Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bitterness, Forgiveness and Life

I'm posting tomorrow's sermon tonight, just to get it done.

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Sept. 27, 2009

This past spring, a friend in the congregation lent me a book, “The Sunflower” by Simon Wiesenthal. It’s a small book, a short book, but I carried it with me everywhere for a few weeks, as I pored over its story and the commentary which accompanied the story.

Simon Wiesenthal, whose name you may remember as the longtime pursuer of Nazi war criminals, had had an unusual experience while imprisoned in a concentration camp and it troubled him. Let me tell you his story.

Wiesenthal had been in the camp for some time and one day, while on work detail, he was approached by a woman who seemed to be a Red Cross nurse in a nearby building, a school which had been turned into a hospital. She asked him if he was a Jew, which seemed a ridiculous question under the circumstances, but he nodded, fearing reprisals if he hesitated, and she bade him come with her.

He followed her into the hospital, hurrying to keep up with her, when she stopped and entered a room, signaling him to wait for her. Suddenly she returned, grabbed him by the arm, and propelled him into the hospital room.

There he found a pale, sick man, lying under white sheets and blankets, bloody bandages on his body, clearly a German soldier. The man looked dreadful; obviously he was dying and in terrible pain. But---a German soldier! A Nazi! Wiesenthal was terrified and fascinated at the same time, not knowing what was about to happen.

The nurse told him to “stay here” and she left. Wiesenthal sat down on the edge of the bed, hesitatingly, and waited. The man choked out, “I am dying. I shall die; there is nobody in the world to help me and nobody to mourn my death.”

“I am twenty-two,” he went on. “I know that death is everywhere. I am resigned to dying soon, but before that I want to talk about an experience which is torturing me. Otherwise I cannot die in peace.”

“I asked the nurse to bring me a Jewish prisoner. I must tell you something dreadful, something inhuman. It happened a year ago and I must tell someone about it; perhaps that will help me die in peace. I must tell YOU of this horrible deed----because you are a Jew.”

The German soldier went on to tell Wiesenthal that he had grown up a good Catholic boy but in his teens he joined the Hitler Youth and found friends and comrades there.

His parents were terrified that he would betray them, for they were against what he was doing, but he moved up in Nazi ranks and became an SS man, an officer in the Nazi army.

Fortified and made bold by lectures from Nazi leaders such as Himmler and Der Fuhrer, he participated in raids and captures of enemy prisoners and Jewish families. One day while on a mission, he had participated in the deed which now tortured him.

Soldiers, including himself, had herded several Jewish families into a house, which they then set on fire with hand grenades, and as people tried to escape the flames, they shot them dead, men, women, and children.

Wiesenthal was horrified and wanted to leave, but the soldier would not permit him to go and at the end of his terrible confession, he said, “I was wounded badly during a later battle and have been brought here to die, but that monstrous deed will not let me go. I relive it constantly. I cannot die without coming clean. In the last hours of my life, you are here with me and my guilt. I do not know who you are but you are a Jew and that is enough. I need you to forgive me,” he ended.

Wiesenthal was stunned by the man’s request and in his narrative of the event, he says this, “Now there was an uncanny silence in the room.. I looked through the window…What a contrast between the glorious sunshine outside and the shadow of this bestial age here in the death chamber. Here lay a man in bed who wished to die in peace---but he could not, because the memory of his terrible crime gave him no rest. And by him sat a man also doomed to die---but who did not want to die because he yearned to see the end of all the horror that blighted the world.

“Two men who had never known each other had been brought together for a few hours by Fate. One asks the other for help. But the other was himself helpless and able to do nothing for him….At last (said Wiesenthal) I made up my mind and without a word I left the room.”

Asked to forgive a Nazi for murdering Jews, Simon Wiesenthal could not bring himself to speak and left the room without granting the request for forgiveness. Once back in the camp, he talked with his fellow prisoners about this experience and struggled with himself endlessly. Had he done the right thing? Would his God judge him for not being compassionate enough? What does forgiveness mean, to the forgiver and to the forgiven?

After the camps were liberated, the experience continued to haunt him and eventually he asked others, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, believers, non-believers, psychiatrists, and other teachers. Their responses form the other half of this slender book. Among those answering his question, “what would you have done?” are the Dalai Lama, Matthew Fox, Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, Desmond Tutu, and other wise notables.

Some of these men and women felt that Wiesenthal should have forgiven the SS man, though most felt that he could not forgive on behalf of the Jews, only on behalf of himself for the frightening experience the SS man had subjected him to by summoning him to his bedside.

Others felt that he had acted rightly by listening and allowing the man to unburden himself, but not giving him forgiveness. Most, too, felt that if they were confronted by such a dilemma, they would not know what else to do but simply listen.

