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Category: encouragement

The Creative Power of Forgiveness

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The irreversibility of action is one of the most profound truths of life. When we act, we interact with others from our position of human plurality to accomplish something more creative and powerful than we could ever accomplish on our own. Action is always an inter-action with others, and action is always resulting in an outcome that exceeds our own creativity and personal power. When we act, the consequences of our actions out live our selves. However, forgiveness can reverse the power of destructive action.

The inter-active, inter-personal reality of action is remarkable to consider. Because of our fallen nature and our lack of foreknowledge of future events, our actions can be creatively productive or creatively destructive. For example, we routinely see the creative power of action at work in politics. When DeRay McKesson asserts that #BlackLivesMatter, his actions are multiplied beyond his own power because others subject their personal will to the ideal that other Americans are willing to productively confront the structural devaluing of minority lives in our justice system. When President Donald J. Trump asserts that only he can #MakeAmericaGreatAgain, i.e., #MAGA, his actions are multiplied beyond his own power because others subject their personal will to the creative destruction of the American-dominated world order in favor of re-creating another domestic future.

We saw the irreversibility of action this past week in profoundly destructive and profoundly redeeming ways in Las Vegas. While the shooter may have had (yet unknown) plans effected in his own actions, the destructive power of his actions has been greatly multiplied beyond anything beyond his own power as the losses of life and health ripple through all of the families and communities affected. At the same time, his actions released the creatively redeeming actions of others who sacrificed themselves to protect others, risked their lives to keep the company of the dying, and provide immediate physical and spiritual relief to those who were suffering in the moment. While on the one hand, there was one irreversibly destructive act, on the other hand there were many irreversibly redeeming acts that negated the power of one’s rebellion against the sanctity of life.

In fact, action is so powerful that the only thing that can reverse or undo destructive acts is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the sole personal action that can release the actor and the one who is acted upon from the irreversible consequences of action. This is because forgiveness is so unexpected in the wake of actions with creatively destructive actions. Most of the time, when the circumstance demands forgiveness, it is because the hurt and pain caused by the original action is so deep that it creates a cycle of retribution in which the one acted upon is obligated to reciprocate the original action. Thus, the original action attains its destructive power. But forgiveness can have redemptive power, because it destroys the cycle of retribution while re-configuring the relation between the actor and the one acted upon. Ideally, forgiveness re-configures this relationship so that both parties can proceed as if the original act had never happened. In our human world, this is obviously not true since some of the artifacts of originally destructive acts cannot be reversed or restored (e.g., a man is paralyzed because he was struck by a drunk driver). However, future actions are no longer predetermined by the original act of destruction.

Have the events of the past week made you reconsider the meaning of life? The meaning of our actions? The power of forgiveness?

Peace and Blessings.

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the will transforms the desire into an intention

When I first started distance running, I was in the middle of a cluster headache episode while teaching my first class at GW. I had stopped working out and was struggling, inefficiently, through teaching my course. I knew something had to change because the quality of my teaching and the quality of my life was suffering. The most obvious thing I could change and see results right away was re-starting my workout habit.

So I chose to train for a 10-miler.

Well, it wasn’t that I just chose to train for a 10-miler out of the blue, but I knew that whatever workout program I chose, it had to be something I could do alone, with minimal equipment, at work or at home or anywhere in the world I happened to be traveling. This ruled out any sort of team sport, weightlifting, and just about all other exercise except walking. I already had a love of running, so I just decided to push beyond what were mental limits. I had never run further than 5 miles, and I only ran that far because when I was in high school I learned that soccer players averaged about 5 miles distance during a 90-minute match.

When I first started distance running, I was intrigued by the unpredictability. For example, since I didn’t have any regular training routes at the time, almost every time I went out for a run I had to make changes to the amount of time I expected to run due to obstructions or things I couldn’t visualize from looking at a map. This unpredictability added between 30%-100% distance to my runs and made me think of my life as a professor. Whenever I started a paper, proposal, or project, I had no idea what roadblocks or obstacles lay around the corner. They added substantial amounts of time to the tasks, if the problems could be solved at all. I loved the parallel unpredictability of running and research, and was amazed by how they paralleled each other.

