June 25, 2006

The Forgiveness Muscle

I first started thinking about my emotional landscape in muscular terms when I returned to regularly attending Quaker Meeting for Worship one fall after having taken the summer “off.”

I came to Quakerism as a spiritual refugee after being made to feel unwelcome in my family’s original faith community (long story).

And even though there are now few places where I feel more at home than in a Meetinghouse (that's my current one above), it took some getting used to. The kind of worship that Meetings here in the mid-Atlantic region practice is called “unprogrammed.” This means, among other things, that we arrive at Meeting and sit in expectant silence. And that sometimes, the silence lasts for a full hour.

When I first started attending Meeting, the hour felt like an eternity. I had a terrible case of what practitioners of meditation aptly call “Monkey Mind.” I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, or, worse, like I must be doing something wrong.

But slowly, slowly, week by week, year by year, I started to become more comfortable. My mind and spirit quieted down. I started to feel less like an imposter. So I was a bit taken aback when I returned to Meeting in the fall that year and felt like I was right back where I’d started. I recognized the feeling.

“I’m out of shape!” I thought, and that’s when the idea of spiritual flabbiness came alive for me.

When our son D was born, I immediately started bringing him to Meeting for Worship. Those Meetings spent with a tiny baby sleeping and snuffling in my arms may not have been among my most centered, but there was a different quality to the peace in the room.

When he was two, I talked with D about what people did in Meeting for Worship and brought him in, letting him stay for as long as he could be (relatively) quiet. (Some days, this was about two minutes, but we kept trying.) When he was three we started working on being quiet AND still (pretty much impossible, but a worthy goal)!

Now, as an almost five year-old, D has a developing sense of himself as a child of God, and he knows that he’s unusually good at being quiet and still when he puts his mind to it. “I have good quiet muscles,” he’ll say, and he’s right... he's up to about 20 minutes at a time now, I think.

Once we were both thinking about the practice of “settling in” to Meeting as something one needed to be in shape for, it was a short step to thinking about forgiveness in similar terms.

When I was growing up, forgiveness was in short supply. People in my family were often angry with each other – with good cause – and many of the apologies were negated by a trailing “but”…
“I’m sorry, but you just…”

I wanted to try to change that in this next generation. So we’ve been talking with D for most of his little life about forgiveness… what it means, what it sounds like, what it feels like. That it’s as much about healing the heart of the person offering it as it is about helping the heart of the person accepting it. That both the offering and the accepting can sometimes be really hard.
A few weeks ago, in the middle of impromptu livingroom wrestling match number 357, D miscalculated and accidentally launched himself full force at my head. (He weighs 41 pounds now!) His nose started bleeding, and my head felt like a gong. As soon as we got the cold compress on and the crying stopped, he looked up at me and said, “Mommy, let’s forgive each other quickly.”

Sounds like he’s well on his way to strong forgiveness muscles.

Which he'll probably need, once he figures out how many nudie bathtub pics I have of him. And that I've shared this one with the universe. :-)

(Thanks to the women of Mama Says Om for the springboard!)


Bella Sultane said...

I recently attended my first Meeting and found it to be very peaceful, although I did have a bad case of "Monkey Mind."

I like your discussion of forgiveness in reference to both involved - that seems both true and important.

Stacy said...

You got me started on thinking about how to find forgiveness for Lisa. I know that I need to, for myself and for JT, but I'm not ready. So mostly I ask for the grace to get ready for the forgiveness.

mary said...

wonderful post. I am impressed that d will sit for so long. Maybe we will have to return to mass.

Shelley said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Bella & Stacy.

Mary, I had to go back and edit my piece so it didn't sound like D has quiet muscles of steel... his record for regular meeting is probably about 20 minutes. He's good, but he's still just an almost five year-old.

Although he did astound everyone by making it all the way through Christmas Eve service, which includes a communal reading of the Christmas story, with the Bible being passed around, hand-to-hand.

jaxter said...

I think we could all learn from D (and you of course) to develop our "quiet muscles"...it would certainly help me to think about the importance of forgiveness more clearly.

Nicole said...

What an interesting post! I've never known anything about that kind of worship and I'm so glad you've shared your experience. Sounds like you're doing a great job with your little guy.

I also liked you term "spiritual flabbiness." I have recently been trying to "work out" more and build my strength...

Great story!

Lia said...

beautiful post, and one I will learn from - and modify for use within my own family. I like the idea of a quiet meditation and the active forgivness you teach.

tracey said...


And now I finally get why my Yoga teacher tells us to quiet the 'monkey chatter'. Always wondered about that.

SarahJane said...

Sweet, yes. I love what your son said.
I spent my childhood sundays at quaker meeting, and know exactly how D. feels. it turns into a cool thing, though. he seems to know that. i miss it.


juliloquy said...

Thanks for the great post! It's nice to know that if I continue to expose my Shmoo to meeting for worship it will eventually sink in and become a way of life for him. These days (at 20 months), Shmoo has only lasted 10 minutes or so, and that's only when he's drowsy.

Andie D. said...


I wanted to participate in last week's theme of forgiveness, and didn't. I'm still trying to figure out how to forgive some key figures in my life. And I'm stuck.

How does one forgive a person who doesn't think he or she has done wrong?

I sincerely appreciate this post. It's made me think. About forgiveness and spirituality (which is a pretty big stretch for me).

Shelley said...

Thanks, everyone, for your kind and thoughtful comments...

Andie, I think forgiveness in the absence of acknowledgement is so hard... does it take two to really "take?"

But what about people who find forgiveness only after the one they're forgiving is permanently out of reach?

No answers, only more questions.