Friday, 30 November 2012

The gift of forgiveness

Let me share this true story. It's about a typical couple in Singapore. The courtship was smooth. They met in school, fell in love, and walked down the aisle in marriage. Then, they added two bundles of joy to their family. 

All seemed well until careerism as a competitive sport kicks in. The wife soon earned more than the husband. She started to despise him. She then became a director while the husband lagged behind. This gap caused a rift between them and the wife drifted away into the arms of her colleague. 

An office romance blossomed and she discovered that she was pregnant with his child. The innocent husband was devastated when she requested for a divorce. 

However, still waters run deep. The pregnancy was not the only shocker. The wife discovered that she has cancer. Now the shocker was on her.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending; although it is no less heartbreaking. The wife's boyfriend broke off with her when he heard about the cancer. He also abandoned their unborn child. So, who came back to pick up the pieces? 

Well, no prizes for guesses. The long-suffering husband returned and stayed with his sick wife. He and their two children nursed her back to health. They attended to her physical needs. He accompanied her through the difficult time as she carried her pregnancy to full term. She also fought hard against the dreaded cancer. Her husband not only forgave her but also promised to raise the baby as his very own. 

Imagine this, from the perspective of her husband, the wife's three betrayals of choosing to despise him, have an affair, and bear a child thereafter, were not met with an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance from the husband. Instead, the husband did the christian thing and chose the narrow road by forgiving her and saving the marriage. 

This touching story is a good starter for this discussion on forgiveness. A professor of Christian counseling defines it as such, "To forgive another means to cancel a debt in order to open a door of opportunity for both repentance and restoration of the broken relationship." 

For me, the act of forgiving is basically letting go. Every time we forgive, we are conducting a personal cremation service as we put our hatred, our hurt and our ego to the flame. As we let go, we open our heart to a new landscape for personal and social growth. 

I see a person who forgives as one who suffers a little death everyday until he comes alive, experiencing pure freedom for the first time.

Martin Luther King once told of an account of the egregiousness of racial discrimination when he was attending a dinner. A white man came over to his table and, instead of greeting him, spat on his face. Dr King smiled at the man and calmly took out a hanky. 

He then wiped the gooey phlegm off his face, folded the cloth and handed it over to the disgruntled man, saying, "I think this is yours."

Racial hatred is the ugly social face of unforgiveness.  And every act of unforgiveness has its seemingly innocuous start. One author describes the birth of unforgiveness as one that is "ignited by a spark of perceived hurt or offense, fanned by hot emotions of anger and fear, damped to a slow burn by time, and scuffed into stack of dangerous coals by rumination."

I once counseled a man whose gifted son had just died tragically in a road accident. He came to me to seek legal recourse. In the middle of the discussion, I asked him, "Have you ever thought of forgiving the driver?" He snapped, "it's not for me to forgive. It's for my son to forgive. He has died and forgiveness died with him." 

I looked into his eyes and replied, "But isn’t forgiveness for the living, not for the dead? Wouldn’t your son want you to let go and live on?" The man turned around and walked away.

While I understand  it is difficult to forgive someone who has taken your loved one away by a reckless act, I sincerely believe that we never find peace in this life if we bring to our grave the bitterness of unforgiveness. 

Somehow, unforgiveness taints everything in our life. On a spiritual level, our prayer life is compromised. On a personal level, we feel hypocritical and inauthentic. On a relational level, the bitterness staggers our efforts to reach out in compassion to others. 

In fact, the word "forgive" is made up of two-parts: "for" and "give". The act of forgiving is an act of selfless giving. We give the gift of forgiveness to the offender by giving away our hurt, anger and ego. When we forgive, we give up the right to hold on to the wrong done to us. We let go of the right to inflict guilt on the offender. We release him from the guilt and pain. Alas, for some, such release is perceived as too cheap for the offender. 

