which aligns with the ideas of a Secular Buddhism more than many expect (just keep reading and see for yourself).
If you haven’t read the first article, I encourage you to here: Part 1
I suspect that this article may not make as much sense without the background provided in “Part 1.”
If you haven’t read the second article, I likewise encourage you to here: Part 2
If you haven’t read the third article, I likewise encourage you to here: Part 3
I think the best way to structure this article is to jump right into the “meat” of what is in the Challenge and how I personally responded. The Challenge website is divided into “days,” so I am going to “copy-paste” selections from the days along with my responses where appropriate. It is my hope that by reading what was so eloquently written by the Tutu’s (A.E. Demond and his daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu) and by following along with a person who took the Challenge (me), that readers here will see for themselves how forgiveness fits into a Secular Buddhist approach to the struggles we face in life and how it can positively impact those lives.
THE FORGIVENESS CHALLENGE: WEEK 3
Sometimes the choice to grant forgiveness happens quickly and sometimes it happens slowly, but inevitably it is the only way we can move forward along the Fourfold Path. We choose forgiveness because it is how we find freedom and keep from remaining in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming our hurts.
It is how we move from victim to hero.
A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others. Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future. A victim has nothing to give and no choices to make. A hero has the strength and the ability to be generous and forgiving, and the power and freedom that comes from being able to make the choice to grant forgiveness.
Write the name of the person you want to forgive. Now ask yourself if you can wish this person well. Write down your thoughts. If you can’t wish them well, explore this and ask yourself what you need in order to forgive. Do you need more time? Do you need more answers? Do you need to tell your story and name your hurts directly to this person? Write down whatever it is you still need in order to forgive.
Now write a brief apology letter to yourself as if you were this person. Write down what you would need to hear from them in order to forgive.
If it is appropriate, you feel ready, and you are safely able to contact this person, consider calling them on the telephone. Let them know you are taking the Forgiveness Challenge and are working on forgiving them. If possible, remember to begin by affirming your relationship with this person and its importance to you. What has this person meant to you? How have they helped you, not just harmed you? Our relationships are rarely one-dimensional, especially with intimates. If you can show the person that you see their goodness, then they don’t have to work so hard to defend it. You may get an apology or you may not. As we have said, an apology can be powerful, but is not necessary to forgive.
I wrote often of how I needed those who hurt me to show remorse and to try to change. I also mentioned that I needed to feel that they understood me. I mentioned Metta meditation as a way to get to the point of actually wishing them well and meaning it.
As for a hypothetical letter that I would have liked to receive:
From ::OMITTED:: Jennifer, I understand that you did not mean to cause me harm by talking to ::OMITTED::. I should not have continued to retaliate against you – especially when you did not realize that you’d caused me harm. I should have recognized that you deserved basic respect based on your ability, regardless of your age, gender, or race. I should have recognized that everything you said and did was to help me and to keep ::OMITTED:: growing strongly. I am sorry for setting you up to fail and for finding ways to retaliate against you at work. It caused you a lot of undeserved harm and hurt my own organization/reputation. In the future, I will look past the external appearances of those I work with and recognize the contributions that they bring. I will listen to them and work constructively with them. If I have an issue with them, I will deal with it honestly, directly, and constructively. I will never set out to harm someone who works for me again.
As for contacting them, I had already sent them invites to the Forgiveness Challenge in a safe way.
The ability to tell a new story is a sign of healing and wholeness, so let’s explore what exactly it means to tell a new story. A new story is one that is no longer just about the facts of what happened, or about the pain and hurt you suffered. It is a story that recognizes the story of the one who hurt you, however misguided that person was. It is a story that recognizes our shared humanity.
It is good to remember that no one is born full of hatred or violence. No one is born in any less glory or goodness than you or I. But on any given day, in any given situation, in any painful life experience, this glory and goodness can be forgotten, obscured, or lost. We can easily be hurt and broken, and it is good to remember that we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and the breaking.
Ennobled Rather Than Embittered
When we hear people tell a new story of the harm they have suffered, we hear them as hero rather than victim. What has always amazed us is how when people recount their stories they are able to retell them in a way that is filled with courage and compassion. They are able to explain what happened to them in a way that reveals how it has ennobled rather than embittered them.
