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Why It Might Make Sense to Quit

We’ve all heard the adages:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“Quitters never win.”

And from one of Winston Churchill‘s famous speeches: “Never give in. Never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in . . .”

Ah, but Churchill didn’t end there: ” – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Like they say out West, “When your horse dies, it’s time to get off.”

When the great depression hit in 1929, my grandad (that’s a photo of him) had a wife and a baby (my dad). Jobs were scarce, so Grandad traveled around the South, as he said, “feeling the country out, you know – for a job.” For a while, he loaded trucks by hand. Then he shoveled gravel, earning a dollar and a half a day. The family was poor, but they got by. As the years passed, Grandad worked hard at whatever he could find to do. Eventually he became a successful businessman and rancher. But on the way, he failed a lot. He bought a hotel. It failed spectacularly. He bought a dairy farm. It didn’t work out. He started raising sheep. No go. But Grandad always shook it off and moved on, saying, “Well, I learned what not to do,” which in his view was just as valuable as learning what to do.

I don’t know what it’s like in other careers, but within the writing community, an abundance of social media voices cheer us on. “You can write a novel! You can get published! Don’t give up!” Hundreds of writers and writer-coaches encourage us daily to stick with it, don’t drop it, stay in the game. I suspect that whatever your aspirations, writerly or otherwise, you can find plenty of motivational blogs and books ready to plump up your courage, inspire your vision, and help you persevere until you succeed.

All of this can make it hard to quit. If, in spite of the cheering voices, we do quit, we may feel deeply ashamed. Because quitters never win, right?

But “Quitters do win,” tweeted author Meg Cabot. “By quitting what you know isn’t working, you’ll have time to discover new things you might love.” By the time I saw Meg’s post on my Twitter feed, it had been favorited by 168 followers and reposted by 125. I clicked on the heart symbol too, thinking yes! Finally, someone had the sense to expose the wrong-headedness of the blind belief that quitters never win. Someone had the courage to give us permission to quit.

We may have to be honest with ourselves and admit that our chances of success hover at or below zero. Once we’re at that point, we can go one of two directions. We may decide it’s a not-yet situation, so we take what we learned from the failure and try again (and again and again), improving until at last we find success. After all, the dance is learned by stumbling. Or we cut our losses and move on. Ironically, admitting defeat may be a form of success. Learning what not to do is immensely valuable.

Whether we stay the course or quit, the experience we’ve gained by failing can actually help us find our way. Randy Pausch, who was a professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon famously said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Sometimes that experience tells us that we’re on the wrong path. We can’t start looking for the right path until we accept the fact that we’re on the wrong one to begin with.

“There is nothing finer than being able to stop what ought to be stopped,” wrote Eric Maisel, a psychologist and creativity expert. There may also be nothing more difficult if our own expectations – or someone else’s – are invested completely in success. But as Tim Farrington wrote in The Monk Downstairs , “There is that lightness that comes when you realize that you’re not going to be able to make something work, no matter how hard you try. When you finally let go.”

Of course, the flip side of failure is success – and, frankly, nothing fails like success. But that’s next week’s topic.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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10 Ways to Succeed at Failure

“You may be disappointed if you fail,

but you are doomed if you don’t try.”

Beverly Sills

Failure is unavoidable. So how do we deal with it?

  1. Grieve. That may sound strange, but some failures are a type of death – the death of a dream, the death of a relationship, the death of a business venture. Sure, these are nothing compared to the death of a friend or family member, but if we feel the loss deeply, there’s no shame in admitting it. I can say from experience that when a writer puts time and energy and creativity and emotion and hope into a manuscript, it hurts to have it rejected by agents or publishers. It feels like a major failure. We writers often have to give ourselves time to lick our wounds and grieve.

 

2. Forgive yourself. This is related to grieving and, in fact, may be part of the process. Author Ann Patchett wrote, “I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.” (I would add: or achieving any other heartfelt goal.) “Forgiveness, therefore, is key,” she says. “Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

So the next time failure hits hard, try a writerly response. Give yourself a period of time to feel and process the rejection (aka the failure). A morning in mourning. A night out. A day of self-care. Forgive yourself if you need to. And when that self-imposed period of time is over, try to set aside the weight of failure and get back to work. Or as my Texas forebears might counsel, “Get back in the saddle.”

