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Forgiveness and the Centering of Self
by Mary L. Fraser, Ph.D.
The path is steep up the side of the hill where Jeremy sits with the Sacred Drum, calling members of this gathering together in Spirit. At the foot of the hill, beside the sweat lodge made from willow branches and blankets, the gathered community earlier made prayer ties from pieces of colored cloth and pinches of tobacco. Into each center of cloth, the tobacco held a prayer for someone or a situation. In the sweat lodge they are burnt up, with the smoke rising to heaven, taking the prayer to the Great Spirit. The Ceremonial Pipe also carries prayer to the heavens during this intense focusing on letting go of things temporal to expose only things eternal.
At the top of the mountain, Jeremy tends the fire that will burn throughout the four days of the Vision Quest. Each Quester departs to his or her particular site, entering a time of prayer, renewal and hoped for vision. Most go without food for the duration of the Quest. Some go without water as well. Three times a day the person questing turns to the four directions and asks the Spirit for sustenance. Each person has also asked a family member or friend to “eat for them” during the quest, a sense of shared journey even amidst the solitary endeavor. The drum functions in the same way: several times a day Jeremy plays the drum and lifts up his voice, reminding people of the larger connection, the greater community. The drum imitates the beat of the heart, one’s own heart and the heart of the cosmos. All the personal visions are believed to inform and support the larger vision of the gathered community as well as of the universe. Each small heart joins the great heartbeat of the Eternal Spirit.
It is during this experience of Quest in September 2006 that I learned the ancient notion of Return to Self that many indigenous people hold as central to the spiritual journey. In this belief, the soul self of each person is born perfect and whole into the world, but undergoes separation from its sense of center in the course of living. The spiritual life, augmented by vision quests, prayer, community, listening to the natural world, and listening to the Guidance of the Spirit, is thought to continually return the self to its center, to its fundamental breath of wholeness. To be in the center of oneself is to be in a state of balance that allows the great expressions of compassion, kindness, wisdom, calm and courage that comprise what is known as one’s “personal medicine” or what others might label, personal power.
In conversation with Maryanna Brock, one of the teachers in this Questing community, I learned an interpretation of the Judeo-Christian story of origins that I have remembered as a profound way of thinking about the nature of our inner lives as they are lived into the world. I would like to consider this interpretation in thinking about how we might understand the nature of forgiveness as an expression of the centered self. I believe that it is in centered perfection that forgiveness lives as Jesus expressed it to us, and Jesus, an indigenous person himself, wanted us to live a forgiving lifestyle as a way of healing our dislocation from our sacred story as well as inviting others to do the same.
One evening, Maryanna told me that if one were to apply the notion of Return to Self to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, then the tragic sin that occurred was that the self, created whole, centered and good, came to believe it was bad and separated from God. The eating of the apple was the consuming of the belief in self’s own separateness from God’s goodness and love. The trick of the serpent was not in encouraging disobedience but in encouraging a belief that the conscious self, a creation by God’s conscious self, could be dislodged from its centered nature, could be separated from its own fundamental nature and existence in harmony, goodness and love. The exile from the garden marks a continued belief in one’s badness and loss of feeling centered, rather than an understanding of one’s goodness and home in a centered self. From the belief in badness and exile emerge the anger, anguish and unjust deeds of the self disconnected from its own root.
It is interesting to note that in modern physics we learn that all entities are in the center of the universe. Space is arranged in such a way that each person and each rock and each quark is, in some sense, in the center of the universe. As I listened to the theology of a return to the centered self, I could not help but wonder if in the fundamental arrangement of the cosmos, the Holy Spirit invites us to remember how all things begin and end in centeredness, in balance, in harmony with every other self and living spirit.
