Late Night Revelations

Late Night Revelations March 8, 2014

I seem to be doing my best thinking in the wee hours of the night, those minutes (or hours) between trips to the bathrooms or careful turnings over. For some reason last night I was thinking of an ended relationship and my reactions to it, wondering if I’ve been too harsh. In a flash of insight I realized that part of my problem is lingering Christian thinking.

I’m the kind of person that takes things seriously. I’ve often been told that I take things too seriously. (Of course, I’ve often been accused of being flippant, which I also am. I’m a Gemini, I’ve got the both/and thing down!) One of the things I take seriously is virtue. Even as a kid I wanted to be a better me. I read books on being wiser and bolder and stronger and more loving, etc. When I read the New Testament as a preteen I took a lot of it deeply to heart. There are many lessons in there about having your insides and your outsides match (having your walk and your talk in alignment), lessons about generosity, sacrifice, integrity, love in the face of fear, the inability of wealth to provide one with happiness or spiritual truths, and how to face hostility. Many of these lessons are inextricably part of who I am now. I am grateful for the influence of Jesus and crew. I think I’m a better person having read and taken to heart the lessons of the New Testament.

Albrecht Dürer’s Praying Hands from 1508.

But some of it is equally insidious. One of those is ‘turning the other cheek.’ I’ve deconstructed this on a feminist level in graduate school. Men are encouraged to be strong in their compassion; women encouraged to be ‘resilient’ and ‘obedient’ – basically, women should silently suffer under a facade of Niceness. This has dire consequences for women who are in any kind of abusive situation. But what does it mean for me, a person who is not in one of those situations?

For me it means I am constantly giving people too many chances. I’m an optimist by nature and incredibly loyal. While I’ve been outspoken my whole life, and perceived as bold (often told I’m ‘too much’), I haven’t had the greatest of boundaries. I’ve come to see that I seem to think that close relationships need to be complicated and intense. I’ve taken on the role of the Apologizer, which allows others off the hook for ending conflict and their need to apologize. As I’ve been working through my Stuff and deepening my spiritual practice, my boundaries have gotten a lot tighter. I no longer keep turning my cheek. I’ve got two cheeks, so you’ve got two chances. Once that limit has been passed, I’m done.

This has had direct impact on some of my most (at the time) important relationships. Last night I wondered if maybe I wasn’t being forgiving enough. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made some bad choices in my life, and handled some neutral choices really poorly, too. I’ve confused people and been callous to their confusion. Can I forgive these people, this person for their issues now?

I realized a couple of things. First, it’s not my job. They are not asking for my forgiveness. If they were I’d be having a different argument in my head. Second, I am not a Christian, so what does forgiveness and turning the other cheek have to do with anything? Good boundaries and integrity are more important to me and my practice than some notion of martyr-ish forgiveness.

This insight – I am not a Christian and therefore not obligated to forgive anyone – struck me with such intensity that it obscured the bigger realization that didn’t occur to me until I was puttering around the kitchen this morning. That is, wow, my self-indoctrination runs more deeply than I’d realized. It’s going to take years to tease out my old monotheistic and Christian thinking from my beliefs and practices.

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  • yewtree

    I read somewhere that the purpose of turning the other cheek was originally resisting the Roman invaders. It was a form of sarcasm and defiance. “Oh so you want to slap my face? Here’s the other cheek!” and “Oh so you want to take my cloak? Here, have the shirt off my back too.” Similarly the bit in one of Paul’s epistles about being really nice to your enemies because it “heaps coals of fire on their head” (first century CE way of saying “it really pisses them off”). Bwahahaha!!! Cackle.

    But I quite agree that these passages have been interpreted in the ways you describe in your post.

    • Jesus seems like the kind of sarcastic ass that would do that! Paul not so much to me. But so much of biblical interpretation is just so much fumbling in the dark. You know, like most of life!

      • yewtree

        David Doel (a Unitarian Christian and Jungian therapist) has argued that there were two Pauls. Who knows? It’s fun to play with different interpretations.

  • Matthaios

    I think “forgiveness” can be used, in some cases, to pass the blame onto the victim/offended. It’s not right, but it is easy and a way of sidestepping the actual issue.

    I’ve struggled with the concept of forgiveness. Unless the other person is willing to make sincere amends, I don’t think they deserve anything resembling forgiveness. If you screwed up and don’t apologize, you obviously don’t care about my forgiveness and my way of “moving on” will be to distance myself, not to say, “Oh, it’s okay.”

    I don’t buy into the idea that forgiveness is for one’s own Self. I’ve never understood that one.

    • Yep. Moving on IS a form of forgiveness I’ve found.

      • Matthaios

        I might phrase it in reverse order: that forgiving is a form of moving on but that one can move on without forgiving. One can move on without forgiving the offender.

  • Martha Kuepper

    Forgiveness should never be motivated by religion, but rather is a way to bring closure. Do you want to carry a grudge or move on? And forgiving someone doesn’t mean forgetting or giving them another chance (though people can certainly do both/all). I’m not sure I think it’s possible to move on and not forgive. If you don’t forgive, in some way you are letting a past event haunt you.

    • I disagree. It may be that I need to step away from the baggage that the word forgiveness has for me, for a time. But I think moving on *is* a form of forgiveness – of not holding a grudge. But many people assume that forgiveness means going back to the way things were. And I don’t think that is wise.

  • Miriam

    I am a Catholic Christian. I believe that forgiveness is essential to being a whole person. I agree that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. It takes two people, working together, to be reconciled. I believe that forgiveness is giving the other person the benefit of the doubt and, thereby, not holding their words or actions against them; though this does not remove their accountability. I love Jesus’s words from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.

    I have been abusive in my anger and yet I am a person who loves deeply. I realised that my abusive behaviour came from deep hurt giving way to resentment. Empathy is the key to removing resentment and forgiving others. By forgiving I am not excusing them from responsibility for their behaviour, but I am allowing for mitigating circumstances.

    As for ‘turning the other cheek,’ Jesus never promoted passivity in the face of injustice. I believe that in turning the other cheek I do not take personally what others say or do. In turning the other cheek I am able to face up to injustice by speaking the truth with courage, humility…and kindness.

    These Christian teachings are also found in other faiths. As they are ‘written’ on the human heart, even good people of no faith embrace them. They are the key to interior freedom and the path to true peace and joy.

    • You make some good points, thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully.

      I agree that most of us ‘don’t know what we do’ and that there are often hidden issues that we cannot see. But I give the benefit of the doubt the first one or two times. After that, no more.

      Do be careful about making assumptions that Christian teachings are universal. Many faiths (and people of no faith) may verbalize a similar value, but those values may be expressed very, very differently.