Forgiveness is Divine by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2022 October 25

Forgiveness is Divine

Ana Levy-Lyons

October 2, 2022

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

Part 1:

NASA did an amazing thing this week, something straight out of an 8-year-old’s fantasy: they intentionally crashed a spaceship into an asteroid. The spacecraft was called DART – Double Asteroid Redirection Test – and the asteroid was named Dimorphous. “Dimorphous” means having two forms. Dimorphous was not threatening Earth, but NASA wanted to experiment with trying to knock an asteroid off its course in case one ever was heading our way. (A big enough asteroid can be quite problematic as any dinosaur will tell you.) So they built this thing and sent it up into the sky, got it going at 15,000 miles an hour, aimed it at Dimorphous, and watched to see what would happen. And of course livestreamed the whole thing.

So my family and I got to watch this sci-fi drama online from the comfort of our living room – one of the ridiculous miracles of the modern world. We were treated to a split screen – on one side the NASA engineers in the control room whooping and hollering like it was the Super Bowl; on the other side an image of Dimorphous, the asteroid, getting bigger and bigger in the screen. The adults in my family are not too bright so we kept asking each other, “where’s the DART spacecraft they keep talking about? Why are they only showing the asteroid?” It took my 12-year-old daughter to explain, “No, we’re on the DART spacecraft. We’re looking through the camera that’s on DART!” Sometimes we are so identified with our own perspective, we can’t even see it.

Now we understood why Dimorphous was beginning to fill up the screen; how we could see greater and greater detail, eventually even the boulders strewn across its surface. Now we understood why they said, “Signal loss will confirm impact.” When contact was made, DART and its camera that we were looking through would be blown to smithereens. They said, “We will look for the signal loss and then celebrate.” And sure enough, after showing the most detailed image of the asteroid, the screen went blank, and the NASA people went crazy.

It’s fitting, I believe, that this took place on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the High Holidays when Jews and anyone else who wants to are invited into ten days of awe – ten days to look with wonder at this universe. Ten days to reflect on our lives, our own galactic trajectory, where we’ve been, where we’re going, what camera we are looking through, how we have shown up in the world as the best versions of ourselves and how we have not. It’s a time for course correction. It’s a time to make apologies when we’ve missed the mark. It’s a time to reflect on our relationships and, where others have failed us or hurt us, to practice that most challenging of spiritual arts, forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often talked about in platitudes. You can find hundreds of them online. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Or, “Forgive others, not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.” And as cliché as these quotes are, they do get at something that’s true. Forgiveness is a process that is primarily about the person doing the forgiving.

Because sometimes when you’re that person – the person who was wronged – you suffer doubly: first because of the thing that happened to you and then also because of the dart of anger and resentment that you carry. You hold on to that dart, you ride with it, and see only through its camera lens. When someone hurts you and you don’t deserve it, they’ve violated the rules of reciprocity, they’ve done physical or emotional violence, they’ve manipulated, they’ve failed to see you when you really needed to be seen, they’ve failed to support you when you needed the help (even when you were always there for them) – the injustice of it rankles. They can’t just get away with it. The past must be set right; the world must be set right.

If you’re like me, you’re going over and over it in your head about why they’re wrong and you’re right and here’s another reason, here’s another way that they did this thing to you. The dart sends a continuous signal – a strobe light of anger and resentment. Its perspective of the other person fills the screen and traps you in an endless loop. It’s not a good place to be, hence all the internet quotes about freeing the prisoner that is you.

But how to do it? They say that forgiveness is divine. And indeed, the central spiritual teaching of Universalism is that God will forgive all of us. God will forgive all our wrongdoing, no matter what, and draw us back into a loving cosmic embrace. No celestial grudge; no one goes to hell; no one is punished forever. Forgiveness is a divine capacity. Is it also a human capacity? Is there a way we can free ourselves from the narrow camera angle of anger and resentment?  What would it take to see a wider, galactic view, find compassion, and get free?

Forgiveness, in my experience, is a process. It’s never like flipping a switch. It takes time and it has stages. It takes place in the realm of the heart, the realm of spirit, emotion, and energy. Nothing in this realm is clean and hard-edged and definite.

