Monday, October 14, 2013

A Habit of Forgiveness

Wayside Pulpit quote
Yesterday morning I led my first service at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. This month's theme was forgiveness, and I focused the service around learning to forgive, and building a habit of forgiveness. I can tell you that this process of leading a worship service is one of the biggest challenges I think I've ever taken on. It has taken me weeks of focus and thought to figure out how to approach the service, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to push myself to learn and grow and hopefully help others to see forgiveness in a new way.
A surprise good luck card

Thanks (always) to my wonderful family who were amazing cheerleaders, to Minette Riordan for being a great worship associate partner for the service, and to Ken Ryals for surrounding us with beautiful music.

Here, in its written form is my reflection: 

A Habit of Forgiveness
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm really sorry. I'm sorry.

I have a really bad habit of apologizing for...everything. Problems big and small, things that I did directly, or things that I had nothing to do with, chances are if you are upset about something and tell me about it, I'll apologize. It’s not that I walk around carrying the weight of the world; I just tend to take on responsibility for things in an attempt to alleviate the burden on everyone else. So I'll say I'm sorry for all manner of things and shift the responsibility of dealing with issues from other people to myself, as if to say "this is my fault, I'll try to fix it and make things better for you."

A few years ago, I made it my New Year’s resolution to stop apologizing.

It's not that I didn't want to offer support or friendship or kindness, but just the simple act of apologizing misplaces responsibility when the apology isn't warranted and puts me in a position of constantly being responsible to everyone. Quite frankly, I make enough mistakes on my own without taking on other people's.

To be honest, I failed pretty spectacularly at breaking the habit. What the resolution DID do was force me to take a look at how much I apologize and why. 

We all learn to apologize at a very young age. Our caregivers prompt us to say I'm sorry as part of the process of learning from our mistakes. We learn that apologies do two things: first, they allow us to take responsibility and acknowledge our mistakes and secondly, apologies are implicitly an ask for forgiveness from whomever our actions impacted. I learned this from my parents and teachers, and in turn, I'm teaching my children the importance of apologizing too. 

We also are taught, from a young age, that there are "right" ways to apologize. It's not simply a matter of saying the have to show that you mean it and that you don't intend to make the same mistake again. We learn that an insincere apology often has the exact opposite affect of what we want; when my kids try to give me a fake apology like "I'm sorry that you're upset that I didn't finish my homework" or "I'm sorry that I can't seem to do anything right" or "I'm sorry that you didn't wake me up on time"...typically, that will escalate the conversation to a more unpleasant one about taking on personal responsibility, sincerity and consequences for not owning up to your mistakes. But a sincere apology conveys an important message: the person who hurt me is sorry, I believe that they understood what they did and I believe that they will try not to hurt me again.

Usually by the time we're adults, we've learned from role models and experience the importance of a sincere apology. For some people like me, the lesson was over-extended, learned so well that it became a habit. I had begun to confuse empathy with apology.

We learn how to apologize, but do we learn to forgive? 

Forgiveness for me is a much harder habit to form than apologizing, because apologizing is a simple ask, both a statement and a question: I’m sorry and will you forgive me?  But forgiveness is not so simple. Forgiveness is a process of letting go, and healing that doesn’t always happen right away. Forgiveness is both healing and release, and some times those things take time.  But it is worth it, learning to forgive, because without forgiveness we would walk through our days with broken hearts…suspicious, bitter, angry…when we forgive our hearts are mended and we are able to move forward in joy and love and an openness to what is next.

Forgiveness is also much harder to teach because while apologizing is an outward expression of regret, forgiveness is an internal process, often unnoticed and not explicitly communicated. How do we learn something that needs to happen within us, without external feedback from others?

Colloquial wisdom tells us to "forgive and forget." But let's be honest: when we are hurt or when someone does something hurtful to us, do we ever really forget? Yes, the intent of this quick phrase is good...when you forgive, you should truly forgive and let the hurt go. But forgiving should not be followed by forgetting, even if we'd sometimes want it to be, or else we can’t learn from our experiences. 