Some of us do not want to forgive because to do so is to lose the tacit power over another. Some of us finds it strangely empowering to hold a wrong or a grievance in ransom. We somehow secretly relish the "superior-ness"  that comes with withholding forgiveness as we see it as an act of psychologically imprisoning our offender in a mental cage of guilt and isolation. 

Given a chance to free ourselves from bitterness, we choose instead to perpetuate the role of a victim rather than the liberator of two consciences: both ourselves and the offender. Here I am reminded of what Indra Gandhi once said, "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." 

But little did we know that over the years, this self-serving attitude, or as i call it "clenched-fist heart", only goes to punish us even more. As we hold on to the pain, we also hold on to the bitterness. And a life of bitterness is a joyless one.

I once had a conversation with one of my colleagues. She is a mother of two. And she has a creative way to impart the lesson of charity to her children. The relevance of this story will come at the end, so bear with me. 

Like every loving parent, my friend buys Christmas presents for her kids. But there is a budget, usually it is fifty dollars. The other catch is that for whatever the child buys, he must buy another identical gift. So, he will have two gifts in the end.  

With two of the same toys, my friend would arrange for a trip down to an orphanage. As you'd have guessed it, my friend expects her children to give away the gift he had just purchased to an orphan. I think this is a good way to teach your child the value of sharing.

Now comes a similar story told by Jacob Needleman in a book entitled Beyond Forgiveness. This is how he recounted it, "A few years ago, I was teaching a class at a business school in Mexico. During one class, we were talking about what it means to be a good man, and a student, thirty five, who had a little boy of five, told the class this story. "You know," he began, "I was decorating the Christmas tree with my son in the living room when there was a knock at the front door. We went to answer it, and there was a beggar boy. 

In Mexico, beggars are perfectly acceptable, not like in American. The boy was about the same age as my son, and so my son and I went back to the living room and I said to him, "Give him one of your toys." My son picked up one of his old, beat up toys. "No," I said. "Give him your favorite toy." My little boy balked. 

"No," I said, and I was gentle but firm. "Give him your favorite toy." Finally, my son picked up a toy he just gotten for Christmas, and while I waited in the living room, he went down to the front door. A few seconds later, he came running back, radiant, shouting, "Daddy, can I do that again?"

What's the message here? It's the joy of selflessness. The little boy felt it more than he understood it, but that's ok. The boy was happy to give till it hurts because the joy that lights up the orphan's face is contagious. 

This same principle is applicable to forgiveness. 

Forgiveness  is the joy of selfless giving. When we forgive someone, we are letting go of our hurt and pain and offering the gift of pardon to the offender. It is always a difficult act because letting go means losing power over another. It also requires us to quit from playing the role of a victim.  But the trade off is worth it because we exchange a life of bitterness for the gift of selfless joy.

Now comes the second part of this letter: How to forgive?

Let's be realistic. Everyday life is far different from those scripted drama we see on tv. It is usually more dull, less glamorous, and more raw. To this raw-ness of life, we must consider this reality, that is, some people are difficult to forgive. 

Think about it. It is easy to forgive your child for minor, though repeated transgressions. But how do you do the same for an adult who has hurt or betrayed you, even repeatedly? Add to this combustible mix is an adult who is not repentant.

Take the above example of the spouse who had decided to stray, commit adultery and bear a child with another man. How about the driver who through his own reckless act killed a child? I can think of far more obscene and cruel acts done to an innocent party that makes it extremely difficult to forgive. Truly, it is easy to preach about forgiveness but to live by it is a whole new dimention altogether.

But first, let me set the record straight. Forgiveness is not excusing the offending act. It is not approving it. When a wrong is done, it is a wrong no matter how you embellish it, mask it, disguise it or shape-shift it. The truism "when you do the crime, you have to do the time" still applies. So, it is still genuine forgiveness if you expect justice to be done.

Another thing forgiveness is not is forgetting the offense. Especially for an offense that is so grave and deep cutting, it is difficult to forget what was done. This is understandable and therefore offering the hand of forgiveness is not discarding, erasing or suppressing the memory of it.

