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Second look: On forgiveness and gratitude

Posted Feb 28 2010 10:04am


Without forgiveness there is no future or hope for the future.  We are condemned to try to win the extra innings of a past game that can never be won.  We may fight to win or to avenge past hurts, but we find the bell rings soon for the next round.   It is a process without end that leaves us hollow and worn out and suspicious of the idea that anything better can happen.

In a family or relationship where one of the people involved has bipolar disorder forgiveness is the key to anything different happening.  There is almost always more than enough injury to go around.  There is attack and counter-attack fed by a disorder that without treatment and recovery that simple ravages the lives of everybody it touches.

Forgiveness may be something you never feel like doing.  Depending on how much hurt you have endured it may be something you never feel like doing.  But forgiveness is not a feeling.  It is a decision.  To some degree it may always be a decision that goes contrary to what you feel like doing.  Payback and revenge are remarkably seducing.  They feel so good when you feel like the other person deserves it.

That is the first principle of forgiveness.  You must decide to do it.  And you must act on that decision.

Forgiveness is a gift, not a reward.  You don’t forgive people simply because they deserve it, although it really helps if you feel that way.  Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.  It frees you from the bondage of a never-ending spiral of debts incurred and debts repaid.

Reconciliation depends on what the other person does.  Forgiveness depends on what you do.  You can give it rather the other person accepts it or not.  The only real question is rather or not you wish to hold onto the injuries you feel like you have received until you even the score and rather or not you are willing to live with the other person’s efforts to even the new score.

How do you forgive?

1. First and foremost give up the right to retribution.  Let it go.  Decide to not make any attempt to even the score, even if you feel justified in doing so.  Think hard about that one.  It can be so remarkably hard to do.  In the Bible Jesus talks many times about the foundational truth:  Do not hold a grudge.  Nothing good or pleasing to God can happen while you do.

2. It helps to do this for the bipolar family if you can make a distinction between what is bipolar and what is not.  As hard as it is try not to take things personal.  Knowledge it would seem is important in the process of forgiving.

3. Decide to treat the other person as a person.  Do not be content to chart your relationship with others based on what labels you apply to them and them to you.  If you can look past the labels you may find yourself trying to treat the other person as you would like to be treated.  People make mistakes.  If it was a capital crime all of us would be dead.

4. Wish the other person well.  Be glad if good things happen to them.  Don’t feel cheated if they do good.  You can not forgive someone if you have a continued stake in their misery.

It sounds simple, but it is not.  It takes much hard work and commitment. The good news is that the more you practice the better you get.  In time you may become a forgiving person.

Forgiveness allows you to plant the seeds for future hope.  For without forgiveness everything is simply a rerun of what has already happened.  Everyday is “Groundhog Day.”


Gratitude is the necessary parent of hope.  Without it hope remains stillborn in our lives or even worse twisted into something beyond our recognition.  Without thankfulness and appreciation for what is we never develop an excitement about what is to come.

Gratitude is our reaction to the present and the past.  Hope is our anticipation of the future.  An attitude of gratitude shapes who we are and how our life is lived in many ways.  Gratitude properly speaking though is more than simply an attitude.  It is a felt orientation towards reality that literally gives us the eyes with which we see.  It tells us what is true.  In hard times it tells us what is wrong and prescribes for us what we can do.  Finally it tells us where things can go and in that gives birth to hope.

Gratitude tells us that our gifts are many and meant to be treasured in each moment of living.  It tells us no matter how hard things are that there is something of which to be glad.  It means to know “how fortunate I am that….”  It means not to take things for granted.  It means to be amazed not just to find so many good things, but that so many things are good.

Strangely enough sometimes it is those with the least, who are having the hardest times, who have the most gratitude.   It would seem that sometimes having little leads you to take nothing  for granted.  I used to work as a family therapist in a very fancy psychiatric hospital.  I remember one family in particular.  The father was worth about 400 million dollars.  The wife independently was worth about another 200 million.  They argued in one family session.  The husband went out and bought her a brand new Porsche to make up.   She still hated him.

In the book, “Happiness is” author Shawn Christopher Shea talks about John Merrick , the “Elephant Man.”  Merrick, according to Shea, was very happy despite miserable circumstances.  Those who knew him characterized him as being marked by a sense of wonder for all in his life and a gratitude for having it.  He knew nothing was for certain and took nothing for granted.  He was amazed at life and because of that was constantly thankful for what happened.   Shea writes, “Merrick is living proof that, as John Milton suggested… the human mind can really create  a Heaven inside a Hell.”  Later he adds, “…through his actions we have uncovered three key pieces to the meaning of happiness:

1. Happiness is not determined purely by external circumstances.

2. Happiness, both in its presence and its absence, as well as its depth, is greatly determined by internal attitudes.

3. Happiness might even occur during periods of suffering.”

In my life there have been many hard times.  Perhaps the most difficult day was the day when my wife tried to cut a vagal nerve stimulator out of her chest that she thought was not working right.  That  led to her being put in a psychiatric hospital for a week and that was a horrible experience for both of us.  Yet I am intensely grateful that both happened.