 

  1. Avoid using someone else’s life as the measuring stick for your success. Comparing our failure to someone else’s success can easily lead to one of two unhealthy extremes. At one extreme, we who fall short disparage those who succeed. This is so common it has a name: “tall poppy syndrome.” Anyone who rises above the crowd gets cut down. At the other extreme, we who don’t “make it” idolize those who do. They become almost mythical to us. Both extremes rely on the assumption that the successful people are somehow different from us. Creative consultant Dan Blank points out what’s under the surface: “What you don’t see is the thousands of decisions . . . made over the years. The thousands of negotiations. The thousands of little failures. You don’t see the late-night worries. You don’t see how they had to stick to their guns with some difficult decisions and compromise on others.”

Poet Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote, “Losing is no shame, nor does it make you less than others. It’s being less than yourself that mars you.” I’ve heard similar advice given to young athletes: Compete with yourself and simply try to better your own personal record.

  1. Honor your failures. Remind yourself that at least you had the courage to try. A lot of people never even get that far. The irony is that while failure often feels like a step backward, it’s actually a step forward, maybe in an unexpected direction, but forward just the same. As a popular saying goes, “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”

 

  1. Recast the purpose of your initial efforts. I recently emailed my older son, who lives in Japan, to give him the latest family news: My younger son passed the bar, which means he may now practice law. I remarked that it’s strange that we refer to the business of lawyers and doctors as practice. My older son responded, “[I]n Japan it takes 10 years to become respectably proficient at anything. It’s part of the code of honor. If you’ve been working your job for less, you would refer to yourself as in training. And once you achieve the ten-year mark, you pursue improvement. The code applies to everyone from ramen chefs to doctors.”

We tend to look at success as an endpoint, a terminus. But what if we recast our efforts, redefining them as part of a process? In a blog on writing, author John Vorhaus posted, “When you’re trying a hard thing, you’re not doing it to succeed. You’re doing it to improve.”

 

  1. Lower your expectations. Okay, I can hear the gasps. You don’t tell people to lower their expectations, right? We’re supposed encourage each other to dream big, shoot for the moon, hitch our wagon to a star. And there’s nothing wrong with having a grand goal – unless we stake our personal value and happiness on achieving that goal. In that case, failure can feel like a personal disaster. So lowering expectations could make sense. Is there a smaller goal to achieve first? Something more within reach? Is there some lower hanging fruit that we can pick on the way to the bounty at the top of the tree?

We tend to see success as the big stuff and overlook small successes along the way. But in reality, most goals are reached in increments, two steps forward, one step back (or maybe ten back). Seth Godin once said in an interview that the goal is simply to do well enough today to be able to do it one more day.

  1. View failure as the valuable flip side of the success coin. I’ve heard that the process of building muscle by weight lifting actually involves tearing down muscle in order to rebuild it stronger. I know that getting a car out of a rut often entails going backward before you can move forward. You get it. To succeed, you have to fail first.

“Seeming failure is often necessary to push our work into unexpected terrain,” said writer and teacher Louise DeSalvo. Notice her subtle nudge: seeming failure. What seems like failure may be exactly what’s needed to position us for success. Author/illustrator Gregoire Solotareff said, “I find that failure is more useful than success. [I]t makes you question yourself. When you are successful the first time around you tend to repeat yourself.”

 

  1. Interpret failure as not yet. In an interview, Carol Dweck, Stanford professor and author of Mindset, tells about a Chicago school where teachers choose to give a grade of ‘not yet’ instead of the dreaded ‘F’ when students didn’t pass a subject. “And I thought that was fantastic,” she says, “because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘not yet,’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.” ‘Not yet’ is often an accurate way to look at failure, because ‘failure’ is usually a temporary setback. Sarah Lewis, author of Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, put it this way: “We know that something that looks as if it’s final, winter’s deep freeze, will eventually result in spring. Life is the same way. Failure for me is an equivalent to that winter period.”

 

  1. Be tenacious. “[K]nowledge combined with experience and tenacity is the key to success,” says painter Zoltan Szabo. Failure may simply be what happens when we give up too soon. But how do we know when to keep trying and when to stop? It’s a judgment call. Which is why the next point is . . .

 

  1. Quit. Oops. Did I say that? Yep, I did. And that’s where I’ll start in next week’s post.

Until then, try-try-try again or, you know, . . . give it a week.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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How to Be Perfectly Imperfect

“If at first you don’t succeed, you’re running about average.”

