Monthly Archives: July 2006

Forgiveness: The Sequel

Got a call from a friend the other day who wanted to talk some more about my last blog on forgiveness. During our first conversation, she’d asked if I was sure there was a correlation between the forgiveness work I’d done and some promising and unexpected developments relating to my financial situation.

Well, no, I have no proof of a cause-and-effect relationship. It could be coincidental, since one involved a chance meeting at an art opening, another an off-hand remark to an editor who is willing to pay more than I thought, and another involved a chance email I sent to people in Boston that could prove very fruitful.

But my friend was not persuaded. Not, I think, because she doubted the wisdom of forgiveness so much as she was reluctant to let go of her grudge. One of the first things she said to me was, "Do you have to talk to the person you’re forgiving?"

No. None of the people on my list were told they were being forgiven. In fact, I still can’t say with any certitude that I truly understand how forgiveness works. I find it hard to believe that simply by saying I forgive so-and-so, it actually happens. It seems like there ought to be some deep feeling required.

And yet, as I wrote in the previous blog, something was happening, because it was evident that toxins in my body were being released.

My guess is that forgiveness is cumulative. The more I forgive a person, my attitude toward the person shifts, however grudgingly.  The facts don’t change, but the animosity, the charge I once felt toward that person diminishes. A softening takes place, and in time even kindness and compassion.

John Strickland, the minister at Atlanta Unity, referred to this when he spoke that Sunday morning about forgiveness. The forgiveness is for you, he said, "but it’s also for the other person."

Example: About a year ago, I spent a week in the presence of a person – hereafter to be known as OP for Offending Party – who tends to be obnoxious and even abusive. Since avoiding him was not an option, my normal reaction would be to watch without comment, marveling that someone could be such shmuck and so totally unaware of it.

But this time I tried something different. Cued by a passage I came across in my spiritual study, I realized that while I couldn’t control OP’s behavior, I could control my reaction to his behavior. And I came up with a two-part plan.

First, whenever I was in his presence, I called on what the 12-step folk call Higher Power to protect me from all disturbances. (Being a deeply original thinker, I called that Higher Power "God.")

Second, rather than indulging myself in judgment or critical thoughts, I would gaze at OP and repeat silently that only God was in action in his life, too.

The result was nothing less than amazing. OP was up to his usual antics, but they didn’t bother me nearly as much as they had in the past. Indeed, I found the situation almost laughable. Even more remarkable, after a few days OP became unsure of himself and so insecure as to seem like a frightened teenager.

Again, I have no proof that my new attitude caused him to change, but there is no question that the dynamic was different. Rather than fueling his negative behavior with my own negativity, I invoked the highest and best in both of us, a form of compassion and forgiveness.

In "Power vs. Force," David Hawkins writes that decades of muscle testing have proven that love, compassion and forgiveness are empowering. "If you hold forgiveness in mind," he writes on page 115, "your arm will be very strong…. Revenge, judgmentalism, and condemnation, on the other hand, inevitably make you go weak."

He also explains the power of love, compassion and forgiveness, which he calls "powerful attractors."

"Individuals of great power throughout human history," he writes, "have been those who totally aligned themselves with powerful attractors. Again and again they have stated that the power they manifested was not of themselves. Each has attributed the source of the power to something greater than himself."

I don’t know whether my friend bought my explanation, or whether she’s willing to give up self-righteousness and try forgiveness. I do know that I’ve got more work of my own to do. Delta Airlines somehow managed to lose my suitcase when I returned from an acting job last weekend.

I’ve got scores of baggage handlers in Atlanta and Memphis to forgive.

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The Power of Forgiveness

I went to Atlanta Unity church the Sunday before last expecting to hear a woman named Edwene Gaines talk about prosperity. But I was three days early; she wasn’t speaking until Wednesday night.

However, the four-piece band played Van Morrison’s "Into the Mystic" and an even better rendition of U2’s "Mysterious Ways," and I got a message I couldn’t leave behind with the church bulletin.

"None of us was parented the way we wanted to be all the time," said the minister, John Strickland, and yet the quality of our life is affected by our ability — or, very often, our inability — to forgive those against whom we have a grudge.

My father to mind. I’ve done a lot of work around our relationship, and I figured it was pretty clean. But he jumped so readily to mind, that I had to re-consider, and I was doing just that that afternoon when the phone rang.

It was my ex-girlfriend, MJ, calling to say that Andy Stanley, one of the most successful ministers in Atlanta, was speaking that evening about his stormy relationship with his father. MJ never was convinced that I’d made peace with my dad, so there I was a few hours later standing next to her in Buckhead Church, a/k/a "rock ‘n’ roll church," while a six-piece band played a tone-perfect version of Tom Petty’s "Won’t Back Down."

(Right about now, the nostalgic reader is probably wondering "Whatever happened to ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘The Old Rugged Cross’?" All I know is that going to Buckhead Church was like going to a rock concert. It was packed with young people in jeans, t-shirts, shorts and sundresses, most of them unaccompanied by parents.)

Rev. Stanley, appearing not in person, but on huge video screens left, front and center, read first from the II Samuel about King David and his estrangement from his son, Absalom. Then he spoke about his own highly publicized rift with his father, Charles, a well-known Baptist preacher.

His message was the same as Strickland’s: that while it seems easier to walk away from difficult family relationships, there is something within us that craves connection. Those relationships are worth fighting for, he said, even if you fail.

"Forgive them," he said. "Let the past be the past."

Stanley said he and his father never did agree, but "I got what everyone wants from his father, which is approval. And my father got what every parent wants from their child, which is respect."

