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Sermon for Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009

The Science and Art of Forgiveness

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”Matthew 18:21

Is forgiveness a choice, or a biological necessity? Jesus asks us to forgive, but why? Is there a spiritual befit only? Can forgiveness change us, body and soul?

Imagine being in your car, peacefully driving, when suddenly something rock-hard shatters your windshield, hits you and breaks nearly every bone in your face. Imagine that the “weapon” is a frozen turkey, hurled from the rear window of a speeding car by a teenage college student out for a joyride with friends. That’s what happened in November 2005 to 44 year old Victoria Ruvolo, on a road in the town of Riverhead on Long Island. She could have been killed, and she could have had brain damage. Surgeons had to rebuild her face, using metal plates and screws. But remarkably, she recovered. Within a few months, Victoria was back on her own and working again.

But that’s not the real story. It’s what happened the following August in court that makes this a tale to remember. The boy who threw the turkey, 19-year-old Ryan Cushing, who suffers from impaired vision, was indicted on a first-degree assault charge and could have faced up to 25 years in prison. Until Victoria Ruvolo stepped in. She saw her assailant coming out of the courtroom. He stopped, choking and crying as he tried to apologize to her. A journalist for the New York Times witnessed the event and wrote, “For an intensely emotional few minutes, Victoria alternately embraced him tightly, stroked his face and patted his back as he sobbed uncontrollably.” As the young man kept saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it,” his victim repeated, “It’s OK. It’s OK. I just want you to make your life the best it can be.”

Then, at Victoria’s insistence, prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain for Cushing, giving him six months in jail and five years’ probation instead of 25 years in prison. Later, one witness said that in his 30 years as a prosecutor “he had not seen such a forgiving victim.” The New York Times actually wrote an editorial about Ruvolo, titling it “A Moment of Grace.” Their words were touching.
Given the opportunity for retribution, Ms. Ruvolo gave and got something better: the dissipation of anger and the restoration of hope, in a gesture as cleansing as the tears washing down her damaged face, and the face of the foolish, miserable boy whose life she single-handedly restored.
Amazing isn’t it. Not easy. But amazing. Making the choice to forgive can be a liberating practice -- one that can lead to a life filled with exquisite experiences. We must remember that forgiveness is possible because we have the ability to make choices. We have the choice to forgive or not to forgive and no one can force us to do either. If we want to forgive someone, no one can stop us no matter how poorly the offender may have acted.

Forgiveness happens in stages. In the beginning, you are filled with self justified anger. At some point in your life, you have been wounded and you are mad at and hurt by the person who wronged you. You blame the offending person for how you are feeling. You are certain that it is another’s actions that cause your distress. You have no choice in the matter. You have forgotten that you have choices as to how you can react. You feel so injured that you are convinced it would not be right to forgive the offense. You are angry. You are in pain. But anger and pain don’t have to declare the final word.

The second step towards forgiveness emerges when, after feeling upset with someone for a while, you realize that the hurt and anger do not feel good to you. It may be impacting your emotional balance or your physical health. You may wish to repair the damage done to the relationship. You may begin to see the problem from the other person’s point of view. You may simply decide to let the problem go. In either case, after a while you are no longer done in by your anger. You forgive the person with whom you were angry.

The third stage of forgiveness comes after you have seen the results of forgiveness. You are now ready to work to either repair damaged relationships or let go of seeing the situation as a problem. You decide to forgive because you have had some practice with it and see the clear benefit in your life. This could emerge in a situation as simple as being cut off by another car on the highway or in a complex situation like an affair in a marriage. At this stage of forgiveness you are aware that the length of time you experience a situation as a grievance is primarily up to you.

I have to confess to you, I feel like I squandered my Summer away being angry at some people. I had some misunderstandings with some people. Words were said. Feelings were hurt. I felt angry, hurt, and betrayed and I didn’t know what to do. I was disgusted with hypocrisy – my own included. I tried to distract myself, but sooner or later I would remind myself of my wounded spirit. I would try to avoid those who hurt me, but we would eventually see each other and I’d remember my injuries.

