By Stu Semigran
The hearts of our children often ache from the hurts and hardships that they keep so hidden and secretive. We quietly hope that they can nonetheless move through life with a resilient spirit that can overcome the troubles they face. Though we may pray that they somehow miraculously gather the necessary abilities to maneuver through life’s challenges, we are quietly sensing that more has to be done to provide them with ample tools to draw upon.
It is when hope seems to be gone, and youth feel as if they are alone in a world of confusion and separateness, that the most powerful tools, those of loving and forgiveness, are most needed. These inner skills are more than subjects for inspiring articles and books. Loving and forgiveness are living and teachable qualities of the human spirit that provide youth hope and abilities when all may seem hopeless.
How to get there? How are we to move kids who are so defensive or lost within their own blight that the common strategies they seek are self-infliction, hurting others, or suicide? Over the course of the last twenty years, in classrooms and youth centers across the country, I have repeatedly witnessed the strength of the human spirit. I have seen youth experiencing within them and around themselves a tangible power of loving and forgiveness that has moved them back into affirming life and into the brightness of their futures.
In an old multi-purpose room, in an urban Michigan alternative high school, a group of 60 students are gathered intimately around an ”indoor campfire” in an activity of sharing about what weighs heavy on their hearts. It is the second day of a powerful three-day youth development workshop called ACE. Through their work together on day one, the group has already developed a high degree of trust and safety. Now as the stories are individually being shared, all are moved to silence and then many to tears. A young man, who has yet to say a word over the first day and a half of the workshop, shares how as a child he witnessed his father killing his mother. A tearful young woman shares how she was raped and the guilt she has carried as being dirty and scarred. Another incredible young man describes how he has never met his mother nor his father and has from birth on been bounced around from foster home to foster home. The opportunities to let go of the pain in a room that truly honors and loves them is astounding. In and past their sharing, the students are all soon guided to continue the process of letting go of their pains through the artful practice of forgiveness.
The teaching of forgiveness as a life skill needs to live within a setting where love and forgiveness are alive and practiced. Youth know when the adults around them truly care for them and one another. They can readily see if the adults there genuinely live what they teach. If expressing loving, kindness, and consideration for everyone within a school or youth organization is not valued as foundational and is not consciously being developed, then lifting youth into their self-mastery and healing is a long shot. Too many schools and youth-serving organizations speak to developing their kids without taking an honest look at themselves in the mirror.
For loving to develop with a group of young people, some primary elements are needed. These include:
- dedicated and caring adults
- adults who are willing to be reflective and are committed to their own learning and personal growth
- school and classroom environments where youth are truly respected, honored, listened to, and loved
- positive environments where youth have a sense of safety and belonging
- skilled teachers/facilitators who are consciously guiding students in the way of the heart
- practices that are established and upheld by which everyone learns to honor themselves and one another.
As the loving and feelings of safety, belonging, and trust are developing, then youth can more gracefully embrace learning the art of forgiveness (for oneself and for others). The practice o f teaching forgiveness guides youth along a path that leads from tolerance to understanding to compassion.
Teaching forgiveness is based on the paradigm that “what if we are all doing the very best we can based on the development of our consciousness at that point in our lives.” For one to judge another (or ourselves) is to consider that we know what it is they (or we) “should” be doing. Judgment resides within the world of “right versus wrong” and “should versus shouldn’ts”.
Forgiveness is the doorway to a different viewing point…one of greater acceptance and freedom. As we forgive ourselves for the judgment we have placed, we are able to learn from life’s experiences and move on with greater wisdom and freedom. To consider this viewing point requires shifting from a traditional viewing and experiencing of life to seeing through a vastly different window or lens.
Window #1- Traditional
Window #2- Paradigm Shift
Through the first window one views life and others through the filter of judgment. “Things are right or they’re wrong. This is right. This is wrong. This is good. This is bad”. We then defend it with all the reasons because this is our belief system. When viewing life through this window, we feel righteous and proper. Life constricts and so does the ability to experience loving and compassion.
