Sunday, November 30, 2008

Atonement as At-one-ment: Breaking the Cycle

For some time now I have known that there is a cycle that plays out in me: I get hurt, I get angry, and then I feel guilty. I never really thought about it much, except to be aware enough to realize that any time I act on the anger I'll be left with the guilt -- and to know that -- and I always thought this was my fate, having been raised as a protestant -- guilt seems to be as natural to me as breathing. Not necessarily good, you understand, just... there. It's probably the root of all the times I say I'm sorry.

This morning, having been restored after a four day hiatus to my morning ritual of strong coffee, reading, and meditation, I have realized that there is a fourth step in this cycle, and it is not apologizing (which may explain why I can't seem to break out of the cycle) it is atonement.

I always thought of atonement as a sort of creepily Catholic term, having to do with self-flagellation, sackcloth and ashes, that sort of thing. But that's not the sort of atonement I'm talking about here. What I realized this morning is that atonement is not about making up for the harm you have done by inflicting harm on yourself in some way. Atonement is about at-one-ment; about understanding our underlying connection with all of creation; understanding (as we heard in church last Sunday) "insomuch as you do it unto the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me." (Matthew 25:40)

Charlotte Joko Beck, in Nothing Special, describes the cycle by using the word sacrifice as a verb. When we feel hurt, we feel like we have been made a victim (and of course, as we all know, it's quite easy to get stuck in that phase of the cycle): we have been sacrificed. At this point in the cycle, for many of us, the urge is to sacrifice back, to strike out in return, either at the one who hurt us, or, if we are powerless to do that, to strike out at someone or something else as a way of releasing that impulse. We all know people who get stuck in that part of the cycle as well.

But feeling guilty -- apologizing -- doesn't really move you out of the cycle either: it's just another place to get stuck. Here's how Beck explains it:

"We can't wipe out what we have done in the past; we've done it. Feeling guilty about it is a way of sacrificing ourselves now because we have sacrificed others in the past...feeling guilty is an expression of the ego: we can feel sorry for ourselves (and a bit noble) if we get lost in our guilt. In true atonement, instead of focusing upon our guilt, we learn to focus more upon our sisters and brothers, upon our children, upon anyone who is suffering."

How do we stop the endless cycle? Not by staying in our bitter thoughts about the past hurts and possible future revenge; not even by feeling guilty or apologizing. We escape the cycle by staying fully in the present, by staying aware of our reactions, by noticing when we feel hurt, and by making a conscious choice to break the cycle, by choosing not to snap back.

I have no siblings of my own -- which may explain why I get stuck in the guilt part of the cycle. When I was growing up my hurts came not from siblings but from parents, which meant that lashing out in response was punished. Powerless to lash back, the thoughts festered and became anger, and then I would feel guilty, internalizing the parent and punishing myself for my own frustrations.

But I have just spent four days with my daughters, who are siblings, and with my husband and his siblings. And what I see, watching them, is this same cycle that I know in myself playing out in family, and it doesn't seem to be any easier with siblings than it is as an only child. One hurts another -- either accidentally or on purpose -- and rather than being present, knowing the hurt and saying "ouch", the victim nurses the hurt and strikes back in other ways. The other, hurt in turn -- and possibly not understanding that it's a strikeback -- does the same.

This cycle, unbroken, seems to have a life of its own -- kind of like what Eckhart Tolle calls the painbody. And as the Bible says, "the evil is visited upon generation after generation."

But there is a way out. If we can stop nursing our victimhood and instead choose to be committed to healing, we can make a conscious choice to break the cycle. And the way to do that is through atonement -- not through apology, guilt, self-flagellation or revenge, because none of those ends the cycle -- but through understanding that we are "at one" with each other, that what hurts one hurts all, that by lashing out we continue the cycle, that by choosing not to we can break it.

If I were, like Beck, a Buddhist, this sermon would stop here. But as a Christian, I believe that another piece may be necessary for full healing. And that piece is forgiveness. Being who I am, it's not enough to break the cycle. I need to forgive my brethren, my sisters and brothers in humanity, for the harm they may have inflicted on me. And I need to forgive myself for any harm I have inflicted - or have longed to inflict - on them in return.

What I have learned is that forgiveness is not always easy, and I can't always do it alone. But there is that wonderful line that we Episcopalians say over and over again in the Baptismal Covenant: "I will, with God's help."

And what I have learned this past year is that once I have made that choice, to will forgiveness, that with God's help the choice can actually become reality; that actually I CAN, with God's help, forgive. And the blessing of that God-assisted forgiveness is a truly exhilarating sense of release.

So, as they say in the old commercial: Try it -- you'll like it!

I guarantee it.

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