Solstice of the Soul

By Susan Beal

In last year’s winter issue of Planet Vermont Quarterly, I told a story about how a group of people overcame the threat of a hate group that was targeting Jewish families in their town. Coincidentally, I thought of another story about a hate group as we were laying out this issue of Planet Vermont Quarterly. I think it makes a good story with all the appropriate elements for this season of opposing qualities of light and dark, generosity and greed, the optimism of the holidays and the despair of the dead of winter.

A few years ago I heard an interview on NPR with a former white supremacist. This man, we’ll call him Mark, had had a desolate childhood, and found acceptance within a group of hateful individuals who advocated the elimination of various racial and religious minorities. He felt at home within the group, who welcomed him as a brother. They came together often for meetings and planning sessions. They eagerly anticipated a holy war in which inferior groups of people would be cleansed from the earth.

Mark’s enlightenment began a few years after he joined. Up until then, he embraced the group’s exclusivity. But at one meeting, one of the leaders, during some discussion, made some denigrating remarks about people with disabilities, including them, along with Blacks, Jews, and various other racial, religious and ethnic groups, in the category of inferior people. It happened that Mark had a son who was born with a harelip and cleft palate, among other disabilities. It troubled Mark as a father to think that his son, whom he loved, should be condemned as unworthy and targeted for elimination. What exactly was it that made his son unworthy, when to his father, he was lovable and good?

He struggled with that question for a good year or so, and eventually came to the undeniable realization that racial or religious differences were no more an automatic indication of unworthiness than his son’s disabilities were. He realized how driven by fear and hatred the members of the group were, despite their acceptance of him, and that he, too, had been part of that hatred. He ended up leaving the group.

He began speaking out, at some risk to himself, about the inner workings of white supremacy groups, in an effort to help people counter them. But he was careful to point out that such groups succeeded in attracting people—young men, usually—because they offered acceptance and validation to kids who were starved for it, not having gotten it from home. Hateful home lives led kids into hate-filled groups. He implied that while there were many measures that could be taken to limit the spread and power of hate groups, ultimately, forgiveness and understanding were the only lasting and effective means to overcome them.

I was deeply moved by his honesty and courage. While we have all kinds of encouragement to discover how we may have been wounded or victimized by people and events in our lives, we have few models for owning up to wrongdoing with wisdom and compassion. Often, the person who admits to wrongdoing is scape-goated and held up as a warning—there but for the grace of God go you. We draw lines in the sand, the lines that determine what good, what is bad, and what is so bad that it is unforgivable.

If this man could redeem himself after years of involvement in a white supremacist group, what dark aspects of my own couldn’t I redeem, too? He was heroic for having crossed the line in the sand, descending, shaman-like into the depths of hatred and violence, only to climb back out with insights for all of us.

Amidst the well-meaning but weary admonishments against overspending and over-consuming, amidst the solstice celebrations and Christmas shopping and pleas for simplicity and peace, lies the true meaning of this season: that hope exists even within the grimmest moment, and nothing is unforgivable. Not only is error forgivable—it is how we learn. Wisdom and compassion are born out of our mistakes.

Understanding this requires that we acknowledge and accept both our power for good and our power for evil. We are scared of our own power, and the responsibility that comes with it. We spend more time and energy blaming others for abuses of power than we spend on learning to use power wisely. Even if we admit to having done things wrong, we tend to respond with defensiveness or shame, which weaken rather than strengthen us. How much easier it is to declare oneself a powerless victim, than to admit to committing powerful wrongs!

I am reminded of a day five years ago when I was forced to confront some of my deepest fears. I had picked my daughter up at school and found her crying and inarticulate. I worriedly asked her what was wrong, and she finally managed to tell me about a special multi-cultural history lesson they had had that day. “Mommy!” she sobbed. “It is all my fault! The world is horrible and I can’t help it! They talked about all the bad things white people and Christians have done, all the killings and slavery everywhere in the world and that is what we are and it is all my fault!” She sobbed all the way home as I tried to reassure her. My need to comfort and defend her (and our ancestry) conflicted with the sense of deep guilt I always felt when confronted with our bloody history.

I realized that I was afraid it was true—that the race and the religion I had been born into were irrevocably tainted by centuries of wrongdoing. While I could honestly say that I have worked hard to understand and overcome personal biases and bigotries, it is more difficult to excuse the bloody history of my race. Am I not guilty by genetic or racial association? How far does guilt extend?

And how ironic that as African Americans and other minorities struggle to overcome the message that they are inferior in some way simply because of their ancestry, many sensitive whites take it on en masse in an attempt to bridge the racial divide. We toss blame and guilt back and forth like hot potatoes.

How many white, well-educated people from upper-middle class backgrounds struggle for years with money and self-esteem issues? How many live in consciously or unconsciously chosen poverty as a way of mitigating privilege and the guilt associated with it? How many have rejected the truths that can be found within their native Christianity in favor of other, less “tainted” spiritual paths?

While racial tensions may be less of an issue in Vermont, we certainly have others, the most obvious of which is homophobia. The civil unions bill has unleashed a lot of strange justifications for prejudice. Once again, Christianity is used as a weapon. The original message of love and forgiveness gets buried under the scramble to assign guilt and blame.

For a lot of people this guilt seems to extend beyond race or gender issues and into a condemnation of our whole species. How many of us despairingly intone the misdeeds of modern humanity, and suggest the world would be better off if we blew ourselves up and left Nature (and perhaps tribal peoples) to heal the Earth of the human blight?

Answering questions like these is like counting angels, or maybe devils, on the head of a pin. And it does not really matter, because the real question is: is there some line in the sand beyond which I, or we as humans, would be unforgivable? Zero tolerance policies point to that line, and so does our legal system that sanctions fault finding and legislates blame. Are murderers unforgivable? Are people who beat their children unforgivable? Are destroyers of the ozone layer unforgivable? Are white supremacists unforgivable?

More than that, is there particular virtue in declaring someone or something unforgivable? Does it serve as a deterrent, a reminder of how close we are to sliding irretrievably into darkness?

I don’t think so. And that is what this season is meant to remind us of.

Forgiveness is not a behavior, but an expansion of awareness beyond the duality of guilt and blame, right and wrong. It is not an excuse for inaction during times of crisis or wrongdoing, but a request for compassion and tolerance to guide one’s response. It is the ability to embrace a more expanded consciousness in which the context of a situation is seen as being part of a larger whole, all of which are seated within a love and intelligence beyond our comprehension.

Lasting forgiveness is learning to honor the dark not as an evil place, but a place of power, where wisdom and compassion can germinate if given sufficient nourishment. It is holistic forgiveness, if you will. Not the kind that one requests from or bestows upon someone else, but the kind that is born from within, that rises up like a solstice of the soul from the depths of darkness. It is saying there with the grace of God go I, and all of us, together.

Susan Beal is a Justice of the Peace, a wife and mother, an artist, a mediator, and editor of Planet Vermont Quarterly.

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