– unknown –

As I was growing up, I somehow came to believe that I had to be a pillar of strength, to know it all, to carry it all, to fix it all. Weakness on my part would only burden others. So I determined not be weak. I created the image of perfection as best I could, although at the time, I didn’t see it as an image. I thought I was creating reality. Wasn’t I growing stronger day by day, growing more into God’s image? I was progressing from less perfect to more perfect, right?

Year after year, I studied the Bible more, spoke the right scriptures, defended beliefs, and presented myself as the expert wife and mother with the perfect family. There was no room for deviation from the script of perfection. But if my heart had been a flower, it would not have been opening and blossoming but curling tighter and tighter into a hard, shell-covered knot.

Eventually the outer shell began to crack. Then the cracks began to widen. Like the king’s men’s rescue attempt for Humpty Dumpty, none of my canned answers could glue the shell back together again. I had tried to please others and live up to their expectations, but I felt that I had disappointed every last person I knew. Most of all myself.

But just as disillusionment is a good thing, so is disappointment. Appoint means to officially name someone to a position. Disappoint literally means to remove them from that position, to dispossess them. When I disappoint, I’m removed from what I or others appointed me to be or expected of me. I can then either reappoint myself and try again to live up to expectations, or I can leave behind the old expectations, the ones that no longer fit, and readjust my expectations. I can reappoint myself to something new.

The fact that we are imperfect makes us perfectly human. We are perfectly imperfect. Not only is that okay, but it’s also good and right. Life is a mixture of good choices and bad, some made by us, some made by others but affecting us just the same. Both good and bad choices can make us wiser. But those of us who strive for perfection often don’t learn how to deal realistically with bad choices. We hope to bury them or outrun them or deny making them.

When we allow imperfection, we take ourselves off the pedestal of our own making. Once we’re down, we no longer have to fear opening our eyes and exploring the landscape – or the soulscape. Sure, we’ll fail. But loving-kindness picks us up, dusts us off, and gives us permission to try again without being condemned.

Do we ever really get past the fear of failure? I don’t know. But I do know that’s where courage comes in. Courage exists only where there’s fear. Judging by the number of shared quotes and blogs and podcasts about persisting in the face of failure, I’d say the courage to fail is highly sought after. Obviously, a lot of us have failed or anticipate the possibility, so we gravitate toward any bit of encouragement as we plot our next steps.

Of course, failure is unavoidable. So how do we deal with it?

That’s next week’s topic.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Why Do We Fear Failure?

“The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember those words opening ABC’s Wide World of Sports on television. The winner of a race received the trophy cup as the announcer said, “the thrill of victory.” The next scene was a downhill skier wiping out as the voice continued, “the agony of defeat.” We equate failure with defeat. We’re taught to win. The rags-to-riches stories we love are wins, successes against the odds, the rise and achievement of the underdog. Most of us root for the underdog, because we can relate.

We don’t like to fail. In fact, many of us fear failure. Why? The obvious, simplistic answer is, “Because succeeding at this matters to me.” But again, the question is, “Why?” Why does it matter? Because my heart is set on succeeding? Because someone else’s heart is set on my success? Honor, income, health, happiness, position, or the simple satisfaction of a job well done – any or all of these may be what I expect of myself or what someone else expects of me. So either my own expectation or someone else’s expectation is pinned to my success.

In the 1970’s when I was getting an education degree, we were encouraged to create a non-competitive environment for our classrooms. Even in games, we emphasized fun for everyone instead of focusing on who won and who lost. It was an honorable goal, but non-competition wasn’t completely doable. In real life, success gets the glory. Achievements receive the accolades. Accomplishments gain honor and give us the high. Failure often gets reprimanded or shunned. So when we fail, we often wrestle with feeling inadequate, unworthy, ashamed, maybe even doomed. It’s embarrassing to not be good enough. We begin to wonder if our efforts were wasted. Or was the dream of success a mistake to begin with? We spent all that time and energy and hope for nothing. At least that’s what it feels like.

The thing about failure is that we often take it personally. Our business fails, and we translate it into I am a failure. Our marriage fails, and we think, I am a failure. True, we probably bear some responsibility for what happened, and it’s only honest to admit that. Did I make mistakes? Yes. Does that mean I am a failure? No. Did I fail to speak up when I should have? Yes. So am I a failure? No, I’m human, and the fact is, human endeavors sometimes fail.

