To Set Free

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” ~ Michelangelo

“I find it really interesting how Fred Luskin turns forgiveness into something simple that we can all work on.

1. Becoming more grateful, which is (for me) an idea that we always should have in mind.

2. Manage the stress about the situation, to keep a control on it.

3. Changing the story you tell, ‘when you change your story to something else, you give your body different pathways to function and your mind different pathways to open to.’

4. You cannot prove that life owes you something else, ‘Prove that it was an error and you didn’t deserve the mother you got.’ I interpret it like : things that happened to you, you can only accept it, see it differently, and change your mind about it.

Also, forgiveness isn’t only about conflict resolution; if you can put your body enough open to be ready to forgive, you’re also more open to be ready to accept things, and see them with a brand new look.”

Thank you for coming back to comment on that excellent video on forgiveness by Fred Lushkin. As you say, he succeeds in breaking it down into the specific parts you precisely list, making the process both more understandable and immediately applicable. But beyond that, as you so rightly point out, the attitude of forgiveness is not just about conflict or the past; it is a personal state of open readiness to accept things as they are, an essential “Yes” to life as it is unfolding, which completely changes the quality and the possibilities of any given moment.

I wrote some years ago, and believe it even more so as I get older, that forgiveness is an essential skill that is imperative to learn in life. And it starts by recognizing that it’s not about letting the bad guy off the hook; it’s about this:

Forgiveness is really about absolution: to set free. But if you look carefully at the dynamic, the one you’re setting free is yourself.

And setting free is not an exaggeration. When we don’t forgive, we continue to carry an unnecessary, debilitating weight and underlying, immobilizing hostility that permeates our perspectives more than we realize. This is true even if it’s something we’re not consciously aware of. But perhaps even more significant is that we close down our access to subtle forms of serendipity – being in the right place at the right time. Which then gives us a permanent excuse for why so much of life feels like an uphill battle: “I can place the blame right there.” The impact, over a broad spectrum of experience, is enormous and in many cases life-defining. It’s big boy and girl stuff, and fits right at the core of recent conversations on this blog in Cultivating Great Character and finding a religious outlook on life.

A friend and I were recently talking about the idea of serendipity (a term coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, in The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”). And we were discussing how it comes into play. There are a number of other words that point to this phenomenon, but the basic idea is that circumstances alter for the benefit of the individual once he or she is free from prejudice, resentment and fear – the runoff impact of dragging the past into the present by an unforgiving willfulness to not let it go. Such serendipity could be because of mystical elements at play (as certain religions claim, such as Christianity’s state of grace), or it could be because there are always these natural generosities available to us but we can only find them once we rid ourselves of the self-created chains to our presumed unjustly crippling past. In any case, the process leading to freedom is the same.

Mr. Lushkin delineates that process so concisely, and then comes to a moment when he honestly admits that these steps take one to the probability of freedom but that he does not know exactly what happens after that; there’s some mysterious alchemy that can occur but often doesn’t, in which an internal transformation can happen and the encumbrance is released. My own view of what stops us short of this mysterious alchemy is that the forgiveness has not been fully absorbed by all four of our bodies. We may have gone through the steps in our head, or felt emotional willingness to forgive, or understood the spiritual significance…but we’ve not yet committed ourselves to letting the absolution seep into and clean out the dark nooks and crannies of our angry self-righteousness. (Even just a full awakening to the objective reasons to be grateful should already be enough for that.) Some part of us is still lagging back, wondering if we really want to give in and let the blame go. An aspect of that hesitation is funny in some ways: it’s as if we know that by abandoning our vehement victim story we wouldn’t know what else to be, what other, grander story we may have to learn to live up to.

My favorite part of Mr. Lushkin’s presentation, which for me puts the entire issue into context:

“For each of us, our contribution to this world is our presence and the way we comport ourselves… how did you respond to the unkindness that was sent your way?”

