Monday, October 19, 2015

Letting Go and Moving On

So far this month we’ve been looking at what it means to be a person of letting go, what it means to practice letting go in our daily lives.  So far we’ve been looking at what I’d call the “easy” side of letting go.  Yes, both Alex and I have been clear that letting go is never really easy, but as we’ve largely been talking about letting go of things we know we need to let go of, we’ve been relatively easy on you all.  Today I’m going to dig us in a bit deeper.  What about when it’s things we don’t think we should let go of that we’re talking about?

I don’t need to give a list of illustrations here because I know that most of us can think all too readily of something that has happened to us that is – or, at least, if it were to happen to us would be – entirely impossible to let go of.  Harms done; pain inflicted; abuse perpetrated; wrongs that just can’t be righted.  Sometimes these things have had devastating effects on us – life-changing effects.  To this day we’re still wounded, still bruised, still aching.  How in the world could we ever be expected to let go?

Because let’s face it – we all know that in sermons like this “letting go” is a code-word for “forgiveness.”  And that’s where a lot of us get hung up, because when we hear talk of “forgiveness” we hear the phrase “forgive and forget” even when it’s not what’s actually said.  Most of us are conditioned to think that “forgiving” someone for something that they’ve done requires our “forgetting” the thing that was done or, at least, “forgetting” the effect it had on us.  The sometimes devastating, sometimes life-changing, effect it had on us.

In 2014 Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who was, among other things, head of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”) wrote a book titled, The Book of Forgiving: The FourfoldPath for Healing Ourselves and Our World.  I’m going to quote from it a lot this morning.  Here’s something he had to say about forgiving and forgetting:

“Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”

That shouldn’t be unfamiliar to us Unitarian Universalists.  The First Principle that holds our movement together is the affirmation of, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  As I noted last month, “inherent” means that this “worth and dignity” is an integrated and integral part of our character as human beings.  It is unchanging and unchangeable.  Even when we do something “monstrous” there remains, however crusted over, the fundamental reality of our inherent worth.  No matter what another person does to us, we and they are part of one human family.  I’ll come back to Bishop Tutu again as he addresses head-on a question we may find ourselves asking:

“What about evil, you may ask? Aren’t some people just evil, just monsters, and aren’t such people just unforgivable? I do believe there are monstrous and evil acts, but I do not believe those who commit such acts are monsters or evil. To relegate someone to the level of monster is to deny that person’s ability to change and to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions and behavior.”

This is, of course, another way of saying that nothing we can do can take away that fundamental, inherent worth we have as members of the human family.  But it’s his last point that I think is so fascinating!  When we call somebody a monster, or say that they are just plain evil, we really do declare them unaccountable for what they’ve done – a monster, after all, does monstrous things.  How then, really, can we blame them we they do so?  A person, on the other hand, who acts monstrously can fairly be called to account for their actions.  That’s as challenging an idea as it is a powerful one, because it’s so easy to think of people who do bad things – to us or to others – as “bad people.”  It is so hard to think of them as just people. 

Let me share with you three quotes from three people who each endured unimaginable abuse at the hands of others, who had every right to hold on to anger, bitterness, and hatred toward those others, yet who each found a way to let go of their pain and who refused to lose sight of the basic humanity of their tormentors:

Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy.  Then he becomes your partner.” 
Mohandas Gandhi said, “Whenever you are confronted with an enemy, conquer him with love.”  
And Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, whose homeland is still subjugated under Chinese occupation, said, “I defeat my enemy when I make him my friend.” 

Of course, these are extraordinary men, aren’t they?  To be sure, of course, it’s not just men who’ve exemplify this perspective.  I just as easily could have quoted Chinese journalist Gao Yu, Iranian student activist Bahareh Hedayat, the Ukrainian politician Nadiya Savchenko, or any of the many powerful women who have similarly paid dearly for their courage.  (Earlier this fall the examples of 20 female political prisoners from 13 countries were highlighted in a social media campaign called "Free the 20."  I’ll have a link to it when the sermon’s published online.)  These women and men, and countless others, have endured suffering which we here this morning could never fully imagine – suffering abuse, imprisonment, and torture at the hands of repressive regimes for the crime, essentially, of standing up for what is right.  Yet the vast majority of these people have refused to be embittered by their experiences.  But, again, these are extraordinary people, aren’t they?  I mean, no one could expect us – you and me – to be like them.

Well … remember our focus for the month.  We’re asking ourselves the question of what it means to be a person of letting go.  Maybe even more specifically, what it means that our Unitarian Universalist faith call on us to be people of letting go.  At least part of the answer is that we don’t get to give ourselves that easy out.  Our faith demands of us that we recognize that the only difference between us and the Mandelas, and the Dalai Lamas, and the Aung San Suu Kyis of the world is that they are better at it, that they’re more practiced at it.  Yet true as that is, it’s no excuse for us not to try.  But how are we supposed to go about even trying?  