So, after taking the "sting" out of forgiveness, let's deal with how to forgive. And a good place to start is with this African proverb, "My enemy is one whose story I have not yet heard."

The first step to forgiveness is to open our heart to listen to the story of our offender. Every life tells a story. Even murderers are not born hell bent to kill. There is always a hidden angle to our enemy’s life that, although does not excuse the act, at least makes him more understandable. And the more we understand, the less we hate. The less we hate, the more we forgive. 

Here is another way of looking at it. We are all flawed individual. We all make mistakes. For every finger we point at our enemy, we can count with the same number of fingers the wrong that we have done to others. So, it is said that the power to forgive is in the recognition of the flaws in all of us. Let me show you what I mean with this personal encounter.

One saturday night, my family and I were having dinner at Plaza Singapura. We took about three hours traveling, dining and shopping. When we returned home, it was already eleven at night. But what greeted us at the doorstep was a choking stench very much like something was burning. I panicked and rushed into the house and realized that my wife had forgotten to turn off the stove when we left. She was actually boiling chicken soup and the pot was charred dry when I turned it off.

Her forgetfulness came with a price. With all the windows shut tight, the whole house was blanketed by a thick smothering fog. No room in the house was spared. In anger, I scampered to ventilate the house by opening all the windows and switching on all the fans. Still, the fog was unbearable and it took about one day to get rid of it. 

As predicted, I confronted my wife and blamed her for the careless act. She tried to apologize but I was too angry to listen. Then, all of a sudden, I retreated. I disassociate myself from my anger and sat by myself, alone, thinking about her apology and my own life. It was a sudden epiphany moment.

My own self-examination has brought me to the realization that I was no better. I recalled I once forgot to turn off the electric iron. At times, I would lose my cool and rant off at her like a mad man. There are just too many missteps, misjudgments and mistakes in my life which would automatically disqualify me from putting on a self-righteous robe and start blaming her. In the end, I realized that we are all in the same boat - the boat of human failings. I then did the next natural thing: I went to reconcile with her.

That day I learnt one important lesson: We can't fix relationships in the same way we change a light bulb or tie a shoelace. Relationships are issues of the heart and they cannot be fixed mechanically. They are not things, plugs or lego. It is more complicated than that. Like forgiveness, we need to listen and understand the opposite party. We need to suspend all judgment and criticisms. We need to really empathize.

Most of all, we need to open our heart to them and choose to sensitize ourselves to their pain. Because they are all created different, we need to understand how such differences make them say and act the way they do. Only by doing so, can we experience a genuine change of heart. 

It is said that the beginning of wisdom is listening and listening specifically with the goal to understand. I guess the goal of wisdom is reached when we have fully step into the shoes of our enemy and completely share in his pain and suffering. When we become one with our enemy, that's where the ability to forgive is birthed. 

Martin Luther puts it this way, "We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power of love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

My last point about forgiveness is that it is an ongoing process. Don't expect it to start and end with this pronouncement, "I forgive you". Some hurt cuts so deep that it may take a long time to heal.

But the aim here is to open our heart to the opportunity to restore the relationship. Whether the offender repents or not, forgiveness is an unilateral and independent act from the forgiver to the offender. It expects nothing in return and it is a form of spiritual healing for the forgiver.

I sincerely believe that once we resolve within ourselves to forgive, and not pay lip service to it, doors will open up for us to not only witness the restoration of the relationship but also the eventual repentance of the one who has hurt us. 

I sincerely urge each and everyone of us to take the time to prepare this priceless and precious gift of forgiveness and offer it unconditionally to the one who has hurt us deeply. I trust with all my heart that the true miracle of this gift is that it will not leave the giver and the receiver unchanged. 

Unlike physical gifts, the gift of forgiveness cuts deep into the soul of the recipient, breaking down all walls of resistance, bridging the redemptive gap, and forcing him or her to respond positively. 