One reason we hate to fail is that failure can threaten two of our deepest needs: belonging and being loved. If meeting those needs hinges on our success, then, of course, we fear failure, because we fear rejection. Conditional love and acceptance are powerful forces, especially if that’s the only kind of love we think we can get.

The fear of failure and rejection is basically universal, but I sometimes wonder if we Christians have an extra hurdle to clear. Many of us were raised with an overarching life theme that connects success and failure to the afterlife. In other words, heaven is the reward for successfully living up to the church’s standard, while failing to live up to the standard earns hell. That means choices are critical – and not only when it comes to the big issues. Small choices can lead down a slippery slope, snowballing into big consequences and an eternity of doom. So success becomes all important. Especially if we envision God as the Great Scorekeeper or the Principal of Life who hands out reports cards at the end of the grading period.

It’s no wonder that many of us believed that what was expected of us was nothing less than perfection. Of course, if we thought about it long enough, we readily admitted that we were not perfect, but we quickly added that we were becoming perfect, growing more like Jesus every day. We memorized, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Seen through that lens, perfection equals success.

Now there’s nothing wrong with perfection. (Literally, there’s nothing wrong with perfection.) But have you ever met anyone who is perfect? I haven’t. It’s not a human quality. Have you ever met anyone who believed they were perfect or acted as if they were? I have. It’s not an endearing quality. But if we’re afraid to fail for fear of being rejected or condemned, then we hesitate to admit that we’re imperfect. We’d rather wear the perfect mask than join the human race and admit that we’re just as cracked – maybe even more cracked – than our neighbor who doesn’t even go to church.

It’s ironic, but “I-must-be-perfect” is one of those blind beliefs that makes questioning other blind beliefs a risky undertaking. Because if I question, that’s tantamount to admitting I’m not perfect. And if I admit I’m not perfect, that domino falls, taking down a whole line of dominoes with it. Then where are we?

Actually, we’re right where we’ve always been, traveling with every other human being on an unmapped journey with an uncertain future. In the midst of that uncertainty, the one thing we can count on is the fact that we’ll fail again and again. Coming of age is risky, no matter what age we are. Sculpting our own identity is risky. Opening our eyes and hearts and minds is risky. Letting go of blind beliefs is risky. At some point, we will fail to live up to someone’s expectations, maybe even our own. We will disappoint someone, maybe even ourselves. But that might not be such a bad thing.

Next week: How to be Perfectly Imperfect

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Finding LIFE in FaILurE

School let out for summer last Friday. Neighborhood pools are opening this weekend, and vacation plans are now in play. Back in the day . . . and we’re talking way back in the 1960’s . . . this began summer vacations as I recall:

We pile into the Oldsmobile station wagon – Daddy, Mother, me, and my three little sisters. We girls clamor for seats. Middle seat in the front is popular. Middle in the back is not. And the way back? A couple of years ago, the way back was definitely not popular, because the air conditioner couldn’t blow cool air that far. Then Daddy bought a length of dryer vent hose, wiggled one end around the front air vent on Mother’s side, and stretched it through the car to the back so we could get some cool air. Now the way back is a choice.

I happen to know that we’re lucky to have any cooling at all. I’ve heard Mother and Daddy talk about a time when cars had no air conditioning. That was when they were growing up and even the first few years after they married. Cooling was all natural: wind blowing through open windows onto sweaty bodies. Compared to that, Daddy’s rigged-up system isn’t so bad, although it’s a little tricky climbing out over a dryer hose. But, then, we don’t climb out very often. Daddy is a destination driver: get behind the wheel and stay there until we arrive at the journey’s end.

Of course, he does stop for gasoline and potty breaks. And meals. We’re quite a crew around a table at restaurants as we wait for our orders. We swing our legs and fidget with the silverware. One little sister smacks her gum, which annoys me to no end. It doesn’t help to tell her to stop; she only smacks louder.

To keep the peace, Mother, who loves Scrabble and crossword puzzles, hands out pencils and challenges us to play word games. One of our favorites is trying to see how many words we can make out of a word or phrase she gives us. We write on small note pads Mother carries in her oversize purse. Or if the restaurant has paper place mats, we write on those, sometimes using the name of the restaurant as our challenge word. Chicken Shack yields neck, kick, sack, ice, case . . . before we’ve exhausted the linguistic possibilities, our meal has been served.