Forgiveness often has been considered an action that is taken with regard to another person or situation. Someone hurts or offends or violates, and the victim of this behavior may then forgive the offender. I would like to suggest that forgiveness is actually an action of restoring oneself to one's center and only then offering the gift of such return to center to another person. Thereby, when Jesus commands his disciples to forgive seventy times seven, the commandment is about a way of centering the self. The energies of compassion, wisdom, kindness and justice then may flow unimpeded in self and toward other as an invitation to a healed and balanced life. Jesus commands us to forgive as a way of return to self and of coming home from exile. In that action we invite another to do the same. We go deeper than the offending action or behavior to the very life of the spirit within. We are now talking beyond forgiving deeds, to forgiving the dislodging of the self from its home in the loving arms of God, the Spirit who holds us in a universe of centers.
In trauma research it has been noticed that the degree of trauma often is mitigated not by the level of horror sustained by a person, but by who was there for the victim. Such research suggests the same notion of return to balance and center. Surrounded by love and support, persons who have sustained trauma and injury, personal or collective have fewer symptoms and less self fragmentation that disrupts their daily functions than people who do not have strong community or loving relationships. It appears that the nature of love calls people into a centered state that allows the injured self to heal and remember its sacred nature. This is not to say that people who have borne tremendous trauma or injury do not suffer. But as Pauline Boss shows in her latest book, Loss, Resilience and Hope, recovery from trauma often is most successful when there is a strong sense of mastery and meaning that emerges from family, community and faith. (Pauline Boss, Loss, Resilience and Hope)
Rumination on persons who have injured self or on systems that have degraded self tends to dislodge the sense of center or to keep the self dislocated. Rumination and awareness of injustice or being watchful of dangerous circumstances is not the same thing. Wisdom demands awareness of all reality, including parts that are broken and violent. Protection of self from danger is inherent in our ability to survive personally and collectively. Overcoming systems that torment and violate people must be a conscious process. But forgiveness requires the self to be okay with its own sacred story, that the person’s life is a sacred event regardless of what happens. Forgiveness is the power to love oneself and one’s fellow human beings, and even all living things on the planet, despite the broken elements in human beings or the forgotten sense of the sacred nature of life.
From the deep assuredness of sacred love as a central feature from the center of self, comes the power to forgive not simply as an action but as a lifestyle. The person is living a life that already forgives every attempt to dislodge it from its knowledge of itself as beautiful and cherished and precious. The forgiveness lifestyle already forgives the actions of people who attempt to harm the balance and center of another person, a group of people or an environment, not because it agrees with whatever actions ensue from such people or circumstances, but because it understands that those actions come from broken and fragmented disunities.
From a Christian perspective, it might be said that repentance is the turning of the self back to its center in God, and the invitation, extended through forgiveness, is always available. I do not agree with notions of interpretation that forgiveness hinges on repentance. I believe that Jesus saw repentance as a response to the forgiveness inherent in the love that calls us back to self.
Example from Bosnia
My daughter’s best friend is a refugee from Bosnia. One Sunday morning I spent two hours with Alma, the girl’s mother, listening to her story about fleeing Bosnia under the bombing of Sarajevo. Alma has a story about forgiveness and it speaks of the way the self is resilient in staying centered when love and compassion govern over despair and hate.
Alma first explained to me the in depth history of the region. She talked with authority about the political themes that governed Bosnia from the Ottoman Empire to the yoking of countries into Yugoslavia to the dividing of countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her understanding of the historical and political swings among the people and cultures was impressive. It was also profoundly significant. Alma told me that in order to forgive what had happened in her homeland, one must understand the underlying forces that had transpired over time. The political negotiations, the struggles, the bombings, the mass migration of people and the death, were products of many competing interests and needs that occurred not within a few years, but over the span of a century.
From this initial instruction by Alma, is the notion that persons and countries have defining histories and those histories are living within them. There is a sacred story occurring filled with human urgency. The great motivators: God, freedom, livelihood, health, food, education, work, love, and family have texture to them in the history of what individuals and communities are living. Understanding the story helps people find the way of forgiveness because one then sees the places and moments where there have been breakdowns in experiencing life as centered and whole whether personally or in a community.