A world where the gift of forgiveness is selflessly offered is not hard to imagine. It is a world of lasting peace, where conflicts are dissolved even before they foment into wars, where hatred dies stillborn, and where once stale relationships are brought back to vibrant life. 

This is the true power of forgiveness; the power of second chances. This is how life should be lived; it is how life should be celebrated. Cheers out.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Bended knees vs defiant ego

Here’s the prayer challenge recently posed: Should everybody pray for Mitt Romney to win the coming presidential election? Below is my view on it.

“You know prayer is a funny business. The believers endorse it without questions. The critics denounce it without reservation. Some attribute it to the hand of God. Others attribute it to pure luck or the gambling hand of random chance.

There is a case where a prostitute named Hilda prayed for deliverance from her dastardly "vocation" and she was duly delivered. Another case of Billy Graham praying against her daughter's divorce and he was quietly disappointed.

This reminds me of one incident I read. A pastor once heard a mother giving testimony that her 2 year old son fell into a swimming pool and the lifeguard revived him by artificial respiration. The mother exclaimed, "Isn't God wonderful?" Then, sitting in the congregation, quietly and hidden, was another mother whose son also fell in a swimming pool, was pulled out, but make it he didn't.

I guess for every petition posted to God that are victoriously answered, there maybe ten or more petitions anonymously marked "return to sender". 

One author wrote, "Biblical prayer is impertinent, persistence, shameless, indecorous. It is more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church". Another wrote, "Prayers like gravel flung at the sky's window, hoping to attract the loved one's attention." Any takers?

I am always afraid of the "sharpshooter's fallacy" when it comes to prayer. Imagine a NRA member empties the barrel of his gun into the wall of his barn and then walks over and conveniently draws the bull's-eye around the bullet holes. In a church context, this fallacy can turn fanatical as captured in this admonishment, "If it comes true, it's God's glory. If not, its your own folly." 

There's a seminary joke about a man who steps out of a curb and a car narrowly misses him. He exclaims, "Providence was looking out for me." Then, the next day, he steps out again and is hit by a car. He is admitted, treated and finally recovered. He exclaims, "Isn't it marvelous how God spared him?" Third time unlucky, he is hit by a car and died. At his funeral, some say, "Well, God saw fit to take him home."

Personally, I used to pray in Court to win a case until I realized that some of my Christian opponents were praying the same thing. Then, it dawned on me that being all-powerful and all-knowing is not "all-blessing" because how do you decide on whose side should your favor rest?

This again reminds me of a poet's prayer called the "good war" during WWII. It goes like this: "Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans. Spare their women for thy sake, and if that is not too easy, we will pardon thy mistake. But gracious Lord, whate'er shall be, don't let anyone bomb me."

Someone once asked Gandhi this, "If you were given the power to remake this world, what would you do first?" He replied, "I would pray for power to renounce that power." I think Christians who think that prayers will be answered 100% are filling in the shoes that are too big for them to fill. For a less stressful and more fulfilling earthly existence, I humbly recommend that they forthwith resign from being the general manager of the universe!

After that, my prayers in court are restricted to "give me strength" rather than "give me victory".

So, when it is proposed that everybody prays for Romney (however silly this is), I suspect that they will do the same in the Obama's camp. What should God do then? Doesn't this make God a republican by default or an unabashed market driven capitalist? Should prayer be even used for such thing? Maybe, prayer should only be used when everybody can unanimously agree on the desired outcome like healing from cancer or certain death, or for finding a dog or passing a school test. But then, if the latter is answered, we will have a society of top but ordinary scholars.  Very democratic but hardly practical.

As such, I think even Einstein would relent (or have second thoughts about the science of prayer). When a doctoral student at Princeton once asked him, "What is there left in the world for original dissertation research?" He replied, "Find out about prayer. Somebody must find out about prayer." Well, to borrow X-files' tagline, "the truth is out there." Or it may forever stay out there, who knows?