I’ve known a number of very successful persons, including some working in personal betterment fields or as therapists, who rely almost entirely on their unforgiving hostility toward their parents, some other authority figure, or an ex-loved one for motivation – “I’ll show you, you asshole.” And this works up to a point, especially if they keep focused on external successes that are recognizable and sought by others (although you have to choose your friends and clients carefully to make sure they fall into that category). I’ve watched these stories unfold, and I’m still watching some of them, curious to see if they’ll find the courage to take all that talent and skill and direct them to getting over the big hill into a new, more expansive, reconciled and adventurous life story. The very top of that hill will almost surely involve a genuinely humble request for forgiveness for how ruthlessly unforgiving they have been.

And I think this holds true for all of us to at least some degree, the daily decision to either go into battle to fight off all the inequities and abuses, and those who cause them, or to move into the day in the spirit of “This is what I have to work with; how playfully creative can I be?” We cannot really play when we’re covered in armor and our arms are full of weaponry. Nor can we be creative when much of our attention is on our reiteration of how unfair the past has been to us (spoken to ourselves or anyone who will listen).

Coming back to your “ready to accept things, and see them with a brand new look”…none of us as humans have the ability to do this as impeccably as a dog can (interestingly, and probably pertinent, dogs have the biggest heart per body mass of any living creature), but we can find some cool examples if we look around that show us how it’s done. One pet example that I like to watch is Roger Federer when he plays tennis. If you get a chance, I’d recommend taking a look. The most remarkable skill he has is not his obvious grace, precision or versatility that no one else in his field of work can match, but his constant concentration on eliminating the indulgent gap between his mistakes and the next moment. It’s like a constant practice of already-reconciled absolution – just accept it, learn from it, and move on into the brand new look – that serendipitous right place at the right time. For the next moment is already here.

Sculpture by Zenos Frudakis

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Guy says:

    “TO SET FREE”:
    “Forgiveness is really about absolution: to set free. But if you look carefully at the dynamic, the one you’re setting free is yourself.”

  2. R. says:

    Thank you for coming back to the importance of forgiveness in our life. You are making some really pertinent and important points and I like your enlargement of the topic with Federer and the dog…

    That powerful image of the man freeing himself from the wall is a great image to keep in mind and work with. It takes tremendous courage, inner strength, creativity, qualities, self knowledge, vision and discipline to set oneself free like the actual creation of the sculpture.

    I do find it very interesting that take on practical forgiveness especially your comment about how a lack of it can so restrict ourselves, limit or suppress serendipity, spread wars of all kind and keep us in our cage, stuck in the wall with little space to breath or move. I like Luskin’s simple steps and I think we should all look a bit more in depth (contemplate) where forgiveness is missing in our life both in the small daily things but also with the more challenging aspects of it (more serious offenses). It is how we transform our anger, anxiety, stress or even trauma and create a new uplifting and transformative story that counts, truly accepting things as they are. That process can take a very long time (so that it reaches all 4 bodies) yet to forgive just take a few seconds…

    “But beyond that, as you so rightly point out, the attitude of forgiveness is not just about conflict or the past; it is a personal state of open readiness to accept things as they are, an essential “Yes” to life as it is unfolding, which completely changes the quality and the possibilities of any given moment”.

    I see a bit more clearly and understand forgiveness as a really essential key to set ourselves free and getting rid of the old rusty chains. Yet forgiveness doesn’t get the attention it deserves and should really be taught in schools. I suspect it will be an unattractive and challenging subject for most of us yet there are all those incredible positive stories of forgiveness out there…

    “I’ve watched these stories unfold, and I’m still watching some of them, curious to see if they’ll find the courage to take all that talent and skill and direct them to getting over the big hill into a new, more expansive, reconciled and adventurous life story. The very top of that hill will almost surely involve a genuinely humble request for forgiveness for how ruthlessly unforgiving they have been”.

  3. anon says:

    I recall listening to this superb talk by Dr. Lushkin years ago at one of your seminars. The concept of ‘prove you don’t deserve the mother you got (or father, etc.)’ particularly struck me at that time. As you described it, I took it to mean… If you’re living your life from a withered, complaining stance of blame, realistically you probably don’t deserve much of anything from life or even the person/circumstance in question. If you believe you deserved more out of life, show it in your behavior: Be the vivacious, generous, loving person who would deserve the best. And then see what may come from it.

