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To Forgive is Divine

To Forgive is Divine
Bob Bowman

This August, for the third time in my life, I set off on the long drive to Florida.  Unlike previous trips with family or friends, I ventured out alone on this one.  This is not a road trip story in the vein of Robert Pirsig or Jack Kerouac; in fact, it was mostly monotonous.  I am not sure if this is AAA-approved, but I spent a lot of time on the drive ruminating.  While not self-driving, my car has a lot of bells and whistles that keep the car at the correct speed, properly spaced in traffic, and safely in my lane.  So, I am pretty sure my satellite radio accompanied mental musings did not put me or other vehicles in harm's way.  My mind ping-ponged among a wide range of personal and professional moments as I travelled south, and then back north, on I-95.  For reasons that are not clear, one concept kept recurring: forgiveness.  In particular, my inability to forgive myself for my behavior towards a high school classmate so many years ago.

This is not a true confessions blog, so I will not bore you with the details of my transgressions.  In brief, I was unkind to someone who wanted nothing more than to be my friend.  This was not a public situation; in fact, very few people were likely aware of our interactions as we shared little in common in my high school of more than 750 students.  Regardless, my behavior still gnaws at me and causes me to cringe (sometimes physically) when their name or image pops into my mind's eye.  

The open road allowed me the time to think about what we share with our students at Wardlaw+Hartridge about forgiveness – of oneself or of each other.  We rightfully focus on the academic success and social/emotional well-being of all our Upper Schoolers.  We have our core values of Integrity, Opportunity, Support, Diversity, Community and Sustainability, that our community tries to live every day.  During the past decade, we have increased our emphasis on mindfulness and mental health – taking care of ourselves.  We have worked hard to hear all our voices and recognize everyone's worth and point of view.  The whole school tries to cultivate resilience and grit in our students as they deal with situations where they fall short of expectations.  And when conflict arises, we work to moderate difficult conversations; some are successful and others are not.  In short, we are a community of adults and teenagers who care for each other as best we can.  That care can be imperfect, but it is authentic and well-meaning.  Yet, I am not sure that I have given enough airtime to the power of the act of forgiveness.

These days, it seems to me that we deal in the currency of apologies.  Students' instincts go quickly to the default of "I'm sorry" when confronted with missteps by adults in our community.  It feels perfunctory, without introspection.  This is not to say it is without meaning, but it feels like the always welcome "thank you," and "please" that we offer each other throughout the day.  It has lost some of its potency.  In my interactions with students, I gladly accept their apologies, but is that enough?  Do they carry the guilt or the grudge with them, the way I have for many decades?  What is the emotional cost of not letting go of your remorse or of not forgiving someone who caused you distress?

As always, when confronted with a question beyond my capacity to answer, I go to the all-knowing Google.  Not surprisingly, there is a whole lot of literature on this issue.  I am clearly not a pioneering thinker when it comes to forgiveness. You could spend years on the subject.  Two articles that resonated with me and were quick reads are linked below:

How the Power of Forgiveness Will Set You Free by Tom Fahkry from the Medium website.

The Power of Forgiveness from Harvard Medical School.

So, as I continue to work with our W+H community when conflict arises, I am adding some new tools to my approach: having discussions and asking appropriate questions around forgiveness.  Can you forgive your peer?  Can you forgive yourself?  What will it take for you to begin the act of forgiveness?  These will complement and may be more important than an apology.  The language of forgiveness is more profound and specific.  It is directed to a person about a particular incident.  I ... forgive ... you (myself) are three very powerful words.  My hope is that our W+H Upper School community can begin to include the language of forgiveness moving forward.  

While I will try to work through my past insensitiveness, it may take another long, lonesome drive to erase the many years of guilt.  But I do owe it to myself to try – we all do.