When Alma was twenty years old she was a college student in Sarajevo. Sarajevo was a city that brought the East and West together. Fifty percent of the city was comprised of “Serbs” or Roman Catholics. Alma told me that it did not really matter how one understood ethnicity, if you were Catholic you were considered a Serb. Fifty percent of the city was Croatian, or Eastern Orthodox and Bosnian or Moslem. Alma said that as a child, she knew many people of all these branches, and that people in Sarajevo saw themselves as international people, as city dwellers in a place that held different kinds of people.
When the Soviet Union collapsed it became clear that the region that had been Yugoslavia would undergo political pressure to divide itself into various parts based upon ethnic and religious differences. Alma said that Serbia and Croatia were the largest areas and had the most homogenous populations. But Bosnia had historically been a mixed region. When Milosevic came to power, he wanted to claim the area for Serbia and began the systematic elimination of Bosnian Muslims most notably in eastern Bosnia near the border of Serbia. The great sweeps of villages and the massive deaths of people occurred mostly in this northern region, according to Alma.
As things began to intensify, Alma was engaged to her husband, Dino, but as the city was divided, she lived for a year with her family on one side and Dino lived on another side. Finally, Dino one day made his way across the city. It was a life and death attempt, because as people tried to move across the city, they often would be shot by snipers. Bombs also became a way of life. As Alma said, “the bombs fell on everybody, Serb, Croat, and Bosnian. The bombs did not distinguish between the good and the bad, the sane and the crazy people.”
A second element of the forgiving lifestyle begins to emerge in Alma’s narrative: Alma saw that the aggression of the few harmed the many, regardless of their politic, ethnicity or religious background. Alma was making sense of the horror that befell all the people in the area. As she made this sense, she continued to claim a position from her center, a way of opening herself to compassion beyond the fear, to understanding over and against the madness of war, and in her case, to action as a way of claming self efficacy and power. She did not go to the place of locating certain strangers as “bad” over and against others as “good.” She saw there was bad that affected certain people, but that the bombs of that erosion fell on “everybody.” In this way, she continued to see the story of her people as one of good people in bad circumstances, as living a story of brokenness. Her response included that she wanted to help as a healer.
In order to help people as well as a way of obtaining food, Alma opened a volunteer pharmacy and emergency medical clinic in her area of Sarajevo. The hospital gave her food in exchange for running this clinic in a part of the city that had no services. The drugs were trucked in by the Red Cross when the Red Cross could get into the city. Otherwise, they made do with what they could find, beg or borrow. With two doctors, herself and a couple of other volunteers, Alma ran this clinic until it appeared that Dino would be drafted to serve in the military. To Alma and Dino, this meant almost a certain death sentence for Dino. All Bosnians were sent to the front lines. So, they fled the city to another smaller city three hours from Sarajevo where Alma had relatives. They married and Alma again opened an emergency clinic as well as worked for food at the hospital. She said that food was a premium. When things got really bad, she would take a bucket and go and beg at the military camps around the area. One day, walking home she was in a bombing and fell to her face on the ground, certain that the end had come. It was at that time that she began to consider leaving.
But it wasn’t until Alma gave birth to her first child that the motivation to flee Bosnia took hold. Alma lived in a situation where she had to walk an hour to another clinic to have her daughter vaccinated, and this in dangerous circumstances. As she was walking home from one such visit, carrying her child, she saw a number of little children begging soldiers for food and candy. At that moment, Alma said she knew she would try to get her family out of Bosnia. “I could not imagine my daughter growing up, begging for food.”
Her husband did not want to leave. He felt profound love for his country and his family and relatives lived in Bosnia. Despite what was happening, despite the fact that much of his families’ property was now destroyed, the university was closed and the options for the future looked bleak, he could not imagine leaving his homeland. But Alma persisted, saying that they had to get out for the sake of their daughter. And so, with money from friends and family, they made connections that allowed this young couple in their early twenties with a baby, to enter the refugee population fleeing Bosnia. Within a year they found themselves in Iowa, knowing no one, speaking only a little English but safe from the bombs, from the shortage of food, and the questionable future for themselves and their daughter.