I can tell you exactly how things changed for me. I was reading a quote about hypocrisy by the famous activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin. He wrote:
Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not as anything we are not. Generally, we try to pass ourselves off as something that is special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching.
Reading that quote changed my perspective. I realized that I’m human and I act to protect the wellbeing of myself and my family. Others are human, and they act to preserve their interests. I don’t need to harbor anger. I can make a different choice. I can forgive. And I hope that people can forgive me. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. If I have done things that anger you, I ask for your forgiveness. If I make decisions that you don’t understand or agree with, please forgive me. If I say or do something and your feelings are hurt, please forgive me. Let’s walk in the healing love and unity that can be the trademark of our congregation.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the journey. There is still one more step to healing.

The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the choice to rarely if ever take offense in the first place. There is an ancient and well-kept secret to happiness that sages have known for centuries. They rarely talk about it, but they use it all the time, and it is fundamental to good mental health. This secret is called The Fine Art of Not Being Offended. In order to truly be a master of this art, one must be able to see that every statement, action and reaction of another human being is the sum result of one’s total life experience to date. In other words, the majority of people in our world say what they say and do what they do from their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. We all act out of self interest. When we understand that, the world can become more manageable.

Maybe you are now at a point in your life where you don’t want to waste your precious life in the discomfort caused by anger or hurt. You are ready to feel differently. You are able to forgive yourself, forgive others, forgive life, and forgive God.

Maybe you’ve learned that life is filled with incredible beauty and wonder and you are missing these experiences when you’re stuck in the remembrance of old hurts or disappointments.

Perhaps you realize that everyone, including you, operates primarily out of self-interest. In my self-interest, I will be annoyed by some one else’s expression of self-interest. If I can understand that this is an ordinary part of life, what is there to be upset about? If I understand that self-interest is my guiding principle, how can I not offer forgiveness to everyone, including myself for behaving that way?

In this sense, forgiveness is an art. It takes practice, discipline, and patience to get to a point where you desire not to get offended in the first place.

As it turns out, there is also some science to forgiveness. Forgiveness may be a choice and a discipline, but it also comes from a changed reality at a subconscious level of impulses. The subconscious is ruled by our most in-grained fears and desires, so if we can train our subconsciouses to crave reconciliation and lessen fear, then the world can be changed one thought at a time.

I’m going to keep this very basic, because that’s all I can understand. There is a part of the brain called the Cingulate Gyrus, Latin for “belt ridge”. The Cingulate Gyrus partially wraps around the Corpus Callosum. The Cingulate is an evolved feature of the mammalian brain. It functions as a clearing house for the subconscious mind, deciding which primal instincts are appropriate for a given situation. Think of the Cingulate as the belt around your consciousness. It functions in the brain a little like a mediator. It helps restore balance between your thoughts and your feelings, between behaviors and emotions.

What’s this got to do with forgiveness? Research shows that activity increases in the Cingulate during moments of forgiveness. The brain is hardwired for forgiveness. Your brain is able to consider another person’s intentions, another person’s emotional state and the forgivability of another’s actions. If the brain wasn’t so crowded out with competing demands and opposing stories from the past, there would be more forgiveness because our brains would be free to do what they can do so well and so impersonally. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. However research has found that forgiveness is good for the person forgiving as well. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system.

This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, longer lasting marriages and stronger social networks. With forgiveness, what goes around most definitely comes around.

The science and spirit of forgiveness is summed up like this: Loosen the belt of your consciousness. You can absorb pain and injustice without becoming a bitter person. You can come face to face with pain, your own and others, without becoming hostile. Forgiveness is good for you, and so much better than holding on to resentment. Forgiveness is also good for the world. Forgiveness is one of the powerful thoughts that change the world, beginning with your inner world. So forgive. Stop expecting the world to be perfect. Forgive seventy times seven times. Forgive because it’s good for others. Forgive because it’s good for you. Forgive because it’s part of your biological make-up. Forgive because God forgives you.

Sources:
• “'The Science and Spirit of Forgiveness " By Ian Lawton. February 24, 2008
• The Art and Science of Forgiveness by Frederic Luskin, Ph.D. Avaialalbe online at http://www.cancersupportivecare.com/forgive.html



A Prayer
Say to yourself:
May I be at peace. May I be a lake of forgiveness. May I be truly happy.

Think of someone who has harmed you, or needs your forgiveness:
May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May you be free from pain. May you be happy.

Bring all the peoples of the world into your focus:
May the world be at peace. May it be free from suffering. May it be free from pain. May it be happy.

Finally, bring the Earth into your focus:
May she be at peace. May she be free from suffering. May she be free from pain. May she be happy.

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