aim higher: forgive often

Grace is a tricky thing.

 I have a weakness for wild Italian Catholic women who are fiercely loyal to their friends and family. The ones I have known through the years are, at turns, heartbreakingly tender and almost cruel when they feel wounded. I love the way they cuss a blue streak, saying they have had enough as they storm through the house to violently pour a glass of wine. I used to think we offenders had finally crossed THE LINE, and there would soon be no way back. Now I know that as they stomp through the kitchen, cussing like a sailor, they are finding a way to bend and shift, making room to forgive so the relationship can survive. 

These Italians seem to know that humans only come in one variety: the broken kind. Even the most loyal among us eventually betray. We want to be generous, but sometimes selfishness wins. We want to be magnanimous, but holding a grudge sometimes feels justified. All of us make mistakes, and eventually, some of those mistakes hurt the people around us.

Forgiveness is always necessary, often intentional, and present in any lasting relationship.

Knowing this, why is forgiveness hard to muster? If we are certain that our actions will eventually hurt those around us, why is apologizing such a hill to climb? (Maybe because, as Bono sings, “It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain, when you start out the climb.”) In this series in which we explore the gaps between what we know to be true and how we behave at times, it is helpful to think about what relationship actually require of us. 

There is a divide between what we hope from each other and what we receive. There is a gap between what we thought we could allow and what we must endure to love our people. Our lines have to move if we hope to maintain friendships. Relationships require resilient flexibility.

We already know this in select friendships. Consider the notion of “free pass people.” These are the folks who have found their way into my heart and soul without me having placed them in that privileged category. I care deeply about choices people make, and I live by a code that demands I own my own choices and acknowledge how those choices impact others. Logic would say that I have the same standards for my nearest and dearest. I don’t though. My free pass people don’t have to perform. They don’t have to be consistently and thoughtfully congruent. They simply exist, and I instinctively respond to their wins with celebration, and to their failures with grace and understanding.

I am for them. Everytime. Without question.

Hard conversations still happen—motives and actions are explored and thought through—but all of that occurs on a bed of compassion and hope. The beautiful reality is that such challenging conversations are productive BECAUSE they occur in the context of forgiveness and love. Forgiveness comes easy for these folks, as if there is a deep well of grace that simply pours over them before either of us know such an act is required.

One of the sadnesses of my life, a reality that reveals my internal life is wildly incongruent with the person I want to be, is that my free pass people are very few indeed. Sadly, the folks I claim to love but silently judge, measure or withhold affection from are many. When my children fight I remind them that forgiveness is the bedrock of every human relationship. It is a muscle that must be developed if it is not naturally strong. Forgiving others (and forgiving ourselves) allows us to live with hope and to practice living in the present. We know our kids have to learn this, and I think we all might benefit from closing the gap between what we teach them and demonstrate ourselves.

Perhaps the best way to increase our access to fierce and frequent forgiving is to pay attention to our own dependence on grace. I am a mess, so if anyone is gonna stick with me through life, I will have to be one of their free pass folks. Knowing this, the work of my adult life is to expand my own number so that more and more of my community gets my forgiveness, grace and presence before they even ask.

This is a high bar, yes. But we are already meet it abundantly! We just have an incredibly difficult entrance exam before we grant such privileges. We are very good at seeing the good in a person behaving badly if we deeply love them. We can do better. We need to do better.

My favorite Italian in Nashville has for years noticed that I often use the word, grace. The first few times, she cocked her head as confusion flickered across her eyes. Soon after she would ask me why I chose that word in the instance in which I had used it. “Grace” is not a word she hears a lot. But here is the marvelous truth: She issues me grace on the reg. She finds the word awkward, and is never sure why I talk about it so often, and yet it flows out of her instinctively when I need it.

I think this is why I love my Italians. Their sacrifice and support of others is predicated on their commitment to the people they love, not on our worthy behavior. We can learn a lot from this kind of expansive love. Call it grace, or just call it Tuesday, but allow yourself to acknowledge that every single relationship in your life will demand flexibility and an expansion of what is forgivable. Throw a dish, stomp and cuss, and then get over yourself and offer grace to the people around you who need forgiveness. (It might soon be you.)

on 'free pass' people and what they teach us

Expand Your Us offers a different way to imagine ourselves and our connections to one another.  We live in troubled times, with palpable tension, easy binaries and divisiveness in the air we breathe.  Even those of us who recognize that defensiveness is destructive, that binaries destroy, or that our biases shape the way we see others fall into these traps.  If we celebrate the dignity of all others, we walk a narrow road of empathy, and the ditches of distrust on either side are large and strangely inviting.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. Within our tribes, these choices are often instinctive. What if we chose kindness more often?