With all my childhood word-game practice, I guess it’s not surprising that I grew up to have a career in words. Occasionally, I even receive payment based on the number of words I write or edit. (Payment per word would have taken the placemat game to a whole new level.) Trained as a wordsmith, I often see words within words, so when I decided to set down my thoughts about failing, I found words lurking in failure: lure, ail, frail, rail, rule. Then I saw life, which seemed appropriate, because while failure can feel more like death than life, there truly is life in failure.

A student fails her test. A football player fails to catch the winning pass in front of thousands of spectators. A crop fails. A marriage fails. A medical treatment fails. A train’s brakes fail. Each is a setback, minor or major. Each is the death of what we desired or anticipated in that moment.

The word fail comes from the Latin word for disappoint. I guess that’s why it feels like a kind of death. It’s the death of an expectation or an effort, which makes it related to disillusionment but without the illusion. The goal we’re hoping to reach is no mirage; it’s very real. It’s just that we didn’t reach it. Which can leave us feeling ashamed, inadequate, embarrassed, or totally done in.

Or not. Some people are able to take failure in stride. Whether that’s because they were raised and trained in that perspective or because that’s their natural temperament, I don’t know. Probably some of both. You failed? Then next time, “Fail better,” advised Samuel Beckett. Robert Kennedy famously said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.” People who are undaunted by failure take “there’s life in failure” and turn it on its head: There’s failure in life. Totally true. Failing is how researchers and artists find their way forward. In fact, it’s how all of us find our way forward. It’s how we come of age. Life is too big for any of us, and we’re always trying to grow into it. We fail our way forward.

I suspect that most of us are not in the “undaunted” category, as evidenced by all the self-help and encouragement books on offer. For us, while we can easily find life in failure written on a place mat, it’s not so easy to find the life in a failure on the job, or in a relationship, or after trying to achieve some goal we’ve pursued with all our time, energy, and heart. In fact, some of us are so daunted by failure that simply the fear of failure can stop us in our tracks. Case in point: the book I’m currently writing. Every time I sit down to write another chapter, my shoulders tense, my belly gets butterflies, and my fingers hover above the keyboard, hesitant. Some days that fear is just a speed bump. Other days it’s Mount Everest.

Why does the fear of failure loom so large? That’s a subject for next week’s post. In the meantime, Happy Vacation Time!

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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No Condemnation: The Open-Hearted Leap

When we forgive, “we allow ourselves to be gifted

by a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft.”

– David Whyte, Consolations

If you’ve been following the past few weeks of posts here, you may remember that I began the subject of forgiveness by telling the story of a strange cat that found its way into my house and how, even with an obvious open window beside it, had a hard time finding its way out. When it did find its escape route, it leaped and fairly flew across the roof and down to the freedom of the ground below. Sometimes we’re a lot like that cat, trying to find a way out of anger or resentment or bitterness, not paying attention to the escape route that’s right before our eyes.

There is an open-eyed, open-hearted leap that takes us out the window and into spacious freedom beyond: non-condemnation. Forgiveness is part of it, but while forgiveness is focused and specific, non-condemnation is the broad attitude, the atmosphere of grace that forgiveness lives in. It’s the “permanent attitude” that Dr. Martin Luther King pointed to in last week’s quote. In the atmosphere – the permanent attitude – of non-condemnation, any time and every time we fall, we are free to get up and try again, uncondemned.

That doesn’t mean there are no consequences, whether natural or imposed by civil law. But it does means that no weight of guilt or shame keeps us down. That’s the beauty of forgiveness. We get another chance. When we give that freedom to ourselves, we give it to others. That’s the path along which Jesus leads us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Matthew 6:9).

The apostle Paul wrote, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In other words, for those of us who follow Jesus’s teachings, condemnation is not even in our vocabulary. There is no condemnation. Not for me, not for anyone. Because we live in an age of grace. We walk the way of love.

There’s an old-fashioned word worth recovering here: redemption. A translation of the basic ancient Greek word lyo, redemption means loosen, release, liberate, set free. Redemption as part of forgiveness

         – takes what’s dead and makes it live again

– takes what’s old and makes it new

– discovers and recovers what’s been lost

– restores what’s been damaged

– heals what was broken

– makes whole what was fragmented

This is the path of Jesus, but it’s not exclusively a Christian path. All over the world redemption happens, because all over the world, love happens. And, as I said previously, wherever we find love, we find God.

