“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” Henri J.M. Nouwen
Go ahead and read the quote above again please. Do it more slowly and methodically this time, letting the ideas and inferences sink in…
Reading these words, I’m first struck by the seemingly pessimistic stance the author takes in asserting that “The hard truth is that all people love poorly.” and that “We need to be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly.” He goes on to refer to us collectively as “the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.” If you are like me, typically an optimistic person, those statements may seem like a rather harsh assessment and even a condemnation of humans. But as I take the time to reflect, I understand that this apparent negativity is tempered by truth, a raw honesty about who and how we are as humans.
I also have to admit that it’s my inflated ego that initially resists and judges his words as negative and condemning. It’s my arrogant ego that wants to prop itself up and claim to
love well, to be highly evolved and above his assessment of the human family. My fragile ego wants to deny my own tendency to love poorly, to be distracted, judgmental, self-absorbed and to be neglectful about caring for myself and others. Yet when looking honestly at own life I can readily see examples of how I exist within this fellowship of the weak. I can quickly identify a multitude of thoughts, judgments, choices and behaviors which I need to forgive and for which I need to be forgiven – even every day and every hour.
Looking closely and candidly, I do love so poorly at times and there’s much to forgive. Just within the past 2-3 days I can find many examples. There’s the angry thought and muttered insult toward a woman who surprised and scared me by almost hitting me with her car in the Starbucks parking lot. There’s the small grudge that I formed against my wife for ‘inconveniencing’ me with a series of requests for help with an event. There’s the demeaning internal dialog that I abused myself with briefly after wasting an hour mindlessly watching videos on YouTube. There’s the truth I withheld from a friend recently to spare his feelings. And conversely there are the hurt feelings that I may have caused another time by saying exactly what was on my mind. These and many other incidents which beg for forgiveness have occurred so recently.
As I step back and acknowledge my own failings, my own offenses and slights, my ego goes quiet and I’m left with the stark silence of honest reflection. I’m humbled by the recognition of my weakness demonstrated. For regardless how small or insignificant the affronts might seem, I cannot rationalize them away and make room for them inside a definition of someone who loves unconditionally, completely. They are indeed the thoughts and actions of a human who loves poorly.
I would bet that if you take a moment to truthfully reflect, you’ll have to admit to some degree of weakness, imperfection and tendency to love poorly too. I don’t say any of this to judge or condemn either you or myself, but that we may acknowledge and own up to our humanity. Like it or not, we have to admit that individually and collectively we fall short of loving perfectly. We’re left needing forgiveness as the means by which we can soothe the wounds, right the wrongs and close the chasms of ignorance, carelessness, judgment and disrespect that often gape between us.
In this place of humbleness we have available a new perspective on the words of the quote. We can understand the universal truths about the human condition pointed to by Nouwen. We may also feel the depth of acceptance and compassion his words seem to have for those of us in the “fellowship of the weak.” We can choose to open our hearts and bring more acceptance and consideration into our own thoughts and interactions. We can choose to feel gratitude for the tool of forgiveness that still allows us to give and receive love, even if by nature we tend to love poorly. Perhaps we can even find the humility and kindness to practice forgiveness every day and every hour, so that we may – eventually – learn to love openly, fully, and completely. Will you join me?
I’ve been collecting quotes about forgiveness over the past several months to share with you in Forgiveness Club social media posts (by the way, you can follow on Twitter – @ForgivenessClub or Facebook – www.facebook.com/forgivenessclub). Sometimes I post them alone, other times if there’s room, I’ll add a short comment, remark or observation. But the social media format is so limited in space, and at times there’s so much more to say about a particular quote. So this blog has begun a series for using the thoughts, words and perspectives of others as a jumping off place for deepening the conversation of forgiveness and related topics. Let me know what you think.