Forgiveness & Reconciliation

Oscar Wilde once said, “always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.” After 25 years of private practice, I can safely say that confusion over forgiveness and reconciliation ranks in the top ten things that create unnecessary distress for clients. At worst, it can lead one to exposure of continued abuse and serious personal harm. There is rarely a day that goes by in which forgiveness and/or reconciliation is not discussed in one of my counseling sessions.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are often used as synonyms but, in actuality, have completely different meanings. Webster defines “forgive” as “to cease to feel resentment against; to give up resentment or claim to requital; to grant relief from payment of.” Likewise, Webster defines “reconcile” as “to restore friendship to harmony.” Even a cursory glance at these definitions begins to bring their not so subtle differences into focus. Forgiveness seems to have more to do with one’s PERSONAL inner state while reconciliation has more to do with the actual relationship BETWEEN two people or entities.

Indeed, forgiveness is by far something that you do for YOURSELF. It is a releasing of the anger, sorrow, hurt, bitterness, and resentment that comes from worrying, ruminating and, sometimes, obsessing over wrongs which we have experienced from others. “How could he have done that?” “I can’t believe she had the nerve to betray me like that!” “I am devastated that he would say such a thing.” “I am going to pay her back; just you wait!” Such thoughts are certainly normal when we have been wounded by someone’s actions.

However, at some point, normal emotional reaction can turn unhealthy. The line is indeed invisible and different for every person, but at some point we cross over into unforgiveness. Here is where we actively hold on to our feelings of hurt and resentment and receive some secondary gains or “mileage” from them. At its worst this can manifest in desires or actions of revenge. Nelson Mandela said “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Whether mild or extreme, our bodies pay a price for resentment and unforgiveness. Stress, anxiety, physical ailments, depression, decreased productivity and sleeplessness can all be symptoms of a lack of forgiveness. To forgive someone is a GIFT we give ourselves to release the hold this person and their behaviors have had over us.

Does that sounds easier said than done? Of course it is! This is because forgiveness is a PROCESS, not a one-time action. We can say that it is a one-time decision to enter INTO forgiveness, but this is only the START of a PROCESS that can last weeks, months or even years. It is the trajectory that is important here: that we are steering our ship in the right direction. The speed we travel or smoothness of the waters we travel on is less important. You will get to a better place, but you must first commit to the journey.

Additionally, the state/posture/attitude of the one who offended us has NOTHING to do with our need to forgive. It matters not that they are brokenhearted and sorrowful or whether they are gloating and unrepentant. The degree to which they “deserve” forgiveness is immaterial. In fact, forgiveness can never be said to be “deserved” as it is a free gift. It can never be earned or paid for. There is no currency in the economy of forgiveness.

Now we come to reconciliation. Reconciliation, unlike forgiveness, IS dependent on the other person. As I say to my clients, you can only reconcile with someone who is reconcileABLE = ABLE to be reconciled. Someone is ABLE to be reconciled with when they (1) have an awareness of the wrong they have committed, (2) make a commitment to change the behavior in question, and (3) demonstrate this commitment in tangible ways.

If the other person is not willing to make these commitments, then reconciliation will likely result in a repeat of the behavior. It is also a primary way that we reinforce and, to use the language of codependency, ENABLE destructive behavior. The worst case enabling-scenario is seen all too often. A wife experiences physical, emotional, sexual or psychological abuse and subsequently “forgives” her partner. She returns to the relationship (premature reconciliation) before the partner has demonstrated any tangible proof of change, and the cycle repeats itself. This has been called the Battered Wife Syndrome.

C.S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Even the most basic of Sunday School lessons teaches us that forgiveness is foundational to faith. Forgiveness is the most vital gift we receive from God and, likewise, the most vital gift we give each other. Some of my favorite people in the world are pastors. However, I have listened to numerous sermons over the years where the speaker clearly was confusing forgiveness and reconciliation. Indirectly, and sometimes directly, the listener comes away with the message that there is someone in their life they should forgive (likely true for ALL of us) and that forgiveness should, therefore, lead to a restoration of the relationship (absolutely NOT always true).

Scripture gives us a very relevant example of forgiveness and reconciliation in the relationship between Paul and Mark. We learn in Acts that Mark accompanied Paul on an important missionary journey. We later learn in Acts 15:36-40 that Mark deserted Paul in Pamphylia while on that journey. We do not know the details behind this, but we do know that it led to Paul denying Mark’s participation in the next missionary journey. This caused so significant a rift that it led to Paul’s closest missionary partner, Barnabas (who happened to be Mark’s cousin), to also part ways with Paul.

Can we accuse Paul of unforgiveness? Certainly not. He was simply recognizing that Mark, because of immaturity, fear, unreliability or some other unknown quality, was not in a place where he was reconcilABLE. This is not the end of the story, however. Later in Paul’s life, it is recorded that he wrote to Timothy to “get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). What happened? I think it is safe to assume that there was a change that took place with Mark. He went from becoming unreliable to reliable, immature to mature, a liability to an asset. This change led to him being reconcilable and his subsequent reunion with Paul and their work together.