The guarantee in life is that we will suffer. What is not guaranteed is how we will respond, whether we will let this suffering embitter us or ennoble us. This is our choice. How do we allow our suffering to ennoble us? We make meaning out of it and make it matter. We use our experiences to make ourselves into richer, deeper, more empathic people and to try to prevent others from suffering as we have.
Only you can decide how to tell a new story. You are the author of your life, and only you can write your book of forgiving.
Consider how your experience of being hurt by this person has actually made you stronger? How has it helped you grow and have empathy for others? How has it ennobled you?
Finally, write your story again but this time not as the victim but as the hero. How did you deal with the situation, how have you grown, and how will you prevent such harm from happening to others? If you played a part in the relationship and the hurting, can you claim your role and your responsibility?
Who I want to talk about here is ::OMITTED::. Because of what happened that day, my “soul” or a very important part of my inner self died. But this me was reborn from her. It was painful and slow, but I now have a family. I don’t have “friends.” I don’t have an abusive boyfriend. I’m not working in an environment that hurts me. I have time to work on myself, to explore and discover safely, to learn and relearn. In some ways, I am finally free and can work towards a safe, happy, nontraditional life. I’ve noticed and loved in ways that I never would have before. It also led to me finally getting diagnosed. I can forgive myself for my shortcomings now and understand my past more clearly. I am also in treatment so that I can improve myself and become happier. And now that I see and understand mental illness, I can see it in my parents, in others, and it helps me to forgive them. All of this has led me to Buddhism and nonviolence, which is a religion/philosophy that works for me.
As for a “heroic” version of the story, it’s a bit long to include here, but I will say that doing the exercise was tremendously helpful for improving my emotional state and outlook on events. I recommend it to anyone.
Forgiveness is not the end of the Fourfold Path, because the granting of forgiveness is not the end of the process of healing. We all live in a delicate web of community, visible and invisible, and time and again the connecting threads get damaged and must be repaired.
Once you have been able to forgive, the final step is either to renew or release the relationship you have with the one who has harmed you. Indeed, even if you never speak to the person again, even if you never see them again, even if they are dead, they live on in ways that affect your life profoundly.
To finish the forgiveness journey and create the wholeness and peace you crave, you must choose whether to renew or release the relationship. Only then can you have a future unfettered by the past.
What Does It Mean?
You may think you are not in a relationship with the stranger who assaulted you or the person in prison who killed your loved one or the cheating spouse you divorced so many years ago, but a relationship is created by the very act of harm that stands between you. This relationship, like every relationship that calls for forgiveness, must be either renewed or released.
When your spouse says, “I’m sorry for yelling at you,” you may forgive and continue on in the marriage, renewing the relationship. When a partner says, “I’m sorry for betraying your trust,” you may forgive but choose to release the relationship.
The decision to renew or release is a personal choice that only you can make.
Obviously it is easier to choose to renew a relationship when it is a close connection, such as a spouse, parent, sibling or dear friend. With these intimates it is much harder to release the relationship completely as the threads of memory and intimacy that bind you are strong.
It is easier to release a relationship with an acquaintance, neighbor, or stranger because these people often do not hold as much of your heart. The decision to release a relationship is a valid choice. Even so, the preference is always toward renewal or reconciliation, except in cases where safety is an issue. When we choose to release a relationship, that person walks off with a piece of our heart and a piece of our history.
The choice is not one to be made lightly or in the heat of the moment.
Renewing a relationship is not restoring a relationship. We do not go back to where we were before the hurt happened and pretend it never happened. We create a new relationship out of our suffering, one that is often stronger for what we have experienced together. Our renewed relationships are often deeper because we have faced the truth, recognized our shared humanity, and now tell a new story of a relationship transformed.
Renewing a relationship is a creative act.
There are times when renewing is not possible. Renewing the relationship might harm you further, or you do not know who harmed you, or the person has died. These are all times when the only option is releasing the relationship, and this too is essential for the completion of your healing journey.
Releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma. You can choose to not have someone in your life any longer, but you have released the relationship only when you have truly chosen that path without wishing that person ill.
What will your relationship look like if you choose to renew? How will you feel if you choose to release? Write down any fears you have about either choice. For example, “I fear if I forgive and renew the relationship they will hurt me again.” Or, “I fear if I release the relationship I will miss them someday or regret my decision.”
What are your hopes for either renewing or releasing the relationship? Write these down. “My hope is that I will no longer carry resentment and anger.” Or, “I hope we can create an even stronger relationship because of what we have been through.”
This wasn’t a struggle for me. I was releasing (or trying to) – just all of it.
A very important but difficult piece of renewing relationships is accepting responsibility for our part in any conflict. If we have a relationship in need of repair, we must remember that the wrong is not usually all on one side, and we are more easily able to restore relations when we look at our contribution to the conflict.
There are times when we truly did nothing, as when a stranger robs us, but even then we have a role in participating in a society where such desperation exists. We do not say this to inspire guilt or apportion blame, since no one person creates a society. But each of us does have a role in the society we have created.
We can take responsibility for our part in a way that frees us from being a victim and allows us to open our hearts. We are always at our best when compassion enables us to recognize the unique pressures and singular stories of the people on the other side of our conflicts. This is true for any conflict, from a personal spat to an international dispute.
A Hidden Gift
Ubuntu says that we all have a part in creating a society that creates a perpetrator; therefore, we all can say, “I have a part not only in every conflict I may find myself in personally, but every conflict happening right now in my family, in my community, in my nation, and around the globe.”
This thought may seem overwhelming. A little radical, even.
The gift hidden in the challenge of Ubuntu is that we don’t need to walk the corridors of power to build peace. Each of us can create a more peaceful world from wherever we each stand.
We do this by completely walking the Fourfold Path of forgiving—however long it takes, however many times it takes, and for each and every injury that cries out for us to tell our story, name our hurt, grant forgiveness, and renew or release our relationship. Each of these steps is a gift we give to ourselves and our relationships.
Day 19 marks the last day that focuses on forgiving others. Days 20-30 focus on asking for forgiveness and on forgiving yourself. These, of course, are also of great usefulness, but I have to save something for you guys to go to the website and explore yourselves. (Also, at the time, these weren’t areas that I really needed to focus on, so I skipped this lessons.)
…I have to be honest. I’m exhausted. I just want these to be done and to tell Ted Meissner, “Hey, they are done and in the draft section, so you can post them whenever.” I’ve put off finishing these articles for months… but it feels like I need a somewhat solid conclusion here. So rather than gracefully work up to it, I’m just going to drop it down here:
Working on this Challenge, journeying towards Forgiveness – it has made all the difference for me. Not only did it lead to me to finding you guys (Secular Buddhist Association) and a practice that works for me, but it made it possible for me to look at my own agony and do something constructive about it. Through forgiveness, meditation, and a very healthy mix of therapy and Zoloft, I have been able to go outside again (in a limited capacity) and my attacks have decreased in number and severity. I also think I have a more realistic outlook on my experiences.
While about half of the people I forgave didn’t say anything, the other half showed remorse. In fact, the specific person that I wrote the included letter to changed her ways. By all accounts, she is treating her employees better and working on anti-abuse (i.e. helping children to learn how to report abuse) programming in her school. The local news heard about a lot of what happened and have been running pieces on empathy for the mentally ill and how they can get help in the local community.
I feel a bit shy to say this, but I know that forgiveness saved me and I honestly think that my forgiveness had a ripple effect that improved the lives of others around me.
I don’t know everyone who will read this, what has happened to you, how you are feeling, or what you need. All I can do is share what I have experienced. If you are in a bad place, forgiveness is worth a try – and I invite you to try: https://www.forgivenesschallenge.com/
May you be well, happy, and peaceful. May no harm come to you. May you always meet with success. May you have patience,courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome the inevitable difficulties in life. May you rise above them with morality, integrity, FORGIVENESS, compassion, mindfulness, and wisdom.