Life Course: Humanity and Forgiveness, Revisit

This post was written in April 2019 — just four months ago –however the theme and language resonate with Tuesday’s post, Screw ups, so I’m re-posting a tidied up version today, September 5, 2019.

Teachers sometimes utilize an approach called ‘layered instruction’ to ensure that all students attain mastery. Taking into account the individual learning styles and abilities of their students, they design multiple lessons using a variety of modalities over a period of time .

For example, when I was teaching writing, I introduced the importance of using sensory details by showing my students photographs. “Your writing,” I would say, “should include enough sensory details, that your readers begin to see images, like photographs, in their minds when they read your words.” For some students, that statement was enough. They would begin to include vivid details in their writing. Others needed guided practice in describing a scene.

“Show us where you were,” I would say.

The student might say, “in my bedroom.”

“Tell me what color the walls were. Was the floor wooden or carpeted? What kind of furniture did you have? What sounds did you hear?”

A couple students just needed a few questions to get their imagery flowing onto the page. Others needed to read a variety of models. Some needed to read their own pages out loud and get feedback from peers. A few picked up the concept quickly; some improved gradually over time. Most needed all kinds of practice.

Layered instruction starts with basic principles and, over time, adds nuance and a variety of applications to develop complexity and a thorough understanding of a concept or strategy.

I’ve been taking a course in “Humanity and Forgiveness” for a little over fifty years, and I’ve needed a layered approach. I wasn’t fully engaged in the content for a while, and I may have some undiagnosed learning challenges, so I’ve taken longer than some to get the basic principles. However, my instructor has continued to provide a variety of opportunities to move me toward mastery.

Here are some of the key ideas I’ve picked up.

  1. All of us mess up. Most mess up every day. Even those who intend to do well cannot avoid missteps, oversights, and outright screw-ups. It’s in our nature. Humans are imperfect. The sooner we admit this, the better prepared we will be to manage the inevitable — the actual blunders, the resulting consequences, and the imminent regret. My five-year-old nephew told me this week that “Only God is perfect, Aunt Kristin.” He’s obviously a faster learner than I am.
  2. We can choose to plan for the inevitable. Try this, “Hey, Self, I know you are going to try your hardest today, but you are going to get some things wrong. Some stuff you are going to mess up accidentally; you might even screw up a few things on purpose. It happens, so have a game plan.”
  3. A game plan can be simple. “Hey, Self, in those moments when you realize that you’ve really blown it, how about you take a breath, acknowledge your mistake, forgive yourself, and then do your best to restore the situation.”
  4. We can extend this mindset to others. “Hey, Friends, you are human. You make mistakes — it’s to be expected. You try hard all the time; I’ve seen you. So when I notice you run a stop sign, swear at your mother, or totally disregard the feelings of your friends or coworkers, I’m going to say to myself: ‘Well, there she goes being human,’ and I’m going to forgive you and lend you a hand, if you’d like, in restoring the situation.”
  5. Harshly judging ourselves or others is destructive; it does nothing to restore a situation. If I have acted selfishly, neglected my responsibilities, or totally gone off the rails, calling myself an idiot or a loser will not help me feel better, do better, or move closer to restoration. If someone else has broken my favorite coffee cup, run into my parked car, or been rude to me on social media, categorizing them as a low-life miscreant or microbial pond scum, will not make me feel better or put me in a position to forgive them, myself, or any other human that rubs me the wrong way.
  6. The healthiest response to screw-ups — our own and those belonging to others — is forgiveness. And forgiveness doesn’t make any sense.

Our pastor recently told the story of The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), which compares the forgiveness of monetary debt to the forgiveness of sin. It’s a brilliant approach for learners like me who can wrap our heads around the tangible (money) more easily than the intangible (mercy). In the story, an employer forgives his servant an enormous debt –let’s say a million dollars. The employee owed an amount so great he couldn’t fathom repaying, and his boss said, “I’ll cover it.” A million dollars isn’t just a number on paper that we can put a line through; it’s a stack of bills a million dollars high. If you owe me a million dollars and don’t pay me back, that money comes out of my bank account. I use money that I was planning to spend on a new home, a new car, or my kids’ education, to pay your debt. That’s what forgiveness is, my pastor said. God assumes our debt. He pays it.

Then, He offers us opportunities to “do unto others”. He assumed my million dollar debt; maybe I could cover the cost of someone else’s mistake.

How much does it ‘cost’ us when someone flips us off in traffic — a dollar? Can we let that go? Can we assume that loss? How about when a coworker talks about us behind our backs. What did that cost? Ten bucks? Can we cover that? What if someone breaks into our house? Assaults our child? Seduces our spouse? What “cost” is too high?

Major crimes might seem impossible to forgive, so it’s a good idea to practice on small ones. My husband snarled at me after a long week of work; I can brush that off. A coworker forgot to put supplies away before he left for the day; I can take care of that. The doctor’s office charged me the wrong amount; it’ll cost me a little time, but that’s ok, accidents happen. We can practice forgiveness by overlooking these small offenses.

My justice-obsessed heart had long kept track of all this little stuff; it had wanted a reckoning for every small crime. I practically had a balance sheet of what I was ‘owed’ for all the little hurts that had been inflicted upon me. I had been looking for repayment — a balancing of the books, an eye for an eye.

It’s in the Bible, you know.

But instead of repayment, I incurred more losses — dishonesty, betrayal, neglect, theft. My ledger sheet had me deep in the red. Everywhere I looked I saw someone who owed me, and I wanted repayment.

Here’s the problem: I, too, am human and have screwed up over and over again. If my mistakes were billed out to me, millions wouldn’t cover it. I have no hope of paying it all back. I am buried in suffocating debt.

And I hear the words, “I’ll cover it.” Just like that the bill is wiped clean. I owe nothing. Nothing for lying to my friend. Nothing for yelling at my small children when they didn’t understand. Nothing for neglecting my hurting teenagers. Nothing for holding onto judgment for every little (and big) offense that anyone ever did against me.

I owe nothing.

So I walk my ledger over to the shredder.

Before I release the paper to get chewed up by the row of teeth, I take one last glance. Some of those debts are large; assuming them will cost me.

But one more thing I’ve learned about Humanity and Forgiveness is that holding on to that ledger costs me more. Carrying around that spreadsheet and looking for repayment robs me of opportunity, of joy, of freedom.

During his sermon, my pastor, slapped this little tidbit on the screen:

Forgiving forgives the unforgivable; it can only be possible in doing the impossible.

Jacque Derrida

Yeah. I can’t un-see it.

So, I do the impossible. I shred that spreadsheet, and instead of feeling the cost, I realize that I am free.

See, I told you it doesn’t make any sense.

You might want to test it out for yourself.

I might be wrong. It’s happened before.

I mean, I am a human, after all.

Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Colossians 3:13

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