Thursday, June 13, 2013

Live and learn

I've had some experiences recently that have been weighing on my mind. I am someone who believes that things do happen for a reason; that there's always a lesson to be learned from everything we experience, even the mundane routines of life. The experience itself isn't what is most important, but what we learn from it.

The other night I had an experience that really had me thinking more about things that I think about on a regular basis: the concepts of forgiveness and judging. From a Latter-day Saint and Christian perspective we know we're supposed to do one (forgive others) and not the other (judge others). But we all know how hard it is to forgive and how equally hard it is to not judge. Along with that, though, it seems many do not have a grasp of what it means (and what it does not mean) to forgive and to judge.

First off, what is forgiveness and why is it important? I've noticed a lot of people, Christian and not, don't really understand the concept of forgiveness, usually in very large matters like murder or other cruelty. Forgiveness does not excuse someone from facing the consequences of their action(s). I've seen on one hand people saying they won't forgive someone because they "don't deserve it" and on the other, people trying to argue that a punishment (such as the death penalty) is no longer warranted because the person has been forgiven by the family of the deceased or something like that. Nope, sorry, both are incorrect applications.

In short, forgiving someone means you no longer harbor that negative attachment to the offender and basically, you leave it to God to decide. This is incredibly difficult for most people and I am certainly no expert. How quick that can happen depends on the person but also the offense. Obviously some things are easier to "get over" than others. There is no time limit on when people need to forgive others, other than in this lifetime. The Doctrine & Covenants tells us that we are "required to forgive all men." (D&C 64:10) There is no qualifier or exception to that regardless of who you are or what is done to you. We are required to forgive all people. The interesting beginning to that statement in the D&C is that the Lord states "I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive...", meaning he is the one who will ultimately decide whether someone has truly repented of whatever wrong they committed and thus, worthy of forgiveness. That, of course, ties right into the next topic of judging.

Now, while we are required to forgive all, forgiveness does not excuse anyone from the consequences of their action, whether it is something as small as having trust damaged to something as large as being put to death for their crimes. As the offender truly understands the whole process of repentance, he will gladly welcome the consequences and understand their role in helping him to make amends as best he can and hope for the forgiveness he needs from God. While being merciful is important, we also know that "mercy cannot rob justice." This means that being forgiving (merciful) on the part of the offended does not excuse an offender from the consequences of his or her action (justice). Plus, since we want to be forgiven for our trespasses against God and others, it is necessary that we are forgiving as well (see the parable of the wicked servant in Matthew 18:23-32 as well as D&C 64:9, which states: "...he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.").

A great example of forgiveness was one of the fathers of the children killed in the Connecticut school shooting back in December 2012. He had every right to be angry and vengeful at the shooter and his family, but instead he went the path of forgiveness and understanding. This doesn't mean he excused what the shooter did or that it didn't bother him or even that he wouldn't have supported proper consequences had the shooter lived, it just meant that he had decided to not harbor that negative attachment to and feelings for the shooter and the shooter's family. And really, what good would those negative feelings really do for the father? Would he have been as forgiving if the shooter hadn't been killed? No one can say for sure, but my guess is he would've been just as forgiving. Again, because he understood that forgiveness is as much for the offended than the offender. It allows people to move on with their lives and not be bogged down by negative emotions. It's something I know I have a lot to work on. Like I said, it's not a quick process and depends on a lot of other variables.

Now, to judging. What does that mean? I have noticed some people take this far too literally by basically believing that we should never come to any kind of conclusion. That's just not realistic. In our day-to-day activities, we have to come to conclusions hundreds of times a day. That's how we make decisions: by judging between various facts and opinions around us. What judging means (in terms of "what not to do") is to make a final decision about how someone is. In essence, it's referring to the final judgement. For instance, we see someone who is poorly dressed and we make assumptions about their character, lifestyle, background. This is where we get "prejudice", meaning to "pre-judge" or judge without any type of fair analysis. Stereotyping and profiling fall into this, as does racism.

Now, some of those initial assumptions may be 100% accurate, but others may be completely wrong. In reality, what we're not supposed to do is make final conclusions on someone without all, or even most of the facts. Even with those facts, we should still be open-minded enough to understand we still may have come to an incorrect conclusion or conclusions and understand that there are likely things we may never (or should never) know about someone since it isn't our business. Many conclusions can simply be from misinterpretations (written, verbal, and physical) and sometimes just a clash of different cultural norms (yes, even within the same in the US, we have many very subtle cultural differences between different parts of the country and even between families). Not being judgmental is as much about being a little laid back and understanding as it is being tolerant, fair, and open-minded. It's also recognizing that we almost always don't have a full picture of someone else and what they may be going through (or have gone through), even someone we may know very well (and certainly not those we don't know well!).

We are counseled against judging not because we should never make assumptions or come to any kind of conclusions, but to understand how often we can be totally wrong about or miss key elements in why someone is the way they are, why they act a certain way, or why they look the way they do. We shouldn't let our assumptions, even if created over a period of time, be our final judgement of another person, to the point that we are never willing to alter our perception or understand someone better. Think of how many quality relationships never materialize or are sabotaged because of unrighteous judging? And that ties into forgiveness too, like sometimes how someone treats us my be a misinterpretation or misunderstanding on our part, their part. or both. In the end, we have a very limited vantage point from which to fairly judge people. This where the whole concept of "walking a mile in someone else's shoes" comes in, experiencing everything through a completely different perspective and understanding. It is also why we leave that final judgment to God, who is completely fair and can weigh all the variables accurately and justly, something that is really beyond our capabilities as human beings at this point.

In conclusion, being forgiving and not judgmental are very difficult. By our very nature, we tend to be unforgiving and judgmental. But as I said before, think about how many relationships we prevent, diminish, or even destroy because of our pride in not wanting to forgive and/or not wanting to look past our judgments. We must strive to be open-minded about everyone, be patient, long-suffering, and understanding. This will not only improve our relationships with others (not that we'll all be best friends, but we will be at least more understanding and patient) but our lives in general. How many of the world's problems stem from misjudging and being unforgiving?