It was one of those moments in class the other night. I peered around the room at our 17 students enrolled in the Family Studies capstone course – all majors or minors interested in learning about, and some eventually working with, families and/or couples in therapeutic, educational or research settings.
I was delighted – but not at all surprised – that every student sat intensely and genuinely mesmerized by what our guest speakers had to offer. The students took frantic and diligent notes. They asked impassioned and critical questions. They stayed after to find out more. As they left, they could be heard chattering excitedly about what they had just learned. They told us the following week how they had eagerly told much of what our guests said to their friends and family members. My co-instructor, Dr. Mary Ann
Chalkley, and I admitted doing the same. What could be so fascinating?
It was the succinct and practical wisdom about a familiar, yet oft-frightening and oh-so-often-frustrating concept: Forgiveness.
Our guests were Joe and Mary Beth Boyle, a very happily married couple of 53 years who, for more than 30 years, have been practicing (together) marriage and family therapists. The Boyles came to class to illuminate many of the theories of healthy family functioning, strategies of positive relationship interaction, trends in contemporary parenting and hurdles in sustaining intimacy. We had been studying and discussing these very concepts all semester. How poignant to hear from the “experts in the field.” Literally.
The Boyles precisely and brilliantly – via their stories of raising six children, enjoying their 18 grandchildren, keeping their marriage and friendships thriving, and providing professional support for countless others through loss, grief, anger, depression and deeply complex marital and family conflict – helped us make sense not only of the family social science research, but also of our own relationships: from the messy, icky, sticky ones to the wonderful, easy, satisfying ones to all the ones that fall somewhere in between. Theory meets practice! I love it when that happens.
My favorite bit of wisdom came when the Boyles smartly and succinctly summarized in six little words one of their guiding life-principles. As you faithful blog-readers already know, I love six-word statements:
“Life hurts. Love heals. Forgiveness frees.”
Boyles: You are brilliant! You have clearly reminded us what most would prefer to forget or possibly never believed in the first place. Life does hurt. Others will cause us pain and irritation (read about conflict theory). Often not intentionally (social construction theory). But they will. That’s life. We are social beings with complex needs, and we construct and thrive on relationships with others (systems theory).
That’s good. And what’s better: we each get to choose what we do with those hurts (symbolic interaction theory). Most of us carry around those hurts, like rocks in a bag. They weigh us down (social exchange theory) and make us angry. We blame others for our heavy load of hurts (family ecology theory might be helpful here). We search for happiness and satisfaction but we hold on to those rocks with all of our might despite the fact (dialectical theory) that they bring us pain, exactly the opposite of what we search for (happiness!).
But forgiveness frees us. And not just partial or sort-of forgiveness. Not forgiveness contingent on how the other person reacts or behaves (systems theory again). But complete and total forgiveness. Right now. An empty bag! Can you imagine? How light. How happy. How freeing that would be!?
Joe and Mary Beth Boyle can. They’ve seen the work of forgiveness work magic in their own lives and the relationships of countless others. The best part, as we watch our 401Ks dissolve and new graduates search diligently for satisfying work in our downsized economy: forgiveness is absolutely and totally free. Abundant. Endless. And – speaking from experience, as someone who has test-driven the strategy in my own relationships and hopes those I’ve inevitably hurt will, too, then toss my rock out of their heavy bag – priceless.
It’s springtime on campus and in Minnesota! Let’s all lighten our spirits and loads with a bit o’ forgiveness, eh?