While I believe that forgiveness has great power to effect change in the physical world – what we often call “the real world” – it often doesn’t involve the other person at all in a direct verbal way. Sometimes it makes no sense to say, “I forgive you” to someone who has hurt you, especially when, as is so often aggravatingly the case, they don’t think they did anything that requires forgiveness. In fact, a misplaced “I forgive you” can feel somewhat pointed: “I forgive you for not calling me once for the last two months.” A verbal expression of forgiveness is probably best reserved for times when the one who wronged you has actually asked for it.

No, forgiveness is something that takes place internally or, you might think of it, between one another on the spirit level – a different level of consciousness. It’s a drama taking place between celestial bodies. There are at least three players in this drama: You have DART, the spacecraft of anger and resentment with its single-pointed camera view. You have Dimorphous, the multifaceted asteroid that is the other deeply flawed human being. And you have the celestial container, your higher self, some call it the divine self – the one who forgives over and over, no matter what… in the words of the Rumi poem, “even if you’ve broken your vows a thousand times.”

[Song: Come, Come, Whoever You Are]

Part 2:

Here’s how I see it: You start to do the work of forgiving someone – which can be as simple as picturing the person and saying the words in your own heart, even if you don’t feel it, “I forgive you for …” whatever it is. And just the act of doing that with as open a heart as you can muster begins to humanize the other person. It begins to expand the view of the DART camera feed.

And then you start to think about why the other person is the way they are. What must have happened to them that they think the way they treated you is normal? What kind of fear drives their cruelty or callousness? What kind of pain are they carrying forward? Or if it’s not pain but entitlement, what has that entitlement cost them? Their actions towards you are often an echo of others’ actions toward them.

As you travel down this road of contemplation, you approach them – their spirit self – and as you get closer, you start to see them more clearly. The details on the face of the asteroid may start to resolve, until you can see the boulders and the shadows. And you may feel a little hint of compassion start to emerge. It doesn’t mean that what they did was okay, but pay attention to that compassion.

Because from here, sometimes, it can start to get really interesting. I have found that when you start to work on forgiving someone, they get humanized, and sometimes the realization may hit you that that’s not the person you really need to forgive. There’s a different person whom you really need to forgive. Maybe it’s a parent, a sibling, a teacher – someone who loomed large in your life and you got wounded in a way that made this current situation so extra painful. It’s referred pain. When you set about trying to forgive that person, that’s a much bigger deal. And when you keep going and dig deeper, you may find that the one you most need to forgive is God. Or maybe it’s yourself.

Meanwhile, the first person – the one who wronged you today – is just the poor schlub who got caught in the crossfire of their baggage and your baggage. They are indeed dimorphous – more than one form, more than one truth. They can never be fully explained by one terrible act or even a pattern of terrible acts. There is always more to the story. They are both: the monster that hurt you and the poor schlub underneath, just toiling away the best they can in a messed up world. And now the two of you, rather than being only adversaries, can be strangely bonded, suffering the pain of the world together. This picture is the big, wide-angle picture, the divine picture. This forgiveness is divine forgiveness.

How will we know that our forgiveness mission has worked? How will we know that it has had impact? Signal loss. The signal from the DART; the anger, the resentment, will burn up and disappear. Or – not to take the metaphor too literally – it will at least diminish. Signal loss will confirm impact. We do this work, and that endless loop of arguments in our head goes quiet. We notice that we feel lighter, freer, happier. Like the NASA scientists, look for the loss of signal, and then celebrate.

And then there’s one more thing that can happen; an inexplicable thing. (This may be way too woo-woo for some of us in this room and if that’s the case, you can just cover your ears for this last little bit.) The purpose of the NASA mission was to see if a giant asteroid can be moved – if it can be nudged off course even a little bit. We engage a forgiveness mission to change ourselves, but of course we always hope in the back of our minds that the other person can also change – that the situation can change.

And I’ve seen it happen. Even when the forgiveness is never articulated in words to the other person, even when the process seems completely internal, it can have an effect that reverberates in the galaxy. When we fly deeper and deeper into the heart of the matter, see the other and ourselves more clearly, and grow our compassion until we attain signal loss, there is an impact in the world. And sometimes the force of that impact can lovingly nudge others into a slightly different course.

As for Dimorphous, the actual asteroid, we don’t know yet whether its orbit has changed. Small changes grow and become visible only over time. We’ll know in a few months when the dust settles. These things take time to unfold. But I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed.

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