Let’s Get Vulnerable!

Sarah Richards
September 17, 2017

Let’s Get Vulnerable!

“Imagine.” Victoria Safford invites us. “Imagine. Something yearns in us to come round right. Something creaky, rusty, heavy, almost calcified within us tries—in spite of us and of all our fears and self-deceptions—to turn and turn and creak and turn again and come round a little truer.[i]

Yes, imagine that we Unitarian Universalists, entering a new program year at our congregations, take up practices similar to our Jewish siblings observing the High Holidays. These deliberate practices that lead us to the goal of truth for its own redemptive sake. What would that be like? Well, as Safford described and what most of us have experienced at one time or another is lots of deep breaths, awkwardness, time, effort, and maybe even disappointment on the way to the goal. In researching this question, I encountered the work of psychologist Michael McCullough, focused on human capacity for forgiveness. His evolutionary approach to this moral virtue offers many helpful insights for us, but before I get into them, I’m going to warn you that nothing that I’ve read from any perspective – scientific, theological, ethical or otherwise, says that giving and receiving forgiveness—repairing relationships—is easy. It requires vulnerability.

But being vulnerable is not, contrary to our Western cultural assumptions, weakness. McCullough writes that the capacity to forgive is a universal human trait, a product of natural selection. This ability to forgive had adaptive benefits for our distant ancestors, and for us today. I think—no, to be accurate, I feel that paying attention to forgiveness, this messy, uncomfortable, emotion-filled work is more important for us liberal religious folk than ever, because we are engaged these days in defending our most cherished principles from serious attack. The bedrock of our worldview, the lodestone of our moral compass are our affirmations of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I’m worried that in this struggle we are in danger of eroding that bedrock, of drifting from our lodestone in our fight—we are losing respect for the worth and dignity of those whose positions we oppose, we are trying to cut them out of our interdependent web. I for one, want to be able to stay strong in the fight for environmental and social justice; and I want to stay true to my principles.

According to McCullough, cultivating a lifestyle of forgiveness is a way to achieve this balance—and remember, the capacity to do it is literally in our DNA. That’s everybody, not only the saintly. McCullough says that when we feel harmed by someone, our first responses are normally motivated by “the desire to protect our own integrity or safety,” outwardly and inwardly. Of course protecting integrity and safety is good—healthy boundaries! As McCullough and his co-authors put it, “We should not allow the hurtful behavior of others to inflict continued damage on us or other people. However, the motivation to protect the self is so powerful that it tends to overshadow any motivation to heal or restore the damaged relationship, and that prevents us from doing our part to make things right again.[ii]

I invite you to bring to mind at this point any relationship that came up during our earlier meditation on forgiveness. As I share this story, I hope you’ll compare it to your own. Many, many years ago, there was a young woman who moved from California to Boston with her boyfriend, so that she could go to graduate school. The young woman became very unhappy in her graduate program, and the city, and eventually became depressed. The only positive thing in her life was their relationship; they planned that she would exit the program early, so they could escape to the southwest together. Then one day just after Christmas, her boyfriend informed the grad student that he was leaving her for someone else, and that he didn’t want to have any further contact or communication with her. A few days later, after five years together, he disappeared, and left me alone, stunned, shattered.

In the interests of time, I will spare you the details of all of my outward and inward responses, but I spent my time trying to protect what was left of my self, and that did indeed overshadow any “motivation to heal or restore the damaged relationship.” I did not try to contact him or retaliate, but I had a burning wish that he would suffer as much as I, and I shared that wish with friends and family. Nurtured it even. Fast forward about seven years, during which I stayed in that misery-making program and earned my PhD—ex-boyfriend calls me at my office, and asks me to forgive him. He misses our close friendship, and wants it—me—back in his life…. I don’t think that it would have made a difference if he had been single, instead of married with two young children, I don’t think it would have made a difference if he had literally crawled on his hands and knees, begging. Seven years felt about seventy years too soon for me—because by this time, he had become the villain in my life story, and I was still defining myself as his victim.

It was many more years before that changed, and I was able to tell a different story. It takes strength, and a motivation toward wholeness, that I didn’t have back then. McCullough observes, “from everything I’ve managed to read and see and understand in my own work it’s that forgiveness is a brawny muscular exercise that I kind of imagine someone with a great passion for life and a great hardy sort of disposition being able to take on.[iii]

So I didn’t have a hardy enough sort of disposition at that time, but I think I do now, and I’m confident that I’m not alone. Let’s see what this brawny muscular exercise might entail. First, is a recognition that forgiveness is a process, not a one-off. McCullough tells us that the first step is to create safety, an assurance that the person who has harmed will not harm again. In my case, I clearly did not trust that former boyfriend not to hurt me again. What I didn’t realize was that it was not him, but me who could determine that—if I had had more self confidence, a stronger sense of self/hardy disposition, I might have been able to forgive.