Commentary-contributors seemed in agreement about who can forgive and who can be forgiven, who has the right to ask and of whom.
1. the offended party can forgive for self but not for others.
2. the offender can be forgiven by the offended but also needs forgiveness from a higher power, such as God.
3. the offender can ask the offended to forgive an offense to himself or herself but not for an entire group.
4. some offenses, such as murder, cannot be forgiven for the offended party is dead. Survivors can forgive the pain caused themselves by the murderer but cannot forgive for the victim.

As I think about the issue of forgiveness, I am reminded of my years in a Twelve Step program, when I was working the 12 steps to wholeness and had to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself, admit those wrongs to my Higher Power, to myself, and to another human being, and then make amends to those I’d harmed, if possible.

I’d gotten into AlAnon because of my relationship with a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous. When we were hiking one day, we were talking about our past hurts in other relationships and I blurted out, “how can I get my ex-husband to make amends to me for the hurt he caused?” and stopped short because the truth hit me between the eyes: it was not my ex-husband’s behavior that should be my concern, it was MY behavior that I needed to consider at that time. How might I have contributed to my own unhappiness?

Because of AlAnon, I’ve done a lot of admitting my wrongs and making amends as soon as possible, apologizing and asking for reconciliation. But it’s always hard to admit I’ve done wrong. It’s also hard to forgive when no apology from another has been made, when no admission of wrong-doing has been offered.

I struggle with this in my life still, when I feel lonely or distressed or misunderstood. It’s hard for me not to feel resentful when I think of the patterns I learned in an early life, patterns which I still maintain even though they aren’t very productive. And it’s then that I have to take a new tack.

In our reading today, Frank read excerpts from an essay by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Kushner’s point is that we don’t have to forgive people for doing terrible things to us; we aren’t being asked to say, “oh, it’s okay that you did this terrible thing”. Because it’s not okay when someone hurts us.

What we can do, however, is refuse to give that person the power to make us victims. For victimhood is mostly in our own minds. It is the residue of the original hurt and should not control our lives. Declaring ourselves the victim of a terrible act and carrying that anger and helplessness forward into the rest of our lives gives the offender power over us, gives the offender illegitimate power in our lives.

In an article this past spring, Shari Roan of the LA Times wrote about a common emotional problem that is so widespread that it may be classified as a mental disorder. It’s called “Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder” and here’s what she says about it:

You know them. I know them. And, increasingly, psychiatrists know them. People who feel they have been wronged by someone and are so bitter they can barely function other than to ruminate about their circumstances.

This behavior is so common -- and so deeply destructive -- that some psychiatrists are urging it be identified as a mental illness under the name post-traumatic embitterment disorder. The behavior was discussed before an enthusiastic audience (in May) at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Assn. in San Francisco.

The disorder is modeled after post-traumatic stress disorder because it too is a response to a trauma that endures. People with PTSD are left fearful and anxious. Embittered people are left seething for revenge.

"They feel the world has treated them unfairly. It's one step more complex than anger. They're angry plus helpless," says Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist who named the behavior.

Embittered people are typically good people who have worked hard at something important, such as a job, relationship or activity, Linden says. When something unexpectedly awful happens, a profound sense of injustice overtakes them.

Instead of dealing with the loss with the help of family and friends, they cannot let go of the feeling of being victimized. Almost immediately after the traumatic event, they become angry, pessimistic, aggressive, hopeless haters.

"Embitterment is a violation of basic beliefs," Linden says. "It causes a very severe emotional reaction. . . . We are always coping with negative life events. It's the reaction that varies."

We do see very bitter people every day---in our own lives, in the media, across the globe wherever injustice has eaten away at people’s lives. Many times these sad and angry people only want a sincere apology from the person or entity which has hurt them; they want someone to take responsibility for an action which has been damaging.

But many times the person or entity which has been hurtful refuses to see the hurt caused; they react defensively and even may demonize the person who is claiming a hurt. We’ve seen this behavior between patients and insurance companies; we’ve seen it in social agencies where a person has been wrongfully accused of misdeeds; we’ve seen it in classrooms where a teacher has hurt a student in some way and has refused to see it as anything but the student’s fault. We’ve seen it in families where an abusive situation has continued unabated despite efforts to change things.

What does bitterness do to us? As individuals? As members of this community? As members of the global community? In our “Time for All Ages” this morning, we heard about a place where people had forgotten how to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”. The result was a burden of unhappiness that had persisted for generations.

Tonight at sundown begins the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the culmination of what is often called the 10 Days of Repentance, which began with Rosh Hoshanah on Sept. 18. The 10 Days of Repentance are a time when Jews are to meditate on their lives during the past year and ask for forgiveness from anyone they have wronged. At the time of Yom Kippur, Jews are expected to ask forgiveness from God for the ways they have wronged God by disobeying God’s laws.

