Linda Neale's Blog


Linda Neale - Monday, March 02, 2015

Recently, I was invited to participate in a panel presentation on forgiveness sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Holocaust Remembrance Center.  The discussion was based on The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Weisenthal.    If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it.  In the first hundred pages of this book,  Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal recounts his encounter with a dying German soldier who asked to speak with "a Jew" in order to seek forgiveness. Wiesenthal then invites everyone into the discussion, throwing open his personal experience for judgment in a series of short essays offered by philosophers, theologians, scholars, and religious leaders who offer their thoughts on what Wiesenthal should or could have done. On Sunday a rabbi, a Catholic lay minister, a Muslim woman, and I were invited to weigh in on our various perspectives on forgiveness. I found it interesting that I was included in this esteemed panel, partly because I do not have an “official” religious position, and partly because I’ve always had a problem with the concept of forgiveness. It was a good discussion, and raised many issues for me.  I hope it does the same for you.  The following are highlights of my own personal perspective on forgiveness.  I invite all readers to share their own perspective in the comments section -- I'll print your response.

Symposium on Forgiveness and Reconcillation

Comments -- Linda Neale -- March 1, 2015

I’ve spent much of my life learning from indigenous elders from many traditions.  I lived on the Navajo Reservation in the 70’s, I’m married to a what we call “Pima” elder (their term is Akimel O’odham, which means “river people”, and I have participated in the sweat lodge and sundance ceremonies for over two decades.  From the time I was in high school I struggled with religion, so much so that I wrote my high school thesis on the differences between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. 

In college at Stanford I was deeply affected by Viktor Frankl’s teaching and his book Man’s Search for Meaning chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome.  His theories coalesced into what he called “logotherapy”.

Two of my favorite quotes from his book are:

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

“Each of us has his own inner concentration camp... We must deal with, with forgiveness and patience-as full human beings, as we are and what we will become.”

Eventually I became a school psychologist and therapist – and used Frankl’s teachings to deal with suffering of all kinds.  And I had a daughter.  You may think I’m a little strange, but one of the first thoughts I had when I held her in my arms was, “Adolf Hitler was once a little baby just like this.”  My daughter Joanna doesn't think much of this story.

I have had many native friends who have had their own Auschwitz.  One Navajo woman friend of mine told me stories of being sent to an Indian boarding school, where a nun would take scissors and cut my friend’s eyelashes if she would mistakenly speak her own  language.  My husband was one of many children rounded up to have their tonsils removed without their parents’ permission.  They told tales of their parents being given smallpox-infected blankets by the US government.  And, so many more horrendous stories from the era of “assimilation”.

This history with native peoples combined with my own personal history of years of sexual abuse at the hands of my own father.  Until I was 40 years old, I was preoccupied with punishing him, with what might be called “revenge”.  I imagined him asking me, begging me, for forgiveness.  I wondered what I would do – if I’d be “magnanimous” enough to forgive him.  But it never happened.   I was never able to demonstrate how much better I was than him.

Eventually I was able to move on from my own inner concentration camp after a remark from my husband.  After listening to my history with my father, he was silent for a long time before he said, “It sounds like you’ve been well prepared.”  That one comment released me to move forward.  I began asking myself, “prepared for what?”  What possible good could ever come from this kind of history?  I began letting go.  Later, when I saw my father’s death, I had real empathy for him.  I never forgot what happened, but the amount of time I spent thinking about the abuse and suffering dwindled to almost nothing.

In my life there have been a few people – not my father --  who felt that they had so seriously judged or wronged me that they have come to me and asked for my forgiveness.   In all these situations I realized that THEY were the ones who were carrying the pain, not me.  I had moved on very soon after the “offense” had occurred.  I have come to realize that forgiveness is not my job – that my job is to accept and move forward.  Acceptance is not easy.  That’s why it’s part of the prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” 

But perhaps it’s just a question of definition.

As I was preparing for this panel, I read Matthew Fox’s response to The Sunflower many times.  Matt is a good friend of mine and wrote the forward to my book, “The Power of Ceremony”.    In “The Sunflower” he said, among other things, “One should forgive…”  A few other responders in the book, including the Dalhi Lama, said something similar.  As a psychologist I’ve always had a problem with “shoulds”, so I wrote to Matt about the “should” in his response, asking him about the relationship between acceptance and forgiveness.    

His email to me made a lot of sense.

He said, “ It is not for me to tell Jewish people to 'forgive' the holocaust or to tell a woman abused by her father to forgive him.  But to 'move on,' yes.  That is one might say another version of 'forgiveness' for they are both about letting go.  And moving on is so important lest one stay in a relationship with the abuser.  So I am pleased you are on the panel and I hope you stick to your intuition and say what you need to say.  I think a bigger category than forgiveness is letting go; and there are many ways to do that as you well know.”

A bigger category than forgiveness is letting go.

That’s what I need to say. 

So, I don’t know what I would have done had I been Simon Wiesenthal.  I just know what I’ve done with my own inner concentration camp.  I’m so grateful for my life, and for all of you who are struggling with these issues.  It is you who will make this world a better place.  Thank you.

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