spiritual life, that the minutest duties which God prescribes to us in the order of His Providence – a casual visit, a letter of sympathy, an obligation of courtesy, are not by any means too humble to be made means of spiritual advancement, if only the thing be done “as to the Lord, and not to men.”

When I shine a flashlight into myself to take inventory of my choices, it helps me to make notes.  Sometimes putting words to thoughts gives them better definition and stimulates deeper thinking.  If you are reflecting over a long period of your lifetime, spend some time looking over how actions or attitudes in one stage of life connect to another.  Consider whether something unconscious in one life stage prompted a deliberate effort or reaction in a later life stage.  For example, perhaps a career or relationship setback prompted greater reliance on and intimacy with God.  Perhaps a reactive feeling such as low self-worth gave way to an unthinking habit like arrogance towards those less fortunate.  On the other hand, awareness of my earlier elitist attitudes may give rise to intentional efforts to discourage prejudiced jokes in my presence. 

If you can isolate one or two unconscious attitudes or habits that have caused you angst, then you have exposed what needs to be held up for God’s mercy and healing power.

Join the conversation.  Where has God been in the midst of your choices? 

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

Forgive and Forget?

“Forgive and forget” is a mantra from my childhood.  I wasn’t particularly good at either but notably bad at the latter.  Is forgetting part of the forgiveness process?  What exactly constitutes forgiveness?

A man I met in a reconciliation workshop had survived child abuse and the wreckage of several family members’ alcoholism.  The depth of his 50-year struggle for forgiveness made an impression on me.  In the struggle, it seems that what forgiveness is not can present as many obstacles as what forgiveness is.

To forgive is to release resentment and claim to retribution.  To be complete, forgiveness is a two part process involving the offender’s genuine remorse for the offense and the victim’s release of resentment.  Forgiveness does not release the offender from accountability for her actions.  It does not erase financial, legal, physical, emotional, or any other kind of consequences.  Forgiveness does not make the offense permissible.  To the contrary, naming the offense as worthy of forgiveness marks it as unacceptable.  And forgiveness does not restore trust or repair the relationship.  A relationship might not be repairable, with or without forgiveness.   While restoring a relationship to full trust may be desirable, it is not always realistic.  The good news is forgiveness is possible without it.

Trust merits special consideration.  While forgiving is the moral choice, restoring trust might not be.  Should the parents of a child who has been molested by an uncle release anger and resentment for the uncle?   Eventually, yes.  Should the parents return to relationship with the uncle?  Maybe.  Should they trust the uncle?  No.  Evidence suggests molesters reoffend.  Neither family ties nor religious belief require anyone to ignore evidence.   Protecting a child is a parent’s moral obligation.  In this case, the moral choice is to release resentment and, if the uncle has genuine remorse, to return to a different kind of relationship without trust.  Note forgiving the uncle in this scenario would not absolve him of legal consequences for any crimes committed.

Forgiveness can be a struggle if one of the two necessary parts is missing.  This is true for the man in the reconciliation workshop.  His alcoholic brother is in denial and lacks the capacity for remorse, and the father who abused him died.  What can he do when there is no possibility of offender remorse?  Even without genuine remorse, there is hope for healing.

The hope starts with a journey inward–introspection.  Taking an honest look at how the wounds we received played a role in the wounds we inflicted, and taking responsibility for the harm we caused others, is a step that is completely within our control.  The very act of changing our wounded-wounding pattern severs the ropes that tie us to a wounded past.  Once free, we can release resentment and pray for our offenders, dead or living, to receive grace.  That does not make forgiveness complete, but it does create healing power.

Join the conversation.  How have you approached forgiveness when your offender lacked genuine remorse?

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