Certainly, there are minor issues in relationships that don’t deserve to be considered within the larger context of forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps Robert Frost’s words apply here, “Forgive me my nonsense as I forgive the nonsense of those that think they talk sense.” We all do things that are annoying to our loved ones, slip up and say things that we truly don’t believe or express childlike selfishness from time to time. In these situations, it’s best to just “let it go,” “take the high road,” “let it roll off your back,” etc.

However, sometimes it is difficult to know what context to put our relationship difficulties in. “Am I overreacting or underrating,” we may ask. If you find yourself in this conundrum; if you find yourself struggling with unforgiveness or are confused about whether or not someone in your life is reconcileABLE, give me a call/text or send an email. I would be happy to help!

Coping With Holiday Stress

stressed out SantaIt has been said that “comparison destroys contentment.” If that is true, then the holidays provide the opportunity for contentment-destruction on a massive scale.  My family and I saw the fantastic production of The Christmas Story at the Garden Theater in downtown Winter Garden last week. Countless times the main character, little Ralphie, cried out “I want an official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!” He was a walking advertisement for the object of his greatest Christmas desire.

Like Ralphie, We are bombarded with messages that demand we get the latest and greatest, upgrade to the next model, don’t miss out on this or that opportunity, and make sure we provide out kids with the same or better gifts as their friends. Researchers tell us it is projected that approximately $120 billion will be spent on online retail this holiday season. Indeed, Cyber Monday alone saw $2 billion in sales – in a single day!

Many times we enter into the holiday season with the best of intentions. We tell ourselves we will not do what we did last year and go overboard with gifts and commitments. However, as the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas tick by, we begin to give into that not-so subtle pressure to compare. This leads to feelings of guilt and we soon find ourselves in the same maddening rush of buying. Below are some good ideas to help you find some sanity in this season.

Set Good Boundaries
Let this be the season where you make an intentional effort to avoid the descent into holiday-madness. Pick someone you can both hold accountable to making the season more about the Spirituality, relationships, and joy it is supposed to be about. Set a limit on the amount of money you spend on gifts and stick to it. Intentionally “under-decorate” your home. Make a smaller than normal menu for holiday meals. Emphasize simplicity. Try to gauge your plans buy answering the following question: “will I feel relaxed after doing this or completely exhausted?” Remember, “no” is not a dirty word.

Avoid Social Media
Social media can be a fantastic tool to keep in touch with family and friends. However, over the holidays it can be a source of tremendous anxiety. While it is true that “keeping up with the Joneses” is an American pastime, social media during the holidays tempts us to try to “BE the Joneses.” Make a commitment to spend half as much time on social media in December as you typically do during the rest of the year. Seriously, you can do it; it won’t hurt!

Emphasize Quality Time over Activities
Make a concerted effort to spend more time with family and friends. This may seem like something you are already doing. However, the quality of time we spend together is the important factor. Make sure your time with family and friends isn’t consumed with activity, endless cooking and cleaning, stressful traveling, etc. Try to make your time special through meaningful connection.

Serve Others
Make some time to serve others. Few things are better to help jolt us back into reality than serving the less fortunate during the holidays. There are countless opportunities at local food banks, homeless shelters, churches and local civic outreaches to give a little of yourself. The return on this investment is guaranteed to be far higher than the fleeting emotions of gift giving and getting.

Take Some Personal Time
It is also important to take personal time during the holidays. We often forget this as we are so busy attending and planning events and buying gifts for others. Take some time to go to a place of worship to reflect on the real Reason for the season. Talk a long walk and meditate on gratitude. Spend a few moments reflecting over each the blessings you experienced during the past year. Make time to exercise. Read that great book you have been putting off, and give yourself permission to finish it before New Years Day!

Have Fun!
Give yourself permission to “lighten up” this holiday season! Play some silly, fun games with your family. Yes, dust off those board games hiding in the top of your hall closet. Go and do some fun activities you don’t typically do over the holidays: see a double feature, go bowling, play laser tag, go to a pottery studio. Get some good laughs from Holiday karaoke.

Of course, there are countless other ideas that can help you avoid the dangers of contentment-destroying-comparison during the holidays. Just let yourself think outside the box and be willing to NOT be controlled buy guilt, shoulds or oughts. Feel free to leave you ideas in the comment session below.  Have a fantastic season and remember, as Buddy the Elf says, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!

Time Outs that Work!

little guy on stoolOne of the most popular forms of consequences that parents use for childhood misbehavior is the ubiquitous Time Out. Depending on how it is used, it can be an extremely effective or ineffective intervention. Probably the most common reason for failure of Time Outs lies in the mistaken belief that “time” is the most important element. The typical Time Out goes something like this: Johnny is re-directed to do some thing, he does not listen or comply. We remind him a few more times until finally telling him to “go to Time Out.” He sits there for several minutes and then comes out and it’s over. He has served his sentence, so to speak.

