Conflict Resolution|Ethics|Religion

Making Peace With "No" — Forgiveness and Mental Health

Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, reminded a packed house at the ABA Dispute Resolution meeting in San Francisco that a 2-yr old who is told “no” screams and yells when she doesn’t get what she wants, but then eventually stops and moves on to the next thing.  By contrast, a 40-year old who doesn’t get what he wants can persist in expressing his anger and indignation for many, many years; in some cases, he will never stop.  In this lies the attraction, for some, of the American civil judicial system.

Dispute resolution professionals often encounter people whose wound has morphed into an attribute of their very life.  Who they are is fundamentally tied with the claim.  They are no longer wife or butcher or brother or son; they are The One Who Was Wrongly Dealt With.  Dr. Luskin asked us whether we might consider not just helping that person to “resolve” the dispute, but facilitating the removal of the conflict as a central mechanism of the relationship.  Might we help to guide wounded people past their wound?

Dr. Luskin is a psychologist, and the basis for his conviction of the utility of forgiveness is not religious but, rather, empirical and theraputic.  He has conducted controlled studies that measured the outcome that people given as few as five hours of forgiveness training were happier than those who had not received the training.  He terms the process of “making peace with ‘no’,” of accepting that you have been and will henceforth always be unfairly denied something you want and deserve, as “forgiveness.”

It will surprise no one who knows me that each year, around Pesach/Easter, I set aside other matters for an afternoon and either listen to, watch or attend a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal.  The core of that work is the power upon a community of an insight called “mitleid” — literally, “with-feel.”  The word is usually translated as “compassion” or “pity.”  But in the play it refers to a profound type of empathy — an emotion by which Parsifal doesn’t merely pity someone who is wounded, but actually feels that person’s wound himself.  The quotation is “Durch Mitleid, wissend.”  “Through with-feel, wisdom.”  (The musical setting is suitably ethereal and other-worldly; see below starting at 8:40)

Dr. Luskin speaks similarly of the benefits to the individual and the community of forgiveness.  It directly heals both the forgiven and the person doing the forgiving.  It is the product of a hurt person’s deciding that she doesn’t want to be crippled by bitterness for the rest of her life, and acknowledging that the sun rises every day “on the just as well as the unjust.” 

It is not condoning bad acts — if the acts were condoned then there would be nothing to forgive.  It is not a determination that the bad act wasn’t bad — the child is still dead, the opportunity is gone forever.  But it is a decision no longer to allow that bad act to disrupt one’s own life; to invite emotional placidity and kindness into one’s daily expectations.  It is an acknowledgement that having been wounded is not a reason to wound others.

Edward Burne-Jones, “The Tree of Forgiveness”

How can dispute professionals take advantage of these insights?  Dr. Luskin warns us not to be scolds.  But being ourselves an exemplar in the resolution process is a good first step.  “Too little attention,” said Dr. Luskin, “is paid to the power of goodness to influence people.”  The message we might communicate is not “I think you should forgive and move on” but rather “What might it mean to picture yourself down the road without bitterness and anger?  How might you get there?”

He urges us to hold people who are trapped and stuck with a measure of compassion, kindness, and even mercy.  He urges us to use simple language to offer alternatives: to practice gentler, less angry, discussions and to invite some distance between the bad actor and the wounded person’s future hopes.

People become wedded to their “grievance story,” says Dr. Luskin.  (How many of us can attest to the truth of that?)  He urges us to watch for opportunities to encourage disputants to alter that deeply-rutted tale.

I add that, “touchy-feely” though they may seem, I am more willing to accept any of Dr. Luskin’s propositions than the proposal that they do not apply to business disputes.  Have any of us ever seen a business conflict that was not attributable to, and whose resolution did not hinge upon, people?

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