In his timeless address to the graduates of Spelman College class of 1980, the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman said, “If I were to ask you what is the thing that you desire most in life…and you tried to answer that question, it may be something like this: I want to feel completely vulnerable, completely naked, completely exposed and absolutely secure. This is what you look for in your children when you have them. This is what you look for in [a spouse] if you get one. That I can run the risk of radical exposure and know that the eye that beholds my vulnerability will not step on me.” Indeed. This is at once the thing for which our soul most hungers and the lack that we look to our beloveds to fulfill.
To be fully known, fully understood by God; to run the radical risk of exposure and know that the divine eye that beholds our vulnerability will not abandon us; to know that God will love us not in spite of our flaws but because of them; this is the most fervent hope of religious seekers. It’s one thing for God to love us this way, because—well—God is the definition of perfect love. But to look to our beloveds to love us this way? To hunger for this love that praises our eccentricities and embraces our every flaw—the love that sees the very worst of us but loves us all the more—can we truly expect to be loved that way? Or are we just setting ourselves up for disappointment?
In her groundbreaking visual album, Lemonade, Beyonce reveals what happens when that kind of love goes wrong. “I tried to make a home out of you,” she whispers, “but doors led to trapdoors.” Working through the pain of her husband’s infidelity, she sings, “When you hurt me, you hurt yourself, you only hurt yourself; when you play me, you play yourself, don’t play yourself; when you lie to me, you lie to yourself; you’re only lying to yourself.” Her lyrics reveal the karmic truth of love—that we truly do love others only to the extent that we are able to love ourselves, and when we harm, fail, and cheat others, we fundamentally do these things to ourselves.
Lemonade has functioned, in some ways, like a feminist collection of Psalms—a communal working out of reconciliation from exodus to exile. The Psalms, after all, paint a theological context for the full range of human experience. They were used for personal reflection as well as collective worship. They zig zag wildly between praise and lament, between exquisite wisdom and crude vindictiveness. Sometimes this happens all in the same psalm, because the Hebrew Scriptures claim that candor about suffering makes way for hope. Lament makes praise possible. Sometimes the most disorienting experiences in our lives reorient us toward God.
So it was with Lemonade. By the time Beyonce performed portions of the album live at the Grammy’s, she was pregnant with twins, the literal fruit of her reconciliation with her spouse (who released his own companion album working through the themes of masculinity, betrayal, failure, and forgiveness). Her Grammy performance, visually centered around her pregnant body, was introduced by her mother and attended by her spouse and child, making it an inter-generational family affair. Her stunning embodiment of motherhood, while singing about the raw complications of the love that created it, ends with yet another whisper: “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.”
In that moment, all of us watching awakened to the truth that Beyonce has done it. She’s led her fans through the groaning and groveling of jealousy and betrayal to the defiant anger and hard truths of love, but she brought us out, ultimately, to healing. Publicly and with grace and beauty, she sang and danced her way through love’s worst betrayal and showed us that reconciliation, sometimes (and with a lot of therapy), gives birth to an even more glorious love.
Difficult though it may be to forgive our enemies, forgiving our beloveds is far more grueling. No one can break us like those who know us most intimately. Not just our intimates, but our families of origin who shaped us and handed down both blessings and dysfunctions. Our children, who love us with such need but grow into awareness of our deep flaws. Forgiving the one who has seen us at our worst and exploited that very vulnerability—it’s a journey that traverses the ruined interior terrain of our own hearts. Sometimes the trespass is a singular violation—an incident, an infidelity. But there are times when the trespass we attempt to forgive is a dynamic that may never change—an aching disappointment carved out by a lifetime of loving someone who is broken and flawed, as we all are.
In his book Creating True Peace, Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh lays out a forgiveness process he calls “Beginning Anew.” It starts with one person speaking their truth as the other listens deeply without interruption. Thich Naht Hanh lays out three steps:
1. Sharing appreciation (it must be genuine)
2. Expressing regret (owning our mis-steps that contributed to the situation)
3. Expressing our hurt (“with mindful, loving speech, without blaming”).
He writes, “We ask the other person to help us understand why they have spoken or acted as they have.”
At the heart of Thich Naht Hanh’s methodology is the cultivation of compassion for our beloveds. It is a compassion inclusive of their flaws, brokenness, and trespasses against us. This compassion begins with curiosity. How is their unskillful way of being in relationship rooted in patterns that stem from their family of origin? With what inner suffering—grief, pain, insecurities, fears—are they wrestling? How does their harm of us harm also themselves? How are they mired in the trap of their own failure to imagine another way? We get curious about ourselves too. What is the story I tell myself about the other’s faults, and is it really true? Is it true in this instance? What is a more gracious story that might also be true? How have my own insecurities contributed to this situation?
Three spiritual practices flow from Thich Naht Hanh’s process of forgiveness. The first is discernment, because there are times when relationships are abusive, too harmful to continue, or in which one party does not desire reconciliation. Forgiveness here may mean ultimately releasing the relationship. For those in physically abusive relationships, intimate or not, all the powers of discernment must revolve around determining when and how to leave, if it’s possible to get out with one’s life. For relationships that may not be life-giving to either party, the discernment is far more complex, taking into account the past, the possible future, the other lives impacted. The discernment is made more difficult when the options are sparse—what is possible economically, emotionally, and spiritually. While valued friends and wise ones might be called into the discernment process, ultimately discernment is not something one person can do for another. We must each do it, prayerfully, for ourselves alone.
The second spiritual practice is the creation of a peace covenant between individuals or within a family. Forging a document, together, that might help increase peace in the relationship takes a proactive step in caring for the relationship itself. According to Thich Naht Hanh, the covenant might include the following: code words (to end a conversation and signal a break); alternate strategies (writing, rather than speaking, your hard truth); taking care of oneself (what brings you back to calm in the throes of potent emotion?); negotiating coming back together (who initiates it, what are the ground rules?); and a timeline for resolution (what’s the shortest amount of time needed for a break; the longest amount of time acceptable before reconciling?). Laying out these expectations in a covenant allows two parties, or a whole family, to clear space for greater peace and to gain skill in forgiveness and reconciliation.
The third spiritual practice that flows from Thich Naht Hanh’s process is meditation and prayer. It is only through expanding our own field of imagination and awakening that we can grasp the truth that life is larger than betrayal and trespass, that our beloved is more than their worst flaw. In meditation, we quiet the mind and breathe into places of tension held in the body. We release distractions and become present to the moment. We cross the river of grief and move out beyond the mistakes—ours and theirs—made in distress; beyond all grasping for love. We enter that spacious field beyond even judgment, to rest with a power that is greater than ourselves. We arrive, finally, in the place that is too full for words. In meditation and prayer, we know deep in our bones that we are loved just as we are, and God has given us all the ingredients we need for a beautiful life.
Forgiveness may mostly be about this: an awakening to the beauty that is greater than brokenness, the grit and grace of love that has come through the valley of death’s shadow. Betrayal, harm, blame, and brokenness only have the last word if we say so. They form a fault line that tunnels through life, closing us off from sunlight and fresh air. Through the practices of forgiveness, we can emerge from the tunnel into a more expansive vision. If we’re gonna heal, it might as well be glorious.