When I asked Alma about forgiveness, she laughed. She said, “I learned how to find beauty in the ugliness. You see when it was rainy or an ugly day, the bombs would not fall. I learned to love that. I learned that when people had no food they grew desperate but also generous. I learned that everybody was suffering. I cannot afford bitterness, Mary. We found our chance, and we took it. There are crazy people in the world and there are good people. They are everywhere. Dino’s cousin made it to Denmark where he had relatives. They would not help him. My aunt was assisted by an Eastern Orthodox lady with connections. There are good people everywhere.”
In this remarkable way, Alma is a person who never left her deepest center, not when caught in a bombing attack that dropped her to the ground, not when desperate for food, not when her husband took powerful risks to cross the city to be with her. What motivated her finally to leave her country was not even the dreadful war in which many people of her religious background were destroyed. It was the love for her daughter, the hope she held that the world could be glorious and different and hopeful for her daughter. And it might be said, that because of the love Alma carries, for her kinsmen, whether Serb, Croat or Bosnian, or for her husband, or for her daughter, she seeks to live in a centered way that manifests the forgiveness lifestyle. “I cannot afford bitterness, Mary.” As with many people today, Alma has understood the resilience and yet the fragility of life, and such an understanding has called her to be in her centered self, in her whole self, unfractured by bitterness, resentment or anger. This may be rare, or it may be that we just do not hear about this enough.
Other Examples and Considerations
As a pastoral counselor I frequently deal with people carrying brokenness and resentment, whether from childhood injury, marital strife, addictions and anxieties, or professional problems. The nature of problems that become deeply toxic is fundamentally whether they take us away from our core sense of self as a centered and loved person in the world or in some way challenge or chip away at that. As noticed in Alma’s story, people can survive tremendous challenges without huge resentments under circumstances where they are connected to their inner selves and the selves of others in firm and loving ways. Oftentimes in therapy with persons, I invite them to stop talking, place a hand on their belly, and just breathe deep full breaths for three minutes. You would be stunned to see how many people begin to weep, how moving it is for them to simply become still and center into a moment of being alive, completely accepted and completely safe for three minutes.
Our relational life and the care of our personal life ask us to keep vigilance over that sense of connection or we suffer. Marital crises, racial tensions, drug addictions, illness in all its guises are challenges to the sense of the self being loved and cherished. Conflict with other people usually emanates from people who are unhappy with themselves, who feel slighted, or who have forgotten the sense of life as a cherished event. The forgiveness lifestyle is first of all taking ownership for one’s own sense of wholeness or fragmentation. It is an invitation into personal life giving power, or what I would call the resurrection power of Jesus. The very energy that raised Jesus from the tomb is the energy available to those who live in their center, who thus can forgive because they see beauty everywhere as Alma did, who can return to the self as good because they feel their own goodness, and who wish for others, even their enemies, to be restored into a center too.
The moral conditions of forgiveness rest in the question of whether one deeply desires the reconciliation of the world that Jesus ushered into our consciousness through his life, death and resurrection. “I tell you, you must forgive,” he says. And why does he say this? Why not say, “I tell you take revenge, or brood resentment, or focus on getting even”? Jesus says we must forgive because it returns us to the goodness of God that breathes into our beings the way of eternal life. When we breathe in that breath, when we stand in that center, we not only forgive ourselves for sometimes not breathing that life or sometimes not standing in that place, but we welcome and invite the other pilgrims on the earth to be restored also. Our God is that big. Our God is that Whole. Our God is that Loving. Forgiveness as a return to the deepest self is a return to where God meets us, holds us and creates in us the energies of love, compassion and justice that the world so desperately needs.
Continuing Education Credit = 1.0 contact hours