Nelson Mandela may have given us a clue when he said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”  I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.

I’ll understand if you’re thinking that that’s still an “easier for you to say” kind of thing, but he really has given us a clue.  He’s telling us that he didn’t let go of his bitterness and hatred only out of respect for the “inherent worth and dignity” of his captors.  He didn’t do it just out some kind of empathy, recognizing them as part of an unjust system that was bigger than they were.  He’s telling us that he also did it for himself.  He’s telling us that he did it so that he wouldn’t have to remain in prison while his captors roamed free.  “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”

When you come down with the flu, you want to get better, don’t you?  And when you break a bone you want it to heal.  But what about when our sense of self or our dignity is broken?  What about when our heart is broken, or our faith in humanity is infected by whatever it was that happened to us?  What about when it isn’t our immune system that’s been compromised but our sense of simple safety in the world?  It’s harder then, isn’t it?

Part of why it’s harder is, again, our innate understanding of coded language.  When our well-meaning friends and families encourage us to “let it go,” “get over it,” “move on with our lives” we intuit, or at some level suspect, that part of what they’re really saying is that they want us to pretend it never happened.  No doubt that’s often, if unconsciously, true.  My pain is uncomfortable for you to be around, and you would like to be able to pretend that this thing – whatever it was – never happened so that you can get back to life as you’ve known it.  Of course, consciously what you mean when you tell me to “let it go and move on” is that you worry that I’m going to remain imprisoned.  It’s been said that when we refuses to forgive someone it’s as though we’ve drunk poison in the expectation that the other person will die.  Those who encourage us to “let go” don’t want to see us keep drinking poison.

And, of course, they’re right to be worried.  To quote Bishop Tutu again,

“When we ignore the pain, [which could be another way of saying “when we hold on to it” or “when we refuse to let it go”] it grows bigger and bigger, and like an abscess that is never drained, eventually it will rupture. When that happens, it can reach into every area of our lives—our health, our families, our jobs, our friendships, our faith, and our very ability to feel joy may be diminished by the fallout from resentments, anger, and hurts that are never named.”

But despite our friends’ – and even our own – best intentions this isn’t so easy to do because … well … for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that we’re afraid.  We’re afraid that if we forgive this person we’d somehow be saying that what they did wasn’t that wrong, wasn’t that bad, that it was, now that we’re looking back at it, in some sense “okay.”   We’re afraid that if we let go of our pain and our anger that in that letting go we’ll be giving our tacit approval and that we’ll allow the person who committed the act to forget what they did.

As you can imagine, Bishop Tutu has something to say about this, too.  He wrote:

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending things aren’t as they really are. Forgiveness is a recognition that there is a ghastliness that has happened. Forgiveness doesn’t mean trying to paper over the cracks. Forgiveness means that both the wronged and the culprits of those wrongs acknowledge that something happened.”

That was the goal of South Africa’s “Truthand Reconciliation Commission,” and all the ones formed in other countries that have followed in its footsteps.  And the Commission was really well-named because the name really says it.  The purpose was to bring to light the truth of what happened – the unvarnished, honest, no-holds-barred, at times horrific truth.  Naming it, recognizing it as being as bad as it was, owning its effects on me … that’s the first step. 

Then there’s the reconciliation part.  Victims and victimizers were brought together so that one could say to the other the truth of what happened.  In fact, both were given a chance to speak their truths.  And then the question was asked, “what would it take to reconcile?”  Not, “how can we wipe the past away?”  Not, “how can we make it all somehow ‘okay’?”  Not, “how can we pretend nothing all that bad really happened?”  Not, in other words, “how can we let the person who did this off the hook?”  None of those would be at all good – for either person!  Instead, the question is about how we can return to a state in which everyone can recognize each other’s common humanity; how we can get to a place where everyone can again see one another as members of the same human family,

And that’s where the work of it all comes in.  It’s not easy – no matter what self-help slogans and internet memes might encourage you to believe.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Forgiveness is not a one-time act.  It is a permanent attitude.”  And the development over time – in “step by excruciatingly incremental step,” as I said a few weeks back – is part of what it means to be a person of letting go.  Even – and perhaps, really, most especially –  when what needs to be let go of is as difficult, and as painful, as this.

Maybe not surprisingly, I’m going to give Bishop Tutu the final word:

“Forgiving [and I think we could also say “letting go”] is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering--remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning.”  He said, “We are not responsible for what breaks us, but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again.”

Pax tecum,


Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Aung San Suu Kyi looking from their internal freedom through the bars of their external captivity.

This is the text of a sermon delievered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, Ocrtober 18, 2015.  If you prefer, you can listen to the sermon.

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