She was finally diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.  We had both been battling a  monster which had no name, that we could never grab hold of for years.  We knew it best by the path of destruction it left in our lives. Giving something a name enables you to see it when you have been blind before.  What you can see you can live with.  What you can live with you can triumph over.  The disaster gave us a new lease on life.

The psychiatric hospital was agony.  But when she left we were both determined to give others an option that she hadn’t had.  Out of that determination “Hopeworks” was given birth.

One of our biggest illusions is that certain things “have to happen” , that we are entitled.  People who have a lot of gratitude know that nothing has to happen and that anything that does is a gift to be treasured.  I knew one elderly gentleman who told me that he celebrated every day he woke up.  He told me one day, “I celebrate because I know I don’t have to wakeup.  It is God’s grace that allows me to wake up.”

Being grateful and thankful does not mean you do not know pain or that you ignore bad things or that you never get angry.  It means that you know that because some things are too good to be true, it does not mean that good things are not true.  To be thankful is not unrealistic.  It is the most realistic way to live.   Without thankfulness, without gratitude you are not just missing the point.  You are missing life.

What exactly does gratitude do in your life and how does it help to give birth to hope?

One of the things it does is it helps you to savor positive experiences.  Remember the Porsche lady.  She couldn’t enjoy what for most of us would be a life long  dream.  Gratitude doesn’t just tell us that something tastes good.  It gives us an appetite for good taste.  We enjoy things more when we appreciate the taste.  Gratitude points us toward that taste.

Gratitude also helps us to realize how much others have done for us.  It also helps us to treasure our own efforts also.  People who are grateful normally feel more loved and more competent as human beings.

As mentioned before it helps you to deal better with stress and trauma.  In seeing a purpose in bad things for example we learn to persist and learn the lessons we feel like they are teaching.  Many of the most grateful people I have known have been some of them with the hardest lives.  In the Bible both Paul and Peter are particularly compelling spokesmen for the value of personal trial.  If you can learn to see stress not as a source of deprivation, but as an opportunity to learn the things you need or get to the place you want to be you actually end up saying thanks for the hard times.  There is more than a little truth to the idea “no pain, no gain.”

People who are grateful are more likely to treat others better.  When you become aware of how much is done for you the tendency is to feel the need to reciprocate.  Grateful people know the more they give the more they have.

Related to this grateful people more often have a sense of connection with others.  When you know you have been treasured, you tend to treasure others.  Lonely people are normally not grateful for many things.  Lonely people normally have very little sense of hope in life.  As someone once told me, “Life is what you do with other people.  If you don’t do very much then you don’t have very much life.”

Grateful people tend to not be very envious of others.  If you live your live based on how you stack up against others it seems first of all you will live with a lot of anxiety because everything will be a contest.  Secondly it seems that any sense of hope will be very fragile.  There is always a bigger dog on the block.

We always see life in terms of stories and we always keep track of where we are in the plot.  If we can’t see something good in where we are it is unlikely we will see anything good in where we are going.  If you wish to find hope in this of ten painful and miserable world you must first cultivate gratitude and thankfulness in the way you live.

I don’t know of any magic answers  how to do that.  It is not enough to know that it is the sensible or right way to live although that is certainly part of it.  Many of us know the right things to do, but just don’t do them.  For the most part we are creatures of habit.  The things we are most likely to do  are the things that are easy to do and not those who are hard.  The question is how to make gratitude and thankfulness an easy thing to do.

The only answer I know is practice.  Practice does not make perfect, but it does make different.  We are always making ourselves a person more likely to do something or less likely to do something.  A person who habitually tells the truth is more likely in any specific circumstance to tell the truth.  It is easier for him to do.  He is used to it.  To be the type of person more likely to be thankful and have gratitude in life you must make it what you are used to doing.

So practice.  Take stock each day in what you have to be grateful for.  If you think there is nothing look again.  Practice being grateful in the moment.  Be grateful not just for opportunity, but for trial.  Be grateful for those who care and for those who have yet to care.  Be grateful for abilities, but also for disabilities.  Many of the best things we haveare a result of the things we don’t have.  Just know the more you do the more you will be.

Life is hard.  For me right now it is very hard.  But there is so much that is right and so much to be thankful for.  I appreciate  you listening to what I have to say,  but I know also that in talking to you I am also talking to me.

Thank you for your time and bless you.

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