That's the whole "shebang" about prayer, it is beyond empirical verification. There are just too many variables, factors and issues involved for any dependable distilled conclusion. At best, it is an inferring correlation and not a direct causation. The sample group would be too uncertain, the bias effect too unwieldy, and the result too unreliable for science to ever nail down any affirmative answer.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, "when the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers." This may sound wholly irreverent but there is some truth to it, if but only a smidgen. I always believe the phenomena of prayer somehow works the same way that those HDB hopefuls do when they unyieldingly queue up at the lottery booth. The difference is that one is petitioning to a definite hope and other to their charming luck.

Most of the time, for some prayers which are already foregone or predetermined (I know the charismatics will cast stones at me for this), and with the benefit of serene hindsight, it is not the results that matter. But it is the bended knees that counts. Pardon me, I am just being pragmatic.

So, the effectiveness of prayer in most cases is not so much in the results as it is in the act. Characters are changed, hope revived, and efforts redoubled with sincere petitioning. For the true believers, it is a peace of mind that is usually the bigger miracle rather than an act divine.

Let me end with the words of FB Meyer, "The greatest tragedy in life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer." So, if I have to choose between bended knees and a defying ego, I’d choose the former in a heartbeat. Cheers out.”

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Marriage's 7 secrets

Do you love your partner enough to stay faithful to her (him) for life? As a family lawyer for ten years, I have done my part to end many marriages. Personally, some marriages, in the small minority, have been on “life-support” for so many years that its end is sadly long overdue. It’s like putting an old dog to sleep.
These marriages usually endure the insufferable years because of the children. But most marriages do not deserve the same treatment. Their breakup is preventable. If given the effort and nurture, these marriages can take that all important step forward towards greater growth and intimacy. Alas, due to constant neglect, the marriage ages, ails and dies a most undeserving death.
I have learned that most marriages never broke up because of adultery, violence and long separation. The reason usually goes deeper. It is usually a long process which involves emotional distancing, contemptuous contemplation and physical disgust.
And like a black hole sucking up everything, once a couple develops these three characteristics, everything gets construed in a negative way and becomes hardwired to fail. This is a vicious cycle that reinforces itself until one spouse finally pronounces the death sentence, “I can’t stand the sight of him.” or “I don’t feel anything for her, not at all.” or “He is just plain disgusting to me.” When this happens, adultery is just a convenient excuse away.
Andrew Marshall, the author of the book Can I ever trust him again?, offers this simple equation that captures the reason why a spouse commits the gravest sin of marriage: Marital Problems + Poor Communication + Temptation = Adultery. Every marriage has its hard times. This has already been captured in the marriage vows.
All couples have been adequately forewarned that a marriage has its price tag and it is a price you pay by “installment” over the years, so to speak. Marital hard times come in many forms. There is the usual give-and-take of marriage. There are the transient lover’s quarrels. And there are the heated arguments.
But contrary to popular beliefs, these unpleasant exchanges need not threaten the foundation of a marriage. The issues can be dealt with maturely and positively if the marriage is essentially strong. A strong marriage turns such confrontation into a learning experience and the apologies that follow usually strengthen the marital union rather than undermine it. After the verbal conflict, the couple start to adjust their expectations of each other and change their individual attitude accordingly. As they do this, their love grows deeper, stronger and more resilient.
But how do you build up a strong marriage? The best advice on this comes from a couple for 43 years and authors of the book, Building a love that lasts: the Seven Surprising Secrets of Successful Marriage. They are Dr Charles D. Schmitz and Dr Elizabeth A. Schmitz. These seven secrets are deemed surprising because they are extremely simple yet effective.
They are largely a secret because little attention are paid to them due to their simplicity. But however you look at it, these seven secrets are tried and tested and many couples in successful marriages of more than 30 years (some even 60 years) habitually apply them daily. They are doing them even as I penned these words. Let me briefly list them down here.
