Harry Nelson

Forgiven: Letting Go and Leadership

Ten days ago, I was in the waning hours of Yom Kippur. I’d spent about nine of the preceding 24 hours in synagogue with a few more left to go. Throughout the day, whenever I ran out of concentration on praying, I’d been reading and reflecting on Alan Lew’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.

Lew has been gone for seven years, but his thoughts were a great catalyst for me in thinking about the ways in which I was asking God to forgive me — without having forgiven myself. He makes the point that the only way to change something about ourselves is by being compassionate and forgiving ourselves for that trait – being mindful and present with it – but that we have a hard time forgiving ourselves.

What had I not forgiven myself for? For speaking in anger, for losing patience with people I care about, for being inattentive to my own health. Lots of things. One that stood out was holding grudges. While I think I often do pretty well at letting some things go, there are a few grievances that I have held onto.  Then I think about these and I get angry with myself for being petty.  This was particularly in my thoughts because I happened to be sitting near someone who was on that list.

It’s been nearly three years that I’ve been waiting for “Bill” (not his real name) to apologize.  We all tell ourselves different stories.  In this case, my story is that, after years of looking out for him, I was taken aback when I discovered after-the-fact that Bill had been complicit in a six-month effort by a disgruntled business associate to stick it to me. Bill wasn’t the ring-leader (let’s call him “Ted”) but had been a good little “helper”.  I was shocked that he hadn’t given me any heads-up or tried to be a peace-maker, and instead picked sides against me — particularly when I had repeatedly gone to bat for him against Ted.  Even if Bill told himself a different story, I had never done anything to justify picking sides against me.

After things had calmed down and the drama had died down, I had done some soul-searching and had offered my own heartfelt apology to Ted.  I felt we both owed each other apologies, but, for a variety of reasons, I knew Ted wasn’t the kind of person who would reciprocate and I would be waiting forever for him to take ownership for his part in the brokenness of our relationship. While I don’t relate to Ted’s way of being in the world, in a weird way, I was sort of envious of his “don’t give a ____” total commitment to always being right and never ever admitting fault. I’m not wired that way (and wouldn’t want to be), but I get that some people are and that it works for them.

Instead, being quick to second-guess myself and apologize for my mistakes, I found myself holding out hope that the hurt of the whole incident would be acknowledged because Bill would have some second thoughts about how he had behaved.  In contrast to Ted, it didn’t seem to be a mutual case where I had done anything wrong, so I waited for an apology.  And waited.  It hasn’t happened yet, leaving me to wonder: Is he clueless? Embarrassed? In denial?  What do I do with this?

Sitting there on Yom Kippur, with Alan Lew’s help and the discomfort of Bill’s proximity, it became clear that this was a waste of energy.  I talked it through immediately after the holiday with a close friend and the answer was clear:  We all make mistakes. I didn’t need Bill to be explicit about his or to rub his nose in it.  At the end of the day, the whole effort had not caused lasting harm, other than the damage to our relationships. If anything, I had gotten some valuable information about which relationships to invest my energy in out of the whole experience. Meanwhile, waiting for an apology that was not forthcoming isn’t doing me any good. To the contrary, it left me stuck in the position of keeping score and nursing a grudge — activities that are wasting my energy and no one else’s. Just as writing a letter of apology to Ted years earlier had been cathartic and allowed me to forgive myself and move on, it was equally powerful to forgive Ted without waiting for an apology.  I haven’t forgotten that he made this mistake, but I am letting go.

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on the work of abandoning grudges all together as an act of leadership.  When we devote energy to holding onto past grievances, we are using up positive energy that could be used more effectively elsewhere.  I have a tendency to vent as a way of processing things, so grudge-holding also risks setting a negative tone for others inside our organizations.  It amplifies the initial mistake that the other person made and converts the original mistake (about which I’m frustrated) into my own mistake of investing in anger.  Aside from the spiritual consequences, it’s not consistent with the kind of leader that I strive to be or the kind of organization I’m trying to build.  Ironically, I think we’ve made strides in creating a culture of openness and forgiveness internally, but we still have room to improve and it doesn’t help that I haven’t been able to let go of this bad habit on a personal level.

So … I’m working on identifying the places where I haven’t let things go with grace.  I’m trying to catch myself holding onto anger, and to be empathetic about other people’s screw-ups in lieu of dwelling on my personal grievance.  This doesn’t mean blessing bad behavior, but just being more understanding and creating space for people to try again.  Sometimes, it starts with acknowledging that there is another narrative that’s different from the one we experienced first-hand.  In other cases, it’s about understanding the person made a mistake but isn’t in a place where they can own it.   But either way, we can be present with our own hurt feelings and let them go, in the service of focusing on the future.  If you want to join me in this effort, I’d love to talk about it.

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