    When I asked myself those years ago whether I was that best person, the real answer was “no” and in fact I had abdicated my full role as a daughter and human in the larger sense. That idea shifted my whole mentality and literally transformed, opened up the next chapter of my life. Reading your post now, I see I still have homework to do.

    “It’s as if we know that by abandoning our vehement victim story we wouldn’t know what else to be, what other, grander story we may have to learn to live up to.”

    I love and find profound the idea of us having multiple stories to tell – some playing out and others laying dormant within us. The crux seems to be whether we are courageous enough to envision and take another way, another story, or whether we fail to do so.
    For the last week, I’ve been trying to identify my “dark nooks and crannies of our angry self-righteousness” and imagine alternate stories for them, these key defining moments in my life (and I have a few). Honestly, it is simultaneously terrifying and liberating that there can be a whole other truer, more accurate story of my life, altering my destiny that I’m not aware of, but perhaps others see.

    A hopefully not too big demand: Can you help describe some easy steps one could take to work on these areas? Do you recommend quiet reflection or spending time physically writing out 2 stories? First the story I believe that causes me bitterness, and second, an imagining of what the other reality might be without blame/resentment if I’m not the “victim.”

    1. I like your focus on “a whole other truer, more accurate story of my life” as you look at practical techniques for getting to that. And you’re right that the goal in such consideration is for accuracy and truthfulness, not coming up with some invented and equally inaccurate positive spin on events that were unfair or abusive. For myself, I’ve found that once you get to the genuine intention to resolve issues, to let them fall back into their rightful place in the past, the new, more truthfully inclusive story naturally unfolds in all forms of communication. But if you’ve found that this issue has some real power in your life, it’s probably a good idea to take it on with some disciplined focus, such as writing and conversation.

      “Truthfully inclusive story” is a good place to start. In our recollections, we tend to highlight the wrongs that came our way, not giving enough consideration to how we may have had some responsibility in those and also to the larger story of how others carry with them the abuses and injustices they encountered that they then pass on to us, like a disease (often because they never learned the skills we’re addressing here). That is, the inclusive story must also be comprised of the larger sphere of influences that were out of the control of any single individual within a specific event.

      I’d reiterate, as I mentioned in the post here, that the process of resolution does not take place solely within the head. Like any good story, it must include enough full-bodied emotion and a range of qualities (you mentioned courage, for example) to become real. One cannot coax that depth of transformation with the intellect.

      Speaking of inclusive, it’s also a good idea to look honestly at what we have gained from past inequities. We develop most of our high-end personal skills, virtues and understanding of life specifically from events that demanded more from us than we felt (and often feel) were fair or appropriate. Seeing that even just a little more clearly gives us a larger perspective on How Life Really Works. There can be a relief and confident serenity that comes from recognizing that we must have had more potential than we believed to have made it through all the apparently poorly-timed violent injustices of our past, and it is specifically through those that we developed much of what we’re best at.

      We all have a lot to complain about, I suppose, although the apparently unfair and inappropriate demands for some are much more ruthless, which can help in putting our own challenges into clearer perspective:

  4. Aka Guy says:

    In any conflicting situations which require forgiveness to resolve or to reconcile an issue, there is a fundamental aspect to engage and begin with: it is that everything is a matter of perception.  How I perceive it, and how you perceive it is a personal flavor according to one’s beliefs, knowledge and experience. As long as one respects different perceptions from others, conflicts will not arise.  It is when my perception is believed to be “the truth” by myself that tensions are built.

    We, humans, have a blind spot for the real as we rely on our senses.
    https://www.drjimtaylor.com/4.0/perception-is-not-reality/

    I like the words at play here:  

    “Perception is the organization, identification, and interpretation of sensory information in order to represent and understand the presented information or environment. All perception involves signals that go through the nervous system, which in turn result from physical or chemical stimulation of the sensory system.”  (Taking in.)

    Forgiveness, in a psychological sense, is the intentional and voluntary process by which one who may initially feel victimized, undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding a given offense, and overcomes negative emotions such as resentment and vengeance.  (Give away.)