We've probably all known someone who, as I call it, is prone to bring out the "laundry list." You know, the person who appears to forgive some infraction in the moment, but who, at some tipping point, can list out everything you've done wrong in the last 10 years in great detail. It becomes clear that they didn't truly accept your previous apologies, just as surely as they won't truly accept your apology in that moment. Maybe you've even been that person, the one who has brought out "the list" even though you knew that you would neither receive a real apology for your list of grievances, or if you did, you were likely not in a place to offer your forgiveness. It's hard to forgive the accumulated hurts we collect over time all at once, if not impossible. And forget them? Not a chance. 

I taught a workshop a couple weeks ago on learning; specifically, the cognitive science of learning and memory. There's sensory memory: everything you perceive creates a sensory memory that you may or may not even realize moment to moment. We remember the taste of really good hot cocoa or the sound of our partner's voice or the subtle smell of our grandparent's house that we probably can't describe, but we know it when we smell it. There's also short-term memory: a little bit of information that we can store in our brains until we use it...and then it disappears. And then there's long-term memory: things that we remember because as we take in the information, it makes connections in our brain. Those memories strengthen the more connections that are made, or when the same thing happens repeatedly. Each time I walk into my kids' rooms and see that they didn't put their clean laundry in their drawers, it connects to the previous times that that has happened and fires a series of responses in my brain: they're lazy! they're dirty! they're rooms are a total mess! i'm a bad mom! i'm not appreciated! or, they're just kids and when I was their age, I didn't much like putting away my clean clothes either...and it's with that last one that I set aside whatever anger and frustration I feel and move on to forgiveness, and resolve to work as a family in keeping our house in working order. 

When we remember, we have learned something. When we use that information, retrieving it from our memory over and over, to apply it in new situations, with new memories formed each time we use what we know in new contexts, it strengthens the staying power of that information in our brain. That's the value of the memories of my childhood in raising my own children - I can remember what it was like to be 11, and it allows me to empathize with my kids and move past hurt to forgiveness. 

There are different types of memory: episodic memory is the composite of your experiences. And "flashbulb" memory - the memory of a particularly emotionally charged event. I used to ask the question "where were you when the space shuttle challenger exploded?" until I realized that many younger folks weren't born yet. Unfortunately we have a more modern collective memory: where were you on 9/11?  Our episodic memory and our flashbulb memory are why it's difficult to forgive and forget. In fact, we shouldn't forget, because forgetting means we haven't learned. Keeping the memory of a past hurt or pain is what can help us not repeat mistakes, or motivate us to approach life differently, or reprioritize the things in our life that are truly most important. If those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, then remembering the past, good and bad, helps us to move forward, learn and grow.

Sometimes, we use knowledge so much and in so many different contexts that we develop muscle memory - the type of memory that causes you to automatically brake when you see a police officer with a speed gun on the highway, or not remember how you drove from home to work, or allows my pre-teen boys to play a video game using complex button controls without thinking about it...or allows me to play the song from my freshman year of high school marching band from memory if someone were to hand me a mellophone. 

This muscle memory is the sign that you've mastered and internalized a process that you can retrieve at the right time without even thinking about it. This is the same type of memory that forms habits, like my constant apologies. 

What if we learn to forgive and practice it so much that we create a habit of forgiveness? What if, just as we learned the right way to apologize, to identify and communicate the feeling of remorse, we could learn, internalize and build muscle memory around the process of forgiveness? 

Charles Duhigg, the author of the book The Power of Habit, breaks down the process of building a habit into three steps.

Step 1 is “The Cue.” The cue is the context, the trigger for the habit that you want to create. If the habit we are hoping to develop is forgiveness, then you might think the context or trigger would be an apology.  But how often is an apology insincere, or never comes at all? An apology might be the prompt to express forgiveness to another, but can’t be the cue to develop a forgiveness habit. Better, the cue for forgiveness is actually the hurt itself, the point at which we feel emotional, psychological or physical pain. 

Step 2 is “The Reward.” When forming a habit, Duhigg tells us that one of the critical components is making the behavior more favorable than any other action. In the case of forgiveness, it’s hard to imagine what type of reward would be better than the forgiveness itself, and that’s actually a good thing. Because in order for a habit to really form, we have to be able to remove an extrinsic reward like a cookie, and replace it with the intrinsic reward of the feeling we get from repeating the habit. Anyone who has had to potty train a toddler knows this all too well. The tipping point of potty training is not when the child gets a gold star on the potty chart, but when she is motivated to use the potty because she’s proud of being a big girl. Until the intrinsic reward is motivating, though, cookies and star charts help to tip the balance to motivate us to practice our desired habit.