While this is an accurate description of who we are, it is not the full story.  We have become instinctively divisive in the way we consume news and engage others in the public sphere, and yet we continue to be good at loving our “us.”  Yes, we are often quick to demonize, caricature and misunderstand others; however, given the right circumstances, we are also quick to listen, extending grace to people who don’t deserve it.  I call them “free pass” people, because they are the select few who always get the benefit of the doubt.  Even though we are stingy with grace or understanding for people with whom we don’t agree, we all know how to care about our free pass people:

We know how to forgive instinctively, before we are asked. 

We know how to listen with empathy even when an action seems selfish or hurtful. 

We know how to lean in when we want to point a finger in judgment.

We know how to use our power to pull strings for a person who might blow the opportunity. 

We know how to be generous to people who haven’t earned it.

We love our tribe even when they are defensive, argue an irrational point, or make selfish choices.

Choosing to extend compassion and understanding to another human being is always a choice. For our free pass people, these choices are easy, even instinctive.  By observing these choices, noticing them when they happen, could we become better at intentionally choosing kindness to more people more often?  Could we realize we achieve very little when we refuse to access compassion for a large segment of society?  Could we widen our circles, extending the mercy and empathy we reserve for our tribe to others?  Could we recognize that we are part of the problem when we only value our us? 

If we blindly let our instincts decide when we choose compassion, and when we choose to demonize, we miss the opportunity to examine what empathy costs, and how it might heal.  Given our public discourse, it is easy to think we are devolving as a society.  Perhaps we need to be reminded that we already know how to care about people whose perspectives or choices infuriate us.  I have been delighted to realize that many of us are, in fact, expanding our us at an astonishing pace.

For instance, I see transformative reform in the way old divides are being erased through collaboration and resistance.  The last few years have witnessed the exposure of widespread injustice, but we are also witnessing game-changing reforms.  Black Lives Matter brought to light deep patterns of inequity in criminal justice and legal systems.  Brutality is not new, it is simply now exposed in the public sphere, and this exposure necessitated change.  While it is true that many deny injustice exists, even more law enforcement agencies are hard at work improving their relationships with ALL the communities they serve.  In fact, systems are reforming: from body cams, to prosecutors who examine their relationship to police and defendants, to engaging in restorative justice, to de-escalation training, to mental health awareness, to reforming unjust laws, to judges working with communities for fair sentencing, justice is on the move because we are listening to each other.

Similarly, the #metoo movement has exposed deep patterns of misogyny in almost every industry.  These problems are not new, they are simply coming to light in the public sphere.  Millions are teaching us that objectifying women in any way has consequences; there is no such thing as innocent locker room talk.  While some men belittle this abuse, many have listened and responded by examining their potential influence to improve the way we speak about and relate to each other.  Because of brave women and thoughtful men, behavioral norms are changing.  Children are taught differently, coaches coach differently, new staff orientations occur differently and mentors lead differently.  We are learning to honor one another.

This notion of expanding our us instead of demonizing those who dare highlight problems plaguing society is catching on.  In Nashville, a school that was chronically labeled as troubled is now being celebrated as a leader in forming community partnerships; across the nation educators have noticed the ways they collaborate with the city, families, teachers and students to reform approaches to education.  In fact, last week, the Director of Metro Nashville Public Schools and a Nashville Precinct Commander visited Pearl-Cohn, listening and partnering with school Principal Dr. Sonia Stewart, who replaces despair with hope and agency every day.  I am encouraged that our city and state officials are paying attention to our resilient students and the leaders who champion their voices!  This week, the State of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candace McQueen, publicly stated that resisting systems based on violence and fear is an important part of the educational process.  She therefore recommends that no student be penalized for participating in next week’s #nationalschoolwalkout protest.  Dr. McQueen understands that we can find hopeful paths forward when we listen to each other rather than demonizing any act of resistance.

Imagine how interconnected our society would be if we started to treat more people the way we usually treat our ‘free pass’ people.  What are the costs of expanding our “us”, so that we give others the benefit of the doubt, committing to listen, seek understanding, and extend compassion more regularly?  Granted, it might cost us our precious binaries, our approaches to others as Good or Bad.  It might cost us the chance to judge before we listen, and it will surely lower the number of people we ignore or even loathe.  I suspect that replacing judgment with generous curiosity will not just improve our connections to others, it might make hopeful peacemakers out of us all.