Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Forgive Us Our Debts . . .

what does it mean to "forgive?"  the dictionary definition i read just before i began writing this morning--"stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake"--seems inadequate.  forgiveness, it seems to me, is more than a simple "stop" of an angry or resentful feeling.  in the christian religion with its emphasis on sins against God, there is much talk about forgiveness.  on most Sunday mornings we hear the phrase, "if we confess our sins, God is quick to forgive." and, in the lord's prayer, we pray "forgive us our debts (trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us)."

in some christian traditions, there are acts of contrition that are a precondition to forgiveness, such as saying a certain number of "hail marys," but in our calvinist tradition, the act of confession assumes God's immediate forgiveness.  both of these traditions, i believe, make forgiveness too easy to achieve.  for christians like me, God's forgiveness comes so painlessly that it is far too simple to be absolved of failings without any analysis of the underlying causes of those offenses, flaws, or mistakes that are part of the definition.

the difficulty is in forgiving oneself.  i think this is the atonement, the act of contrition, that is necessary.  in last week's post, i recounted my failing to act in love in a certain situation and the persistent punishing myself that i engaged in before i was able to forgive myself.  i'm not suggesting that this reaction is the correct one.  instead, i'm trying to get at the way i finally was able to forgive myself for my behavior.  it was in the reasonable analysis of the whys and wherefores of my feelings that i was ultimately able to let go of my anger and resentment toward myself, and in so doing, to forgive the wrong others had done me.

we don't have to take the easy path of forgiveness of confessing to God and then telling ourselves that it's ok because God forgives us, nor do we have to keep beating ourselves up when we fail to act with love and compassion.  what is essential is that we step back from our angry selves and look on ourselves with the same compassion we work to have for others.  we must seek the root causes of our failings.  once we have understanding, we must make it our intention to put forth the effort to act in lovingkindness and compassion when similar situations arise in the future.  only in so doing can we find the forgiveness we seek.

my prayer today is that each of us will develop the skill of treating ourselves with the love and compassion with which we seek to treat others, forgiving ourselves for our mistakes through the act of contrition that is true understanding.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Greatest of These . . .

patient . . . kind . . . not rude . . . not irritable . . . those are some of the qualities of love about which i try to remind myself each day.  a few days ago, i forgot all of those.  i had gone to a store to return something for my wife, and i ran into difficulties getting the correct amount credited back to my credit card.  the item had been purchased in another store that was a part of this large chain, and the original purchase had been made in another state that has a different sales tax rate.  when the clerk rang up the credit, there was a discrepancy of a few cents, and i explained that it would be impossible for me to pay my credit card bill when the remaining balance on the account was less than a dollar.  my bank wouldn't allow me to issue a check for such a small amount, and the credit card company wouldn't accept a payment in pennies.

the clerk didn't know how to adjust the amount so that i would get my full refund and had to call for a manager to come assist her.  other customers appeared at her station, and i suggested that she help them while we waited for the manager to come.  after she had taken care of all the other customers and considerable time had passed, no other employee had shown up to help with my problem, and the clerk left her station to look for assistance.  more time passed.  my wife was waiting for me outside, thinking that my errand would take only a few minutes.

i grew impatient.  finally, i went to another counter and asked the clerk there to page a manager to the station where i had been waiting.  i returned, but no one came.  i went back to the next counter and requested another page, explaining that i had been waiting now for quite some time and needed to get on with other errands.  still, no one came.  i went to a clerk at one of the check-out stations and asked how i could get a manager over to resolve my problem.  she said that she had heard several pages for a manager to come help me, and that was all that could be done.

in exasperation, i returned to my spot and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited some more.  finally, three managers and the original clerk returned at about the same time my wife came into the store, having feared i had run into some problem in returning the item she had purchased.  by this time, i wasn't patient, i wasn't kind, i was irritable, i was rude, and the fact that not one of the three managers seemed to think that i was owed an apology or that the situation in which i found myself was anything out of the ordinary made me even angrier.

the matter was ultimately resolved after several more minutes of the three managers punching many buttons on the cash register, and i received my full credit plus a few cents more.  (now i have a surplus balance on my credit card!).  i left the store frustrated and mad at the world.  i was mad at the incompetence of the store management, though at least i kept my cool with regard to the clerk who had originally waited on me.  she was courteous throughout the whole ordeal, and i realized that she was at the mercy of her managers just as i was.  i was mad at myself because i had allowed myself to forget all those qualities i worked at so long and so often.

how had i permitted myself to become so caught up in this story of an invented need to get on with my business?  how had i given in to so many negative emotions?  how had i allowed myself to feel such animosity towards the store management?  why hadn't i considered that there might be many circumstances that prevented these managers to attend to my needs in a timely fashion?  certainly, the store managers were in the wrong by never offering a convincing explanation or for failing to apologize for my inconvenience, but that doesn't excuse my failure to live according to my most deeply held code of conduct.

it took me several days of beating myself up to forgive myself and to accept that i won't always be the person i strive to be.  i spent much time retelling the story of this event and suffering because of my reaction to it.  now, as i look back my anger is not rekindled.  i can accept my failing and resolve to let it instruct me in the future.  my anger and the subsequent going over and over the events and my reactions to them punished me multiple times, and i was stung by many arrows.  i am grateful that rational thinking has taken over, and i've been able to move past my anger.

my prayer today is that we can all let go of those negative emotions that lead to repeated suffering, that we can forgive our own shortcomings and make the right effort to be instructed by our failings.  may we accept our own imperfections and show love to ourselves by working to overcome them.  shalom

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Pat on the Back?