1st Secret: It takes two to tango. This is all about sharing interests, feeling, ideas and memories, compromising to form mutually agreeable decisions, and mutual helpfulness and support. This is the backbone of a marriage.
Like oxygen, a couple cannot stop the sharing process. In addition, any major decision in a marriage has to be made by giving up certain personal interests. This is called compromising. One spouse has to let go of his interest in order to advance the other spouse’s interest. 
It may not always be a win-win outcome for the spouse giving up his or her interest but it is definitely a win-win for the marriage as a whole. Lastly, a good marriage is about lending a helping hand, being there for him or her, and giving the other spouse a listening ear without saying a word in return. This is what it is called “unspoken understanding.
2nd Secret: No Sacred Cows. In other words, there are no secrets between the couples. These couples of more than 30 years share everything with each other. Some of them have even been married for 60 years and they have not stopped communicating like newly weds. They just cannot imagine keeping any secrets from each other. I think the point here is to always keep the channels of communication open and free, and always two-ways.
3rd Secret: the Golden Rule. This is about mutual respect. We are familiar with this Rule: Do to your spouse what you want done to you. Here are some lousy habits between couples: keeping your spouse waiting for you, keeping the toilet seat down while peeing, and insisting that you are right, and making sure your spouse acknowledges it, even grudgingly.
One thing worth noting is that your spouse sometimes needs his or her own privacy and we have to respect that. Privacy is defined as “the opportunity to belong only to yourself.” In every successful marital union, there are a few closet moments for quiet self-reflection and these are intensely private and personal moments that we must give deference to.
4th Secret: Your Body is your Castle. Needless to say, no good marriage should be short-lived. The couples would want to share every moments together including growing old together, and enjoying the fruits of their passion. And keeping fit, eating healthy and exercising regularly are the keys to a long and healthy life - not to mention, a vibrant and happy marriage.
5th Secret: Filing a Joint Return. I think a quote from the authors of the book is illuminating. “Since when is the money earned in two-wage-earner families your money, my money, your bills, my bills, your house, my house? In our research, the money earned by married couples is “our money”.
It is most unfortunate when couples take a two-chequebook attitude, since it is probably indicative of other divisive issues in their marriage as well. Such a notion communicates a lack of trust.”
I can personally relate to this. I only have a working account for payment of all household expenses with a little on the side for my unquenchable appetite for books. The remainder of my monthly salary is transferred to my wife and I trust her to be my able money mistress tending to all other financial needs.
6th Secret: The Loving Touch. The author calls touching a Morse Code, a substitute for language and the expression of feeling. Indeed, a touch, a hug, a kiss and a squeeze are all expressions of physical intimacy and the responses are always mutual. No partner can resist a soft touch, a warm hug or a tender kiss. Touching your spouse in those ways can be a magical experience.
Most of all, it is an expression of love and the reward is closeness and assuring comfort. Next comes the S word – Sex. It is important to engage in physical intimacy regularly. Remember that the pleasure of sex is not only in the orgasm or ejaculation. It is also in the pre-orgasmic stage of mutual teasing, naughty role-playing, tickling and tingling massages, passionate kissing and creative foreplay.
But note that the authors have found that although all couples believe that sex is important, it is not central to the success of their long marriages. At the end of the day, it is about their relationship on a deeper, more meaningful level. It is the intimate sharing, years of overcoming life’s issues, and growing together despite the marital pressures that are prized above all sensory pleasures.
7th Secret: Beyond Boring. This is the last open secret. No successful marriages are predictable, boring and routine. Couples of long marriages always strive to plant surprises along the way. Birthdays and anniversaries are never dull. You can say that the couples live for the next marital high. The adventure always takes them to unexpected places, thrilling rides and humorous twists.
They laugh often. Treasure each other’s company. And enjoy doing the routine like cleaning the car or doing housework because they make it fun. So, making your marriage exciting takes some effort, some planning and some sacrificing, but the reward is always more than worth the labor of love.
Let me leave you with this quote from Dr Leo Buscaglia. “When I take you into my life, I have four legs, four arms, four hands, two wonderful bodies, and two heads. I also double my chances for joy, love and wonderment.” Cheers out.