What does this really teach Johnny? Probably not much. In fact, it may just teach him to barter misbehavior for a consequence that he doesn’t experience as that negative. To effectively use Time Out as a positive shaper of behavior, we must, again, start with an understanding that “time” is the least important element. Frankly, it does not matter how long or short the duration of the Time Out is.

The most important factor with Time Out should be this: upon leaving Time Out, the child is required to return to correctly do what they were originally told to do. For example, if they were sent to Time Out for mistreating a brother or sister, they must make amends and show that they can play or interact in a positive way upon leaving Time Out. If they refuse or fail to do this sufficiently, they are then told to return to Time Out and the process starts over. This procedure should continue until they are able to finally say they are sorry and demonstrate they can interact positively with their sibling. When they do so, we then can praise them for doing a good job. They have now demonstrated a behavior to positively reinforce. Looking for this opportunity for positive reinforcement should be the ultimate goal in our Time Out procedure.

As parents, we should be prepared to stick with this process. Don’t get discouraged! Yes, it may take a bit more effort initially, but the payoff is worth it. This procedure and many others are processes I help parents with every day in counseling. If you feel your parenting skills could use a tune up or even a compete overhaul, schedule an appointment today!

Day of Infamy

“December 7th, a date which will live in infamy.” Few people would not recognize these iconic words spoken by President Roosevelt in his speech announcing the declaration of war against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Even though I was born quite a long time after this historic event, it played a significant role throughout my life. My grandfather, Lt. Ernest L. White, was a Naval officer stationed at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack. While he was on base, my grandmother and two uncles sought safety by hiding in the sugar cane fields. As a boy, I would spend many hours listening to his experiences during the war. Indeed, by the time of the attack, he had already served 20+ years in the Navy, rising up through all the enlisted and warrant officer ranks as a “mustang officer,” and would continue through the Korean War; he certainly had a lot to share! More than his war stories, however, it was the way he lived his life, his commitment to his family and his faith that were examples which made a lasting impression on me. Thanks, “Pop!”

The Stages of Love

Remember in the early days of your relationship how you wanted to make sure you presented the best of yourself to that special someone? You would go out of your way to use your best manners, put his or her needs first in every interaction, make sure they got to pick their favorite restaurant on dates, made sure you communicated how you felt about him or her as often as possible? It all seemed so easy then; it just flowed; it was virtually reflexive.

Then, over time, those patterns began to fade and the once easy exchange of devotion and expression of love became more infrequent. It wasn’t necessarily that your feelings or commitment changed, you just began to express them less frequently. Familiarity bred comfort; comfort bred contentment; and contentment bred neglect. Frankly, you just became lazy.

Don’t fret! It is a normal part of the relationship journey. We all start out in the Romantic Love Stage. This is the easy part where behavior is driven by strong feelings doctored by a constant elixir of powerful hormones. It is most often a glorious time; but is never lasts. It is not meant to. It is the biological drive that attracts us and prepares us for deeper and more meaningful connection.

However, before arriving at this final stage, we go through the Disillusionment Stage. In this stage the hormones begin to wear off and we begin to see things in the other person which, previously, were not as clear. We begin to be easily annoyed by the other person’s faults and foibles. Many individuals falsely conclude that the ending of the Romantic Love stage is a sign that they picked the wrong person. Blustery feelings begin to wane and, sadly, many relationships start to disintegrate. In the worst scenario, partners begin drifting towards separation or divorce.

The final stage is the Mature Love Stage. In this stage true bonding and intimacy take center stage. For some couples the transition from Romantic Love to Mature Love is fairly quick. For others, wallowing around in the swamp of the Disillusionment stage can last a long time, sometimes many years. In the Mature Love stage we know and embrace that it is our behavior that drives our feelings, not the other way around. The feeling of being “in love” is still completely possible and achievable, but we recognize that it is the result of engaging in “loving behaviors,” not the other way around.

This brings us to our application. If you have found that you have been presenting your less-than-best-self to your spouse, begin to turn that around today! Recognize that you are likely in the stage of your relationship when great feelings and enjoyment are not dead, they are simply lying dormant anxiously waiting to be revived by the application of intentional loving behaviors and attitudes. Go out of your way to express appreciation for the little things your spouse does, make sure they know they are the most important person in your life – more than work, children, or hobbies, stop using your spouse as a dumping ground for negativity and complaints, be willing to listen, make good eye contact, hug them just a few seconds longer than usual, express excitement to see them when you reunite after the end of the day, ask them what you can do to make them feel special, compliment them, thank them, hire a babysitter and go on a date, do something they love to do, make their life a little easier by some act of service, etc. I dare you to try it as an experiment for a week. See what great things happen!

© 2018 Richard P. White