"Without Forgiveness, There is no Future" -Desmond Tutu
Last year was hard (understatement of the year!!), and I expect that many of us made decisions or comments or took actions that we wish we would not have in retrospect. In moments of stress, we often make choices based on emotions rather than logic, and if those emotions are panic, anger, fear, frustration, or even sadness or depression, our decisions might hurt others around us.
Or, maybe you were on the receiving end of one of those poor decisions or comments, and you have spent part of this summer lamenting or stewing over what took place. Being on the receiving end of someone else’s stress induced tantrum or ill-conceived action plan can leave us feeling angry, unappreciated, and maybe even traumatized.
Whether the giver or the receiver, I know that there is a lot of unresolved pain lurking under the surface of our school cultures, which has me thinking more and more about a particularly difficult word–forgiveness.
My throat tightens up a bit even writing the word because I know that forgiveness is a heck of a lot easier said than done. In fact, I often prefer words like consequences or justice or even retribution over forgiveness. I don’t find it particularly comfortable to “turn the other cheek” or “turn the page”–both of which I lecture my ten year old and eight year old to do after an argument.
However, I think forgiveness needs to be our first communal practice of the 2021-2022 school year.
Last August, I received a phone call from a Curriculum Director for a district who I was to present to the following week. She wanted to check in on how the preparations were going and if I had any questions about the set-up, all fairly standard items, but then she said, “Oh, there’s one more thing I wanted to mention…the teachers might all be protesting that day.” This was not standard protocol. She went on to explain a painful schism between the administration and the teacher’s union regarding the COVID protocols put into place. The teachers felt unheard and fearful, and the administration felt frustrated and powerless.
The teachers did protest that day. They wore shirts that spoke their message, and I could sense the tension present. My job wasn’t to decide who was right in this situation (I suspect both sides had valid reasons), but I left sad that day because I knew that this story was playing out in districts across our country. And, I sensed that if they didn’t find a space of forgiveness, the wounds wouldn’t heal and, ultimately, the pain would leak out into the classrooms.
Dr. Kim Cameron, a professor of organizational behavior, puts the importance of forgiveness into context in his research, “forgiveness becomes an important consideration in whether organizations heal and move forward or whether they languish and become mired in retribution” (Cameron et al., 2007). In other words, we have the option to either practice forgiveness or let our school cultures become toxic wastelands where no one really wants to work.
Forgiveness, while a common term used in our society and across every major religion, is often misunderstood. If we want to be able utilize it in our buildings and staff cultures, then, we have to understand the benefits and the true definition. First the benefits–while difficult and at times painful, forgiveness is good for your health. We know this is true by measuring the impact of the opposite of forgiveness–anger, bitterness, and a desire for retribution. These attributes of unforgiveness leave us feeling more stressed and depressed, and they strain and weaken our cardiovascular and immune systems. Forgiveness, on the other hand, serves as a buffer for stress and is shown to have a positive impact on our cardiovascular health. Individuals who practice forgiveness are more creative and have higher levels of self-esteem and emotional stability (Cameron et al., 2007).
Second, when defining what forgiveness is we must understand that forgiveness is not forgetting. We all know the saying, “forgive and forget,” but forgiveness does not require us to forget the wrongdoing or hurt or pain. Instead, forgiveness allows us to name the hurt, allow for the consequences to be present, and look forward with optimism that things can and should be different. Forgiveness is not lowering our standards or excusing misbehavior; forgiveness is believing in the capacity of individuals or systems to do better next time. So, when we forgive someone or a group of people, we are saying that we accept that they did wrong in the past and believe they will do better in the future.
What does this look like in practice in our schools, especially as we plan for a new school year? First, let me say that forgiveness will look different based on the situation. If the pain is between two individuals rather than two larger groups, then these steps can be taken on a smaller scale, but if the pain is, as it was for the district I named above, between the administration and the staff, then everyone needs to go through the journey of forgiveness.
Here is the journey of forgiveness:
Step One: Acknowledge the Pain
The temptation to just “move on” or pretend like last year didn’t happen is strong, but ignoring the hurt of last year will not make the pain go away. Think of it like a splinter in your pinky toe. You can try to ignore it, but every time you try to take a new step, it’ll remind you of its presence. Every time you try to start a new initiative or work collaboratively, you will be reminded of the hurt that still lingers.
Plato once wrote, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” We cannot be afraid of bringing our wounds into the light because that is where they heal. Only once we can see the splinter can we pull it out. So instead of ignoring the pain, bring the pain into the light and name the pain collectively. This can be awkward but with the proper boundaries in place (no name calling, no blaming, no shaming) we can name the emotions of the hurt: “I feel sad because…,” “I feel angry because…,” “I feel afraid because…” Once collectively named, they lose their power to fester and divide.
Step Two: Choose Transcendence
Once we have brought the pain into the light, we have to make a choice about what we are going to do with it. Some of us might choose to use the pain to beget pain. Some of us might choose to cast blame, and others of us might use the pain to minimize or even dehumanize ourselves. What if instead, we chose transcendence, the act of moving beyond our normal to make an extraordinary choice.
The Mexican fiesta is an example of transcendence. Culturally, the Mexican fiesta is meant to serve not only as a celebration of song, food, and dance but as a way of bringing people together who have wounded one another. The Mexicans throw a fiesta as a way of healing social fragmentation–creating a celebratory avenue for individuals to seek and ask for forgiveness (Nepo 137).
But, what does transcendence look like in the case of forgiveness in our schools? It looks like the teacher who doubted the efficacy of a curriculum change later returning to their instructional coach and thanking them for encouraging them to take the leap. It looks like the administrator standing in front of their staff and admitting that they had made a mistake and asking for help to do better next time. It looks like the Superintendent listening to the union representative with honest intent to understand, confessing that maybe they didn’t negotiate previously with the teachers’ best interests in mind. It looks like the union representative standing in front of their constituents and saying that the way forward must be different than the way things have been.
When we can move beyond the expected or the normal in education, we will get the chance to not only heal the pain of the past but move forward towards a future that imagines classrooms and schools where both the adults and the students feel cared for and supported.
Step Three: Begin Again
“Sometimes, you just have to start all over differently” (Bernard Kelvin Clive).
We know that this year might not be the fresh restart that we had all hoped for, but it can be a start nevertheless. We can as Clive says, “start all over differently.” What might that look like as you seek to name the pain, move beyond the hurt, and begin again?
As you embark on this year, take a stance of beginning because it is in this new place that we can see ideas, people, students, and classrooms with a fresh set of eyes and a renewed heart for the needs of those around us. Beginning again does not have to be difficult, but it does take intention. When we show up every day with the intention of not letting the hurts, failures, or beliefs of the past get in the way of where we are moving next, we begin again.
So, let’s take some time to delve into the spaces of necessary forgiveness, and together we will create a new future.
Cameron, K. S. (2007). Forgiveness in Organizations. In D. L. Nelson & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Positive Organizational Behavior (pp. 129–142). essay, Sage Publications Ltd.
Nepo, Mark. More Together Than Alone: Discovering the Power and Spirit of Community in Our Lives and in the World (p. 137). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.