by D. Patrick Miller
I used to live in the highly politicized atmosphere of Berkeley, California, where few Republicans exist (or at least let it be known if they do). The traditional power struggle there has not been between left and right, but between moderate liberals and progressive leftists — and that struggle was often as bitter as the more conventional one. A burg full of self-avowed pacifists is not necessarily a peaceful place to be.
For years, a popular bumpersticker seen around town read: ‘IF YOU’RE NOT OUTRAGED YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION'. From within the leftie cocoon of Berkeley, the rest of the world was seen as a hopeless morass of regressive social attitudes and backward politics — and this was well before the age of Trump & MAGA.
Coming from North Carolina, where I’d never really felt at home despite being born there, Berkeley attitudes were both a cultural salve and a continuing source of amusement. It felt more like home, if sometimes a surreal one. But the environment began to feel less welcoming when the health crisis of my thirties led me from youthful political preoccupations into a more spiritual state of mind. That divergence came to a head when I did a Berkeley bookstore reading for my first solo title, A Little Book of Forgiveness (released in a sixth edition in 2017 as THE FORGIVENESS BOOK).
At the end of the reading I took questions from the audience and soon found myself confronted by a classic Berkeley haranguer. He lit into me for espousing a passive, regressive attitude that would encourage people to ignore the political realities of the day, and sink into a touchy-feely state of self-absorption. At the end of the day, he let me know, I would be judged as “part of the problem instead of the solution.”
If Berkeley had ever believed in the death penalty, that’s the kind of verdict that could get you hung from the rafters.
Somewhat taken aback and not used to handling hecklers, I sheepishly admitted that I didn’t really have an answer to his challenges, and the political part of me was tempted to agree with his damning analysis. On the other hand, I knew that the path of forgiveness had saved my life and sanity, and I hoped that what I had written would help those who sought guidance on the same path.
At that point the score in my head read: Haranguer 1, New Author 0. But then an instinctive curiosity took over, dissolving my unease, as I asked my questioner directly: “So what are you doing here? Why did you even come to the reading of a book about forgiveness?”
Now it was the haranguer’s turn to feel uneasy. He looked flustered and mumbled, “I don’t know really.” Then he shrugged his shoulders and sat down.
This was my introduction to the fact that the very mention of forgiveness can spark an angry or defensive reaction. Around that same time I spoke to a couple groups of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers, and ran into trouble both times when I revealed that my recovery from seven years of the affliction (a relatively short period, in comparison to many others) had been accelerated by recognizing and learning to let go of a deep, chronic anger.
I promptly received the feedback that I was suggesting what too many CFS sufferers had heard from one physician after another: that their illness was "all in their head". So again, I looked like part of the problem instead of the solution. My response was that I had learned my own illness was indeed all in my head… and all in my body, all in my heart, all in my soul. Because they did not know how to look at the "whole being" who was suffering an autoimmune crisis, the medical establishment was nowhere near figuring out what was going on with CFS (and they are not much closer today, decades later). Thus, I was certain I would never have recovered if I had not developed a spiritual discipline that addressed all the aspects of my being at once. At the core of that discipline was the challenge of profound forgiveness.
In the ensuing years I’ve spoken and conducted workshops about forgiveness many times, and never run into another haranguer. But I have had plenty of opportunities to observe individuals reacting to the idea of forgiveness with suspicion or outright hostility. Reactive attitudes vary, but there are at least three common styles:
1. My enemies are real and you’re not taking them away from me. Whether one’s perceived enemies are political (liberals or conservatives, Americans or Russians, Israelis or Palestinians, Middle Eastern terrorists or Western oppressors) or personal (my ex, my parents, my siblings, the neighbors) it can be devilishly difficult to let go of the notion that someone is out to get us, and strong defenses must be maintained against all perceived enemies.
In fact, it is not unusual for individuals, groups, organizations, cultures and nations to define themselves partly by whom they defend themselves against. This is what I call “self-esteem by negation”, i.e., I’m clearly better and more worthy than all those who are trying to destroy me.
Genuine forgiveness — which must be universal to be meaningful — cannot make room for any enemies, however.
2. Forgiveness will just open me up to more abuse, and I’ve had enough. This is a common belief among those who mistake forgiveness for the attitudes of giving up, giving in, and accepting attack, loss, or sacrifice. Over years of study and practice, I’ve found just the reverse: that a disciplined habit of seeing things through the eyes of compassion, which is at the heart of forgiveness, is the key to a strength that far surpasses self-defense, wariness, or competitiveness. This strength derives from learning to recognize that we are in charge of how we experience all circumstances, negative or positive, and how we experience every kind of relationship.
A Course in Miracles expresses this recognition in the lesson: “I rule my mind, which I alone must rule.”
Over time, a forgiving attitude also sharpens one’s perceptions of human frailty. You become more sharply attuned to signs of danger or likely abuse, not less — and you also develop a faster and more effective response. These capacities come about as you recognize the deep common source of all human suffering and begin to heal it within yourself. Then you are better able to facilitate healing within others — which happens far more subtly yet with greater effect than merely defending oneself or "fighting back" in more conventional ways.
3. Everything is perfectly fine, I’ve forgiven everyone I need to, and I don’t want to hear any more about it! This attitude is a thinly disguised anger hiding the fact that hardly anyone has really been forgiven, particularly oneself. As the Course reminds us, “You have either forgiven someone entirely, or not at all.” While many people think of forgiveness as a way to heal or get past problems they have with particular people, it is really a discipline of seeing the entire world differently, through the eyes of acceptance and compassion rather than wariness and judgment. That’s a profound shift of perception, because it can literally mean giving up the world we’re accustomed to.
Giving Up the World
The two scribes of A Course in Miracles, Helen Schucman and Bill Thetford, were legendary for the battles between themselves and their colleagues at Columbia University’s psychology department, where they were administrators. It’s been said that the two fought about everything but the Course itself, which was their joint legacy. After Helen left Columbia in 1977, she and Bill had little contact before she died in 1981.
Seven years later, well after Bill himself had retired from Columbia and moved to California, he was staying at the house of Course publisher Judith Skutch Whitson in anticipation of a July 4th party. That morning, Judy noticed that Bill seemed unusually ebullient, skipping around and declaring that he was glad to be there for the party because he felt “free, finally free.”
Suspicious of whether he might be having a manic episode, Judy asked Bill what he meant and he replied, “I’m finally free. I’ve forgiven everyone.”
“Even Helen?” Judy responded skeptically.
“Especially Helen,” Bill explained. “After all, Helen was the major reason I had to learn forgiveness.”
Judy laughed and asked Bill if he wanted to accompany her to the grocery store. He said he would start walking there himself, and if they didn’t happen to find each other at the store, Judy could “go home without me.” Feeling a momentary alarm, Judy responded, “I’d never go home without you, Bill” — at which he smiled and went out the door. A few minutes later, Judy would find him collapsed in the driveway, dead from a heart attack.
Did forgiveness kill Bill Thetford? No, it was his lifelong heart condition. But this poignant story nonetheless symbolizes a central tenet of the profound Course teaching of forgiveness: that it ultimately means giving up the world as we know it.
If we’ve depended upon the world to furnish us with the enemies, anxieties, and resentments by which we define ourselves, then forgiveness means progressively dying to all that. And few of us will give up our anger at this world without a fight.
PHOTO OF BERKELEY BY CHARLEY NGUYEN
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