So, reversing the syllables in forgive, the question is, what am I willing to give for liberation from the link that chains me to this offense and this offender? What will I give for release from the curdled stomach and tight chest of resentment? What will I give for freedom from the joy-killing time suck of bitterness?

Literally, what will I give for this freedom? I give up the right to revenge. I give up my demands to have life balance in the way I want it to. I give up the attention and empathy I might get as a victim. I give up the habit of using my wounds as an excuse for doing this or not doing that, for being this and not being that. I give up my pride in being so humble. I give up an illusion in exchange for reality. I give up an old goal for a new one. I give up blind beliefs for an open-eyed faith.

What I gain is a fresh vision. Self-respect. A release of tension. A lighter step going forward. A smile. A deep breath. Maybe even a good night’s sleep. What I gain is personal peace, which can spread beyond me to the world.

Sharon Salzberg, who teaches mindfulness meditation, suggests that we make a habit of breathing deeply while embodying this thought: “May I be safe, may I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease.” It’s a way to be kind to ourselves, to love and encourage ourselves. I go a bit further. When I’m filled with that thought toward myself, I give it a couple of tweaks and turn it toward others as a blessing: “May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be wise, may you be at ease.” Maybe that’s an expression of love. Maybe that is forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

 

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Which Way to Forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: It is a permanent attitude.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

Living, breathing mercy. Living, breathing grace. Living, breathing peace. Some people seem to embody it. “My mother didn’t have a bitter bone in her body,” a friend told me. Living, breathing forgiveness. It’s an inviting picture. I can sense the possibility. But I’m not there yet. I’m still learning. My guess is that most of us would love to have a permanent attitude of forgiveness. My guess is also that many of us have pretended we had it. And my guess is that most of us will have to work pretty hard to get to that permanent-attitude place.

In the process, we come to several crossroads. One asks us to choose whether or not to confront the person who offended us. We have to be pretty settled in ourselves to confront someone face to face. After all, forgiving is based on an accusation that a wrong has been done. If the person who hurt us hasn’t acknowledged the wrong, it takes courage on our part to approach them. To be honest with myself, I need to make sure I’m not confronting someone expecting (or worse, demanding) that they feel remorse and make amends, which they may or may not do. Of course, the other person may be completely gracious and open to discussing the grievance and receiving forgiveness, and confrontation – in the spirit of working it out to restore the relationship – may be exactly what’s needed.

But to confront or not confront – that’s not the most important question. To forgive or not forgive – that’s the question. The truth is, forgiveness does not depend on an apology. We can set hurts aside without a big confrontation or ritual. I’m not talking about stuffing our hurt or ignoring it, in which case it bides its time only to roar back to life later. I’m talking about acknowledging the hurt, forgiving it, and then allowing time and daily living to dilute the offense (as opposed to stoking the fire under it and letting it ferment into poison). We can refuse to let the offense taint our present or our future. The point is not to deny the fact that there was a wound but to let the wound heal. And if we’re left with scars, we don’t deny those, either. But neither do we let our scars define us.

As we look to the future, we come to another crossroads: We can either close our hearts and protect ourselves, fearing we’ll get hurt again, or we can open our hearts, trusting ourselves to be able to deal with whatever lies ahead. When I was wrestling with this choice one time, a friend asked, “Can you be open but not porous?” It seems to me that a permanent attitude of forgiveness would be just that: open but not porous. Opening our hearts makes life so much richer. It makes what we do more effective. It leads to our own health and growth as well as promoting the health and growth of others.

Speaking of our own health and growth . . . there’s a tricky twist to the whole forgiveness issue: forgiving ourselves. Poet and painter William Blake said, “It is easier to forgive an Enemy than to forgive a Friend.” I would add: It’s easier to forgive enemies and friends than to forgive ourselves. But how can we truly extend grace to others if we can’t extend grace to ourselves? It’s the same principle as loving others as we love ourselves. If I have a hard time forgiving myself, I’m sure to have a hard time forgiving someone else.

Self-condemnation turns our life journey into a slog. For our health and peace, and for the health and peace of the world, we need to be free from self-condemnation. There is an open-eyed, open-hearted leap that takes us to that spacious freedom. We’ll look at that next week as I share my final thoughts on forgiveness.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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7 Practical Suggestions for Forgiving

“[F]orgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside [our] own skins.”