the church to which i belong is engaged in a number of mission projects, and, as i've thought about the good that we do in our community and the world, i've begun to ask myself about our motivation for these projects.  are we doing them to make ourselves feel better or are we truly helping those we purport to be helping?  do all of these missions help to bring about fundamental changes in the systems that contribute to suffering?

for some of our projects, the answer is obvious.  as we support a number of missions in rural haiti, including funding schools and providing assistance so that children can attend them, and drilling water wells and installing solar-powered pumps to make safe water available where none would be present otherwise, we are  enabling children in these areas to acquire the education that will help lift them from poverty, and our actions are improving the health of families.  these missions will certainly effect fundamental changes in impoverished rural villages.

in others projects, where we're providing food and clothing in our community, i'm not so sure that we're providing any long-term benefit.  certainly, it is right to feed the hungry and to provide clothes for those who need them.  but if that's as far as we go, we haven't addressed the underlying causes of food insecurity or lack of adequate clothing.  if we do nothing more than handout fresh produce from our community garden or distribute clothes from our clothes closet, are we doing enough?

i'm not suggesting that we ought to quit feeding the hungry or clothing the naked, but that's only a first step.  we must ask, "why are those we help hungry, inadequately clothed, and impoverished?"  how can we insure that we're not perpetuating the very suffering we seek to alleviate if this is all we do?  certainly, there are some who are hungry because they know that others will feed them, and some take advantage of the free clothing we distribute by taking clothing they don't need and selling what we've given them.  i'm convinced, though, from my experience in talking with those in need that few want to be in this position.  most want to work and to support themselves and their families.

when we look at the plight of the millions of working poor in our country, we see the desperate position in which they find themselves.  their meager wages will not support them and their families.  yet they are derided if they accept government assistance and called "lazy" by those who refuse to consider raising the minimum wage to a level that allows them to live without government "handouts."  we are told that they are "takers" who diminish the ability of the "producers" that some claim are the engine of the economy.

i'm not so sure that, while we're providing food and clothing assistance as part of our mission to those in need, we shouldn't also be participating in, or at least supporting those who participate in, the "occupy movement."  when i look at what some like these on the "buddha on strike" site are doing, i question whether some of what my group is doing isn't simply done to make ourselves feel better while not really providing much systemic help to those we purport to assist.

my prayer for myself, for all of us, is that we search for the true causes of inequity in our society and make the hard choices necessary to rid our economic system of those inequities.  may we understand that every person desires to live with dignity and fundamental self-worth.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Two Arrows

a new post by tara branch appeared on the wildmind blog on practice yesterday.  the post dealt with our unkind, harsh treatment of ourselves, and it struck a chord with me.  as i've worked to let go of negative emotions, i've found myself more mindful of what's going on in my head.  so often these days, i'll realize that i'm experiencing anger or frustration or that i'm silently complaining that life is not as i want it to be.  when these thoughts and emotions arise, i am surprised to find another voice speaking to me like a kind friend who says, "i understand how you feel.  it's ok to feel that way, but those feelings are arising because life isn't going as you expect it to.  this situation isn't permanent; you can deal with it and move on."

what a joy it is to accept those negative feelings that come to us all, to be able to forgive ourselves for feeling them, and to recognize that those feelings aren't "me" or "you."  they're just temporary stories we're telling ourselves about how life "should" be.  but life happens, and it is possible to deal with its vagaries without allowing our minds to become embroiled in negative feelings about our inability to control the things that life throws at us.  how nice it is to have that kind friend that is really our detached, reasonable mind reminding us that we're ok and that we don't have to suffer twice when things don't go our way.

my prayer for each of us is that we will treat ourselves kindly, understanding that the arising of negative feelings are a part of our nature.  we can accept them and then let them go, seeing them for what they are:  stories that we tell ourselves about impermanent situations that are part of the fabric of life.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Out of Control

the myth of "control" is something we all deal with.  how often do i find myself thinking, "if only [some loved one or acquaintance] would act in the way i want, that person's, and my, life would be so much better (or easier or any number of pleasant adjectives)."  yet, others don't exist to make my life, or yours, more pleasant in some way.  another person's life is not ours to control as much as we wish that we had that power.

what, then, do we do about these "controlling" thoughts.  we all have them.  just yesterday, i listened as a friend went on at length about the bad habits of a mutual friend, saying several times, "why can't he see that he needs to [substitute any desirable action].  then all our lives would be so much better."  there are, i think, several things we need to do with such thoughts.

first, we have to accept that we have them; we all wish that the world would conform to our ideal and that everyone else would fall into line.  there's nothing wrong with such thoughts, so long as we recognize that we only imagine that in a perfect world what we desire is best for all concerned, that such a point-of-view is a fiction that can never, nor should never, come to pass.  once we've admitted that we can't and shouldn't control the behavior of others, we can move on to learning to appreciate others for what they are.  what we see as their faults, others may see as strengths, and appreciating the whole person rather than dwelling on perceived shortcomings makes life so much more satisfactory for all of us.

here's where being mindful is helpful.  when we step aside and view our controlling thoughts in a reasonable, detached way, we see them for what they are: fictions, stories we're telling ourselves.  there's nothing "wrong" about these make-believe tales about "improving" our friends, loved ones, bosses, employees, peers, or human-kind in general, but it's not our job.  Our job is to develop a joyful appreciation of each person, warts and all.

my prayer today is that each of us (me especially) will learn to stop yearning for the fiction that we call "control."  instead, may we accept life and those we encounter each day.  may we relish our interactions with every person, loving them just as they are.  shalom.