The second window has see life through evaluating rather than judgment. Evaluation brings neutrality and objectivity—this approach works for me or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, rather than reacting and becoming charged with emotion, let me work in ways to deal with it. I can choose to look at all experiences as opportunities for growth. What if I am doing the best that I can in any given moment? If I could do it better, I would have. But given where my consciousness was in that moment, that was the best that I could do…and what if the same is true for others? This viewpoint opens the heart. It leads to forgiveness and compassion.
Many teenagers express that the person(s) who have hurt them in the past are not worthy to be forgiven. We discuss how forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves because we love ourselves and want to be free. It does not mean that we condone or approve of someone’s hurtful actions. Carl Thoresen describes it well in noting that ’”not forgiving is like eating poison and then waiting for the other guy to die.”
This is a startling new way to go through life. Youth are typically taught to judge. In this suggested approach, we judge nothing. We can learn from everything and do the best we can in each and every moment.
As their awareness skills grow, teachers and youth are taught and begin to learn a five-step approach in practicing self-forgiveness.
Step 1- Be aware of the emotional upset within
Step 2- Identify the situation or action that triggered the upset
Step 3- Clarify the judgment (of self or other) that you made with yourself
Step 4- Reconsider- you are at a choice point; choose to justify the judgment (window #1) or consider compassion/forgiveness (window #2)
Step 5- Practice forgiveness, i.e. “I forgive myself for judging myself (others) as _______.”
This practice of awareness and then choosing a compassionate way is a life long practice that youth can learn at an early age. It is beautifully revealed in the following story that a friend had received and then shared with me shortly after our 9/11 tragedy.
I suspect that, like me, you're still feeling raw, vulnerable, grateful to
be alive, and emotional. For me, personally, there's a glimmer of hope that
this event will act as a turning point for the way we, as human beings
deal with conflict, anger, and resentment. One of the most helpful stories
I heard this week was passed on to me by a woman who works with children a
lot. She was trying to find ways to explain to them how to deal with terror
and anger. She recounted this story:
A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about how he
felt. He said, "I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One
wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving,
compassionate one." The grandson asked him, "Which wolf will win the fight
in your heart?" The grandfather answered, "The one I feed."
As adults we are the chefs who can place the meals of judgment, separation, and fear before our young people or provide them with banquet tables of loving, forgiveness, and compassion. There are thousands of “culinary” schools and classrooms of forgiveness and loving to be developed… and a calling for a world full of master cooks. The food of loving and forgiveness is the heartiest of foods for our children’s souls, and in turn it reaches out and nourishes our planet so hungry for sustenance.
About the Author
Stu Semigran, the Co-Founder and President of EduCare Foundation, has more than 30 years developing and facilitating programs in educational settings worldwide. EduCare currently provides expanded learning programs for over 50 high schools and middle schools in southern California. He is the author of "Making the Best of Me: A Handbook for Student Excellence and Self-Esteem" used worldwide. Stu currently serves on Beyond the Bell’s Take Action Campaign Steering Committee & the CDE’s Expanded Learning Division’s SEL Planning Team. In 2012, Stu was recognized as a David Chow Humanitarian Award Foundation recipient for his service to youth.
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Hulnick, H.R., Hulnick, M.R. (1989, November/December) Life’s Challenges: Curse or Opportunity? Counseling Families of Persons with Disabilities. Journal of Counseling and Development, pp. 166-170.
Parker, P. J. (1998) The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Roger-John (1994). Forgiveness: The Key to the Kingdom. Los Angeles: Mandeville Press.
Semigran, S. & Wilkinson, S. (1989). Making the Best of Me: A Handbook for Student Excellence and Self-Esteem. Los Angeles: EduCare Foundation.
Semigran, C. & Semigran, S. (2001) Guiding Principles for Heart-Centered Teaching and Learning (developed at EduCare Foundation’s Educators Institute for Heart-Centered Teaching and Learning, summer 2001).