Frederick Buechner

So practically speaking, how do we let go of resentment and bitterness? How do we forgive? Maybe part of the answer is within the word itself. Switch the syllables for and give, and you get give for. Resentment clenches its fists around the betrayal and hurt. Forgiving means opening our fists to give our offense up for our health and for the welfare of others.

For specifics, I can tell you only what has helped me.

1) Admit that what was done was not okay. For those of us who are quick to say, “That’s okay; it doesn’t matter” when we’re mistreated, the first step is to learn to respect ourselves enough to acknowledge that we were hurt. To admit that it matters. Because it does. Stuffing it away and denying it is not the same as forgiving. If you’re the type of person who can let offenses roll off “like water off a duck’s back” as they say, then fine. You can honestly say, “That’s okay; it doesn’t matter.” But most of us can’t honestly say that.

2) Take steps in a positive direction with supportive people. That means we tell someone who can help us carry our pain and gain perspective.

3) Soften our view toward the offender. Realize that he or she never gets away free, even though it may appear that way. Wrongdoing has a way of eating away at the offender’s insides and taking him or her to unpleasant places. It helps me to think, “The harm you are doing (or have done) to me is nothing compared with the harm you are doing (or have done) to yourself.”

4) Refuse to let the offense define us. Fact of life: Sometimes we get mistreated. The question is whether we’ll victimize ourselves and dig our claws into resentment or let go and move on unencumbered. I can decide not to be a victim, because the truth is that my past does not have to control my future.

5) Try to see the big perspective. I try to remember to ask myself whether this issue is important enough to jeopardize my health and happiness. Will the wrong done to me even matter ten years from now – or twenty? Usually it won’t. Novelist Nora Roberts wrote a bit of insightful dialogue that applies here:

“Did you ever stop hating [your abusive father]?”

“No, but I stopped letting it be important, and maybe that’s healthier. Someone hurts you in a permanent way, you don’t forget it. But the best revenge is seeing that it doesn’t matter.”

I would add one word to that last sentence: anymore. It doesn’t matter anymore. Because it did matter. A lot. And it’s not as if we don’t care. We do. But as I said before, for some of us, admitting that it mattered is the first step toward the healthy place of ceasing to let it be important.

6) Go high. I’m not naive enough to think that after I’ve been wronged, life will always go back to the old normal. Sometimes there’s a new normal. When someone wrongs us, they leave us at a fork in the road. We get to choose from one of two directions: worse or better. Low or high. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” We can’t control every outcome, but we can control our outlook. We can head toward the better. No, make that the best. We can go high.

7) Close the door. Offenses have a way of returning to my mind uninvited. I may think I’ve closed the door on them, but then they sneak back in. When they do, I know not to take the bait and swallow them, because they have a way of hooking into me. But in order not to take the bait, I have to look them in the eye and not ignore them. I’ve learned to try to acknowledge the memory (“ah, you again; yes, I see you”) and send it on its way (“this case is closed”). It has been said that “[F]orgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past.” I can acknowledge that and close the door on the past as often as I need to. If I have to close that door every day, I will.

Next week: a tricky twist to forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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“The Bridge Over Which We Must Pass”

“I’d held on to that hurt, coddled it, fed it, grew it.

Until it had all but consumed me.

But finally I wanted something even more than I wanted my pain. . .

Peace.”

– Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light –

 

In last week’s blog post, I said that the purpose of forgiving is not primarily to set my wrongdoer free. First and foremost, it’s to set me free. Does that sound egotistical? Selfish? It’s the same principle as the advice, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Forgiving my wrongdoer opens my fists so I can offer mercy. Forgiveness first frees me.

On the flip side, when I refuse to forgive, I forge a chain-strong link with the person who wronged me. The longer I hold onto that resentment, the stronger the link grows. I may think I can yank the chain and hurt that person, but the reality is that when I yank the chain, the only one who gets hurt is me. And because I’m hurting, I’m in danger of hurting other people in my life who are innocent of that wrongdoing. They become collateral damage. At that point, I have ceded control of my life to the original offense, giving it much more weight and power than it deserves.