I did a quick inventory that evening and came up with a handful of people I’d been harboring some animus towards. None of it seemed explosive or even particularly meaningful, but I could see the value of forgiving. If you claim to be on the spiritual path, as I do, and you aspire to be the best person you can be, as I also do, then there can be no tolerating dark, untidy corners in your life.

So, using a simple affirmation, I started forgiving: my father, a brother, a former colleague, former friends, acquaintances, an ex-wife.

In a couple of cases, I had to pause. The trouble with forgiving is it means getting off my position. I have to let go of being "right," or at least what I thought was right. Worse, I have to re-open myself – in theory, at least – to someone I had excommunicated. And if that person was worthy of my anger or distrust, why bother?

Andy Stanley said that he and his father had counseling for 2 1/2 years, and at one point he was so frustrated he told the counselor that he was giving up. The counselor said nothing.

"OK," said Stanley, "when can I give up on this?"

The counselor replied, "When your heavenly Father gives up on you."

In his fascinating book "Power vs. Force," David R. Hawkins discusses a fool-proof method by which any yes-no question can be tested and by which consciousness itself can be calibrated. He writes that while love, compassion and forgiveness seem submissive, they actually calibrate as "profoundly empowering."

So I did the forgiveness work, and while I cannot say that my condition improved dramatically, I felt better, as if I’d paid the bills or washed the car. And an odd thing happened: I woke up in the morning smelling like a goat.

The dictates of the social contract notwithstanding, this is a good thing. Ordinarily, I get powerful body odor when I’ve done intense release work. It’s an indication that I’ve shaken loose emotional toxins and they are leaching out of my body.

But I’d done nothing more intense than forgive a handful of people, so Strickland, Stanley and Hawkins were right: forgiveness is powerful.

Ten days into it, I’m still doing the work, and I’ve added myself to the list. I forgive myself for the choices I’ve made, for the self-doubt and the scarcity thinking, and things are improving. I feel better, lighter, and a couple of opportunities have emerged that were nowhere on the horizon a week ago.  I’ve also booked my first acting job since last fall.

By the way, I did manage to hear Edwene Gaines, and guess what the second of her four pillars of prosperity was?

You got it: forgiveness. 

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Dog People

We pulled off the pavement onto a gravel driveway and descended into a wooded lot 12 miles outside the town of Brevard, North Carolina. The sky was overcast, the air was thick and humid, and an enormous black German shepherd with orange and white markings lay at the far end of the driveway.

He rose as we coasted to a stop near a stone house with a green metal roof and padded over to the car. Rearing up on his hind legs, he rested two giant paws on the door and peered solemnly into the car. Satisfied, he dropped to the ground and walked away.

I was among dog people.

I was traveling with my friends S and J, and in the back of their Subaru Forester were two mixed-breed dogs, Lindsey and Bash. We had come to Brevard to spend the 4th of July with their friend D, whom they met a few years ago in an Atlanta park. A dog park.

D had moved last fall to Brevard, a pleasant town in the Blue Ridge Mountains with three, non-franchise coffee shops on the main street. S, J and D have common friends and mutual interests, including renovating old homes, but I suspect it is their passion for dogs that binds them.

We spent the better part of three days together with four dogs – D has a floppy-eared female German shepherd called Berlin as well as the massive male, Bismarck – and it’s no exaggeration to say that dogs dominated the conversation.

Discussions included training and discipline for dogs, funny stories and not-so-funny stories, shelters and neglected dogs, food and supplements, rough coats and soft, bathing and brushing, and whether the yellow-brown coats of Lindsey and Bash would ever come clean after romping in a muddy nearby creek.

I’ve had several dogs in my adult life, including a poodle, an Airedale and, most recently, a large, shaggy Bouvier des Flandres who was my abiding companion through some hard times.

But after she died, I decided not to replace her until I was in another relationship. In the six years since, I’ve contented myself with the company of cats and random encounters with the dogs of friends and strangers.

But it’s been so long since I’ve owned one that in Brevard I felt rather like an anthropologist observing the peculiarities of a particular human subspecies.

S and J are still training their dogs, so they spent the weekend with treats in their pockets, dispensing them every time the dogs responded to a command. Most often that command was “Come!,” but being young, spirited and untethered on a dead-end road, Lindsey and Bash seemed more often to be going.

On our first walk, Bash – a gawky juvenile built for speed – raced several hundred yards up the road and around a curve, ignoring his owners’ shouts, oblivious to everything but the sheer joy of running free.

S shrugged. “The more freedom you give ’em,” he said, “the more likely they are to come back.”

D’s passion is so strong that she is part of a group that rescues and finds new homes for German shepherds. One night during a thunderstorm, a woman who lived a mile away called called to say that her dog had run off, and she assumed it would seek safety with D. (She called later to say she found it in one of her guest cottages.)

Earlier that day, we had gone for a hike along a powerful stream, climbing terrace after terrace of rock until we reached a waterfall. I wandered 30 yards away from the others, savoring the cool, bracing spray from the falls, when I got the feeling that someone was staring at me.

I turned and saw Bismarck on a ledge above the rock terrace we were on. He had assumed we were climbing higher, and when he realized he was wrong, there was no easy way for a heavy-boned, 112-pound dog to get down.

He was staring with such intensity that there could be no mistaking his intention: he wanted me to help. Whether it was because I’d already given him a lot of attention, or because I was six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than anyone else, I cannot say. Maybe both.

But that was a summons I could never refuse, and I hurried over to the ledge. S and I picked Bismarck up and set him down between us, and D gave a deep sigh.


That night, I climbed down from the sleeping loft to get a drink. Bismarck was sleeping in the living room below, and ordinarily only lifts an eye when I pass. But this time he stood up and lowered his head. I stroked his head and chest and spoke to him gently, happy to know that I had a new friend and happy to be reminded that I, too, am a dog person.

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