Now, however, I run to strengthen my will. Not that health doesn’t still motivate me. I get insight from my runs too. God still speaks to me on the run, and every time I lace up my sneakers during daytime hours–especially when leaving and returning to my office–I remember how Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow his walks with Amos Tversky being the most important ingredients in their Nobel Prize winning collaborations.  Running is still unpredictable, even when the unpredictability deals with much more than physical obstacles on the route. All of these things still motivate me, but I now run primarily to strengthen the will.

I am reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, and while slogging through the chapter on “Thinking: Invisibility and Withdrawal,” I came across this quote–The will anticipates what the future may bring but is not yet.

In fact, she adds the following:

The will transforms the desire into an intention.

I find these statements together uniquely compelling. I am at a time in my professional career where the strength of my will is the most important factor. Desire is not enough. At the same time, I’m finding that my workouts are increasingly more difficult to complete without considering modifying or giving up the planned workout. Desire for a certain goal time or lifting target is not enough. I need to develop the will; as Arendt says, the ability to “anticipate what the future may bring but is not yet.”

One may read this and not appreciate the strength of this statement, but I suppose that is because one is not familiar with the context of the statement. At this point in the book, Arendt is discussing the necessity of withdrawal in order to engage in thinking. She notes that

Every mental act rests on the mind’s faculty of having present to itself what is absent from the senses.

To cut a very long discussion short, the will makes real to the subject what has not yet happened [as opposed to memory, which makes real to the subject what has already happened]. In other words, the reality of the future thing that is envisioned enables one to project from the present into that reality. The strength of that reality is what enables me to bring it into existence to others.

When I find myself languishing in the library while trying to refine a research topic, it is my will which enables me to find the clarity I need to press forward.

When I am confused about a model I’m trying to build, it is the will which presents the insight I believe the model will provide.

When I don’t quite believe I’ve got one more set at the specified weight and rep target, the will projects the reality of the accomplished lift.

When I’m not sure I can finish the run, the will projects the reality of the achieved goal time.

The question I need to address is: how strong is my will?

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Make haste slowly. 146 days until we #RunRichmond

146 days out from the Richmond Marathon, what is this marathon training cycle teaching me? To slow down. Not just my training paces, but in thinking about my preparations for the marathon I need to slow down.

I have to slow down to think carefully about what I want to accomplish.

I have to slow down to think carefully about what my plan will be to accomplish my goal.

I have to slow down to think carefully about what kind of transformation I want to undergo to achieve that transformation.

So much slowing down, but I don’t have time. We are approximately 20 weeks out from the marathon, and so I must get started. There is little time to waste, and I have to start locking in my workout patterns. A little wasted time here, a missed week there, an overuse injury because I waited too long to get started, and my goals could be shot. Even though there seems to be a lot of time until we #RunRichmond, decisive action must be taken now.

This all reminds me of something I read when I first became a professor: you must make haste slowly

I was reading a book called What the Best Professors Do, and that book described little things that fast starters did which differentiated them from slow starters. When you start out on the tenure track, you have the whole tenure clock ahead of you. However, you must make decisive choices in the small things that add up over time. A few missed writing sessions here, too many missed grant windows there, too many negative student evaluations late in the clock, and your professorial goals could be in jeapordy. As a professor starting on the tenure track, it is critical to take a lot of small steps urgently early on, while at the same time slowing down to deliberately consider your overall plan and the bigger picture of your work. You must make haste to publish your work and engage in your professional community, but you must do so slowly and deliberately.

While I was thinking of all of this today, I reflected on how much I was yelling at my kids or treating my wife with contempt. I realized that I have automatic reflexes towards them that are not loving, but controlling. I thought a bit more about it and realized that although I am not satisfied with the ways I speak to them and interact with them, I never slow down long enough to consider the reasons why I am about to respond the way I do. Sometimes, time is of the essence. This is usually why the automatic reflexes take over. But almost all situations can benefit from an extra moment of reflection. I have to make haste slowly when loving and living with my family.

146 days out from the marathon, this is the most important thing training is teaching me. Make haste slowly when responding to my wife in the moment. Make haste slowly when addressing my kids. Make haste slowly when doing something that needs to be done around the house. Take decisive action in the moment, but in that same moment be deliberate and thoughtful.

I hope you will remember to make haste slowly with whomever or whatever is important to you.

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