Resentment and bitterness are some of the heaviest weights we can carry. When I despise someone, something, or some action, the spite is not in that person, thing, or action; the spite is in me and me alone. It will affect my whole life – my outlook, my attitude, my choices, my peace, my joy, everything. Father Thomas Hopko said, “So forgiveness is not just the healing of the other, it is the healing of yourself, too. If you don’t forgive, you allow yourself to be poisoned.”

We also stack the deck against ourselves when we don’t forgive, because at some point, we’ll want to be forgiven. As the saying goes, “He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.”

Being forgiven has long been linked to our willingness to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:9). This has less to do with God forgiving us than with the damage we do to ourselves when we don’t forgive. Our inability to be free from our wound is proportional to our inability to forgive. To the degree that we hold onto bitterness and resentment, we’ll hold onto the hurt. In other words, it’s impossible to be free of the wound, because we’re clinging to it. So it’s up to us. We’re released as much as we release others. That’s not a divine mandate; it’s simply the way life works.

If I hold onto resentment, it eventually governs me. It causes me to live with my back turned to the world and my heart turned away from even myself. Wishing someone else ill does nothing to make me feel whole. Forgiving is healthy.

So practically speaking, how do we let go of resentment and bitterness? How do we break the chain? That’s a subject for next week’s post. I hope you’ll join me as we continue to explore the subject of forgiveness.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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Why Forgive? The Real Reason

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln –

When people wrong us, we know it. We have an innate sense of right, wrong, and justice that serves as our standard for how life should work. When life doesn’t work that way, we feel betrayed.

Our first betrayal comes at birth. Out of a warm womb, we emerge into a world that immediately chills us, then pokes and prods, sticks and pricks us. It’s not long before our parents and caregivers betray us by being fallible (how dare they?), breaking promises, misunderstanding us, and sometimes misleading us, usually unintentionally. But it’s not long until our own expectations betray us. We expect this career choice or that person or this purchase to make us happy, but they don’t – not permanently anyway. The move that we expect will gain us loyal friends brings only fair weather acquaintances. What we think is love turns out to be only pity. What we think will be our big step into a career is only a move that sidetracks us. The person we expect to help us actually expects us to help them instead. Life is full of small betrayals of the way we think things should be.

Then there are the stab-in-the-back betrayals. I once believed that life was supposed to be fair, that people knew it, and that “God’s people” above all would treat you fairly, while those “in the world” regularly stabbed you in the back or kicked you in the teeth – metaphorically or literally. But Christians can betray trust as fast as non-Christians. This shouldn’t be surprising, because betrayal, by definition, happens when someone we’ve trusted pulls the rug out from under us and walks off with it. The irony is that when “God’s people” betray us, it’s sometimes people “in the world” who pick us up, treat us with respect, heal our wounds, and give us a new rug to stand on.

But betrayal can make us focus. It can clarify our lives, put things into perspective, and sift the sediment out of our souls. It’s a form of disillusionment, an invitation to remove the rose-colored glasses so we can see more clearly where we stand now and can look ahead to a wide landscape of possibilities.

But we have to decide not to chew the bitter gum. Bitterness is addictive, and like other addictions, it’s dangerous. We often don’t realize we’re addicted until it has affected our whole self, body and soul. But why is the desire for payback so addictive in the first place? Why is it so easy to baby our bitterness and so hard to forgive?

Maybe we believe that if we forgive, we have to forget as well, and we know we can’t forget. Some people think “forgive and forget” is a Bible verse. It’s not. What’s more, to forgive and forget is nearly impossible. In a lot of cases, it’s not even wise.

After a business partner stole from me, I struggled with this issue. Did forgiveness mean I had to pretend it never happened? Did I have to prove I had forgiven by going back into partnership with that person? I couldn’t. If it was business as usual, I was past the point of no return. I had to separate. Not because of hatred and bitterness but because of wisdom. When someone proves to be untrustworthy or disrespectful or abusive, forgiveness may need to go hand in hand with distancing ourselves from the relationship and remembering not to go down that road again.

Nor does forgiveness preclude justice for crimes. Whether I forgive or not, consequences may be required by civil law. There may be natural consequences as well. But we don’t have to nurse a bitter heart in order for justice to be imposed or for consequences to kick in. Justice and consequences can operate equally as well if we forgive. In fact, the purpose of forgiving is not primarily to set my wrongdoer free. First and foremost, it’s to set me free. Which is the subject for next week’s post. I hope you’ll join me as we continue to explore the subject of forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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