Judaism recognizes in this way our human need to forgive and to be forgiven, so that our dealings with each other can be mutually peaceful. Christianity also requires confession of wrongs and reconciliation with those who have been harmed; Catholicism requires penance for wrongs against God’s laws. In Buddhism, forgiveness is seen as a practice to prevent harmful thoughts from causing havoc on one’s mental well-being.[10] Buddhism recognizes that feelings of hatred and ill-will leave a lasting effect on our minds.

Instead, Buddhism encourages the cultivation of thoughts that leave a wholesome effect. Compassion for all is a hallmark of most Buddhist theology.

We Unitarian Universalists look to our Seven Principles for guidance in matters of forgiveness. Our first principle asks us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person and our second principle, to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.

And yet it is so difficult to do. We are beset by resentment of those who do NOT apologize, we often have a hard time admitting our own complicity in events which bother us, and we may struggle to find compassion in our hearts for those who seem bent on hurting us, deliberately.

Over my years of life, I have been in a number of situations that required me to admit that I had hurt someone and to make amends for my behavior. It has never gotten easy; I am always tempted to deny any wrongdoing on my own part, to be defensive when called on my actions, and to avoid confrontation.

Yet every time I have let go of my defensiveness, acknowledged my own complicity in a negative situation, and asked for forgiveness, I have come away from the situation wiser, less anxious, stronger, and more compassionate. I have grown in ways I could not have imagined.

Forgiveness is tied to compassion. When we can find compassion in our hearts for someone who has hurt us, it is easier to feel forgiving. Forgiveness is tied to repentance. When we express our regret for having hurt another person, it is easier for that person to forgive us. Sometimes the other person doesn’t even know they’ve wounded us; in that case, it is valuable to have the courage to speak of our hurt to the other.

Sometimes it doesn’t happen. We apologize and the other person doesn’t accept our apology. Or we can find no compassion in our hearts for the person who has hurt us, only resentment. But as many wise women and men have pointed out, and as is stated clearly in 12 Step process, we forgive others for our own benefit, as much as theirs.

I ask us: Could the great hurts of the world be cured by the acts of taking responsibility for wrong-doing, taking steps to make amends for the hurt caused, and finding reconciliation?

Could the small and large hurts of our daily lives be healed by the acts of taking responsibility, making amends, and finding reconciliation? I’d like to think it could be so.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Because prayer is a common way of coping with hurt and resentment, our benediction this morning is a prayer.

Spirit of Life and Love, whom some call God, we are grateful for the many blessings of Life and Love. We are in awe of this beautiful universe and its gifts, yet we often overlook or ignore our own responsibility to the world and especially to our brothers and sisters on this planet. We remember times when we have hurt others or have been hurt by others and have not taken steps to heal those hurts.

We regret these lapses, for we know that to forgive and to be forgiven are essential actions in a world that desperately needs peace. Grant us, we pray, the courage to say we're sorry to each other and to ask for forgiveness. Grant us, too, the grace to accept apology from others and to let go of the resentments we may be harboring. In the name of all that is holy, we pray these things. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Robin Edgar said...

Well done Rev. Ketchum.

This is certainly one of the better sermons about forgiveness and apologies, to say nothing of taking responsibility for one's actions or facing accountability them, that I have seen from a UU minister. Indeed it may well be the best one. That is not to say that it is perfect, but it is pretty darn good. For the record I think that you have lived up to the letter and the spirit of it in your human relations with me and I appreciate that fact. Would that a few more Unitarian Universalist ministers could follow your example.


Robin Edgar

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Robin.

Mark said...

Hi Kit, lovely to read your thoughts. My wife, Karen Key, is a Jew, and I observe the Days of Awe with her and for myself. I wish that more of our colleagues would become as conversant as you have become with Jewish practice. We repeat Parker's nostrum, "I love the religion of Jesus more than the religion about him," and that religion was Judaism. Were he still alive he would feel at home with Wiesenthal; much less so with most manifestations of Christianism. Judaism was the religion of Jesus and all that he ever "preached." But that aside, thank you also for the depth and tenderness of your personal reflections, and for opening the door into the house of questions of what this all might mean for a more thorough UU spiritual practice, or how one might turn at least one of the principles into a UUnique spiritual practice. Now I head with Karen to Yom Kippur service--all day, and all day fasting. Your ponderings have been a great way to begin that t'shuvah journey.

ms. kitty said...

Dear Mark, I'm honored by your kind words. We miss you out here! May your fast be easy and sweet in its meaningfulness. And my best wishes for a happy new year.

Lulu Brown said...

What a great story to share, and a good point. There are limits to our human forgiveness, and there must be limits to the grudges we hold, lest they keep us from moving on and upwards.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Lulu. I think forgiveness is our hardest human challenge, especially when one needs to let go of resentment and anger without an apology or acceptance of responsibility from the other person.

jenifa oadud Nitu said...

As I am quiet new in Jewish, looking around for some Jewish information> Got something important here. Nice to get it.
Have you seen this video ? It helped me get over my internal anger.