Second, is the realization that those who are closest to us, the more important the relationship is before the harm, the more we have to lose by cutting the person off. I think that in my case, the relationship that once had been primary to me and my identity had eroded so that I didn’t see the benefits of repairing it. I didn’t understand that offering forgiveness didn’t mean I had to be back in the same relationship.

Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg writes,
“Forgiveness is a way of loosening the grip of fixation, but I’ve seen over and over again that it is a process. It is not decision, and it does not come about by force of will. We may decide after exploring forgiveness that we…do not want to see that person again. For some, forgiving and understanding the relationship is over may be the viable path. People can really hurt other people and there is no need to think: Well, I’ve got to get over this so you can be my best friend again. If we can find a way to forgive and free our hearts, we are saying life is bigger, we are bigger, we are stronger than the hurt and the feelings around it.”[iv]

If I had started the process of forgiveness before being asked, maybe I would have found a way to forgive and free my heart at that time—but I was still stuck on the injustice done, the unfairness, the cruelty, that I couldn’t muster the compassion necessary to free myself—I thought I’d be doing him a good deed and I didn’t see that it would have been healing myself, too. I got a deeper understanding of my stuckness all those decades ago from a concept that McCullough and his colleagues termed “warring virtues.” Picture an old-fashioned scale, with responsibility, justice and fairness on one side, and empathy, compassion, and mercy on the other. In my case, I was focusing heavily on the demand for justice, fairness and responsibility (he should suffer for what he did!), and it outweighed the moral demand of empathy and compassion I would exhibit under other circumstances. Bring to mind your own example of giving or receiving forgiveness—was there at least a momentary conflict between one side of the scale or the other? McCullough writes, “Conflict between the two sides of the moral balance can divide friends, families, organizations, political parties and even nations.[v]…People try to resolve the tension in several ways, most of which are not very satisfactory because the solutions offend one side of the moral equation. Forgiveness, however, satisfies our needs for both justice and mercy.[vi]

And this is why cultivating a disposition of forgiveness is important to our lives in this time’s increasingly polarized social and political conflict. Let’s remember our first principle for a moment; we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And this is how McCullough and colleagues define forgiveness: “Forgiveness is a relational stance of accepting the inherent worth of another person even after judging the wrong action.[vii]

If we Unitarian Universalists go beyond acceptance to affirmation and promotion of the inherent worth of every person, we must have this whole forgiveness thing down! But it seems to me that since the November election, particularly, some of us UUs have fallen prey to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error”: attributing our own negative behavior to circumstances beyond our control but attributing the negative behavior of others to something wrong with them.” Is it just me that not only thinks, but uses words like “crazy,” “immoral,” “evil” in describing those people, rather than the effects of their positions or policies? This distinction between the person and the behavior is of major importance, because when we conflate them, we have a hard time balancing those virtues, and we may even reach the point where we hardly think of those others being worthy of compassion, mercy, and empathy. Even as I write this, there is a voice, protesting inside my head asking, “but what about them? They say and do those harmful things to us and those we care about.” To that voice, I respond, “what about me? What kind of person, guided by what moral compass shall I be?”

Friends, let’s get vulnerable, together. Imagine that we cultivate a hardy disposition in all of our relationships, from the most intimate to distant, in which we seek a balance between the moral virtues of justice and mercy, responsibility and compassion, fairness and empathy. Let us understand the truth that a lifestyle of forgiveness does not mean compromising our fight for justice and equity, it is intrinsic to that struggle—giving forgiveness to those who have harmed us, seeking forgiveness for those we have harmed— is living our principles as a moral people. To do otherwise would be to compromise who we are.

Imagine that even as we continue our resistance to dehumanizing, demoralizing policy and behavior, we “can find a way to forgive and free our hearts…saying life is bigger, we are bigger, we are stronger than the hurt and the feelings around it.[viii]

Imagine that as we start this new church year, we take stock of where we are in the process of forgiving and asking forgiveness in all of our relationships. Imagine taking those extra breaths, staying in discomfort, risking rejection.

“Imagine healing, wholly, from within.[ix]


[i] Safford, Victoria. “At One” in Walking Toward Morning: Meditations. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2003, p. 12.

[ii] McCullough, Michael E., Steven J. Sandage and Everett L. Worthington, Jr.. To Forgive is Human: How to Put Your Past in the Past. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997, location 121/2530.

[iii] McCullough, Michael. https://onbeing.org/programs/michael-mccullough-getting-revenge-and-forgiveness/ accessed 9/14/17.

[iv] Salzberg, Sharon. https://onbeing.org/blog/forgiveness-can-be-bittersweet/ accessed 9/14/17.

[v] McCullough, Michael, et. al. location 191/2530.

[vi] McCullough, Michael, et. al. location 146/2530.

[vii] Ibid., location177/2530, emphasis in the original.

[viii] Salzberg, Sharon. https://onbeing.org/blog/forgiveness-can-be-bittersweet/ accessed 9/14/17.

[ix] Safford, Victoria. “At One” in Walking Toward Morning: Meditations. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2003, p. 12.