Step 3 is “The Routine.” It’s not really a new step so much as a call to action to commit to performing the desired habit whenever presented with the Cue and to follow that up with a Reward. Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into sleep mode and transfers responsibility for performing the behavior to the habit-performing part of the brain. That transfer of memory from intentional to automatic is the goal of forming a habit, and establishing the routine to reinforce it is critical to getting your basal ganglia to take over.
Duhigg cites research that suggests the best way to create the routine is to write down your intentions.  In it’s basic form, your plan should be  “When the Cue, I will Routine because it provides me with Reward.” For example, if your goal is to lose weight: When my 2pm meeting is over instead of getting a snack in the break room, I will take a walk with my co-worker because it provides me with a chance to catch up with a friend.

While Duhigg uses lots of examples in his book of how this process works, one of the most recognizable is Alcoholics Anonymous. He says,

“There's no real logic to how AA was designed. But the reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine, rather than going to a bar or drink. ... It doesn't seem to work if people do it on their own. ... At some point, if you're changing a really deep-seated behavior, you're going to have a moment of weakness. And at that moment, if you can look across a room and think, 'Jim's kind of a moron. I think I'm smarter than Jim. But Jim has been sober for three years. And if Jim can do it, I can definitely do it,' that's enormously powerful."

In the case of AA, the Reward is the social connections and support for not drinking, until you get to a place in your life that you’ve created new habits, removed triggers and established an ongoing support system to help you handle the inevitable cues that used to result in having a drink.

But what about forgiveness? Some of us have already developed routines to help us along with the process. Taking a drive, going for a run, grabbing coffee with your best friend, listening to your favorite song…these are all examples of routines that we establish to help us work through our emotions when we are hurt or angry or sad. Sometimes they help, but sometimes they are more of a distraction, a temporary band aid that doesn’t elicit the forgiveness we want to achieve.

Forgiveness is a process prompted by a decision to forgive. In creating a habit of forgiveness, the intent is to get to a point that we can bypass that decision and internalize the forgiveness process for the little hurts, and be armed with the ability to forgive when we are strong enough for the big hurts. Not all forgiveness is equal, not all pain is the same, and hurts may not be forgiven equally. But by knowing, and internalizing the process of forgiveness, by making forgiveness a habit, we will have the ability to truly forgive when we are ready.

Although I wasn’t so successful in breaking my habit of apologizing, I’m now more interested building a habit of forgiving. I’m learning that this forgiveness habit, not surprisingly, comes easily now when with the daily hurts and grievances, but I still have to work at the big things. I think that’s ok, because when I face those big things, my heart is already light, not weighed down by accumulated pain, but open to begin the journey down the tougher paths and armed with the knowledge and experience of the process and joy of forgiveness.

There are many examples of how to intentionally practice forgiveness, and I’d like to share one with you today in our meditation.  This process can be used as your Routine to practice, a few simple steps to repeat on the path to making forgiveness a habit.
(This exercise is adapted from Robin Casarjian’s Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart.)

Everyone take a deep breath.

Close your eyes.

Take one more deep breath, and think about someone who recently upset you, made you angry or hurt your feelings…someone who you want to forgive.

Think about what the real issues behind this conflict are for you. Think about what you are feeling about this person.
Think about what is still valuable, still workable for you in this relationship.
Take another deep breath and feel the strength and wholeness within you.

Now imagine yourself in a safe place with this person.

In your mind, tell this person, as simply and clearly as possible, how you perceive the issues between you and the truth of your experience.

Speak from your deeper self to his or her deeper self.

Imagine that the person really listens and hears you.

When you are ready, bring your attention back to the present moment.

As you bring yourself back, think about what it would be like if you could actually have the conversation you imagined. If you can’t have that real conversation, imagine what it would be like to move forward as if you had.

As you go out into the world this week, find opportunities to actively practice forgiving. Think about what it feels like, think about the steps in the process and practice a meditation or reflection when you’re faced with an opportunity to forgive. Let your heart be light with forgiveness, towards yourself, towards the people you love, and towards the world. Let’s all work on building a habit of forgiveness together.


  1. I love you sis, and I loved your message.

  2. Wow beautiful. Love you. Your mama!!!!

    1. Thanks mama...first time you've commented on my blog! <3