    “Forgiveness is the stuff of everyday heroes, the ultimate measure of internal peace.
    It can be a form of emotional aikido, where we disarm our perceived opponent with patience and calm and exact the grandest form of ‘revenge’ by declaring peace, if only internal.” – Beata Souders

    “To err is human, to forgive divine” …. Alexander Pope

    Also,
    I’m not sure the quote from Michelangelo: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” and the topic of forgiveness from Luskin fits together beside setting something free.
    Oups, here comes my perception again.

    1. Thank you for adding some additional reflections and resources for those who may want to dig deeper into this subject of forgiveness.

      I particularly like your inclusion of Beata Souders and her quote “Forgiveness is the stuff of everyday heroes…” For more of her thorough examination of the methods and impact of forgiveness from the perspective of in-depth psychology, here’s a very good article:
      https://positivepsychology.com/forgiveness-benefits/

      She includes insights from various big thinkers throughout history, including William Shakespeare: “Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.”

      Like these quotes I’m copying here in this reply, my placement of Michelangelo’s “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free,” is only meant to be a brief image from an unusual angle that may spark some “Ah ha” in somebody. I like the idea of carving, actual concentrated labor, to set free a vision of something grander, in this case an angel (a being probably gifted at forgiveness, and symbolic of the nobler parts of ourselves ). It’s a particularly evocative poetic line, but as with all poetry – and as you say – “everything is a matter of perception.” Sometimes, it’s the mix of trust or intrigue in an author along with an unexpected angle of insight that can crack open a small, new intuitive sense of possibility or inspiration, which is largely the aim of poetry and art in general.

      It’s worth a try, especially for an idea that has been around for millennia but has yet to move up the list of our daily priorities (at all). For many, the reason for that is that we don’t perceive a direct connection between absolution and our ambitions, or because we feel it to be an indicator of weakness. So, the “convince me of its worth” project goes on, and one needs all the ammunition you can find for that, including the spectrum of brilliant minds and successful, fully actualized individuals from the past.

      (Just taking a moment to explain this, partly because of our proximity to recent conversations on art, character and immersion…all three of which suffer from the same general ambivalence, and for similar reasons, as absolution.)

      On a more personal note…my appreciation for all the momentum in and around this subject since the post went up a couple of weeks ago, including the personal comments and conversations I’ve received, as well as the link sent out to others. It’s not been as popular as other posts here that showed up on other websites as their own articles without my name attached, but at least I have less absolution work to do on my end.

  5. Sam says:

    I was lucky. I was able to forgive my mother for the way she raised me and in the process of doing so, somehow, I was “Set Free.”
    Years ago on my mother’s birthday I was deciding whether or not to call her (I was living out of the country). It was something I did on her birthday sometimes and sometimes not. I decided to call her this time. The moment I decided, I realized I was fed up with doing my usual 10- or 15-minutes call that only fulfilled the obligation. This call was my birthday present to her and for the first time I wanted it to be a real gift. How was I going to make it a gift? I decided to talk with her about what I knew was the happiest time in her life. I made the call. We spoke and laughed for over an hour; we’d never done that before. After the call, I sat back with unfamiliar contentment. “I think I just forgave my mother.” All the weight of unforgiveness was gone. I began to laugh and said, “What took you so long?” What I didn’t realize until then was I had indeed been set free.
    Years before this, when I was twenty, one evening with my girlfriend’s parents, they asked me questions about my parents. I began telling them the story of the way my mother had treated me. I’d never done this with anyone before. Later, sitting alone in my pickup I said; “You shouldn’t do that. It’s not right. Sure, they’re feeling sorry for you and you’re getting attention, but if you keep that up it will become a habit.” I promised myself, “I won’t do it again.” I did it again and again … for more than 50 years. It was my lock and chain until I forgave my mother.
    The next time I saw my mother was 1 ½ years later. It may sound strange, but the truth is, I now had the mother I’d always wanted and she had the son she always wanted.
    There was no one in my life that I could talk with like I could talk with her. I knew then I’ll never be able to speak in that voice again after she died.

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