This blog is inspired by Dee’s last blog on forgiveness, in which she makes the crucial point that we don’t know exactly what forgiving behavior looks like in any given situation, so we need to ask the Holy Spirit how to express our forgiveness behaviorally. It reminded me of an encounter I witnessed and will never forget – an encounter in which a man I worked with expressed forgiveness in a form that on the surface looked like an angry shouting match, but that I am certain was truly an expression of love.
This incident took place at a group home for children with psychological problems. The children ranged in age from 10 to 17, and some of them had serious problems that could lead to big trouble, even violence. More than once, one of the residents threatened to kill me. (Remember, they were up to age 17, so some of them were bigger than me.) We were trained in how to temporarily restrain residents physically when they got violent, and had to use this training on multiple occasions. Of course, our job required many verbal confrontations too.
As a Course student, I wondered how such firm actions fit with the Course’s teaching of love and forgiveness. Now, I did understand intellectually that confrontation, even a physical restraint, could be a loving act. I knew that the rationale for what we did was not anger and punishment (though feelings of anger could certainly come up), but loving protection and guidance. The physical things we did were not painful, and children were only restrained as long as they were an immediate threat to themselves or others. Verbal confrontation was supposed to be done only when it was absolutely necessary. I knew we were doing the right thing, but it still nagged at me.
This leads directly to the incident I want to describe. I was in a class with a group of boys; the class was being taught by a supervisor and I was assisting. A teenage boy who had a long history of belligerence was having a particularly belligerent day. I don’t remember what set him off, but finally, he just snapped and started yelling and cursing at the supervisor. And to my great surprise, since I had never seen the supervisor do this before, he started yelling back. It was a knock-down, drag-out shouting match.
Yet it was a strange shouting match, because it was absolutely clear to me that only one of the participants was actually angry. The supervisor had not blown his top; he was in total control of himself. Yes, he was yelling, but only so he could be heard over the boy’s yelling. Yes, he was strongly confronting the boy’s behavior, but he didn’t say abusive things or cut the boy down as a person. He simply made dead-on accurate statements about the boy’s behavior and what needed to change if he wanted to grow up to have a good, productive, happy life in the larger world.
In short, it was clear to me that the supervisor’s actions were an expression of love. And not just the abstract love of humanity that all of us in caring professions are supposed to have. No, he loved that individual boy with a deep, personal love. He truly cared about the boy’s welfare. He loved him enough to want him to succeed in life, and he knew the boy would never succeed unless he truly changed his self-defeating ways. He loved him enough to yell and confront, even though I’m sure he didn’t enjoy doing it; he was a kind and gentle person who didn’t make a habit of shouting matches. This was, in fact, the only time I ever saw him do it.
He did it out of love. And his love never wavered. It didn’t waver as the boy continued to curse and rant. It didn’t even waver when the boy called him a racial epithet. (The supervisor was black.) I remember saying to the boy in my mind as I watched the scene unfold before me: “Though you don’t know it right now, this man is the best friend you’ve ever had. He loves you. He’s offering you a way out of a dead-end life. Please take it.”
Eventually, the boy did calm down, and once the dust had settled, he apologized for his behavior and the racial epithet. The supervisor accepted the apology graciously; I could tell he held no grudge. They had actually been on good terms before the incident – this supervisor was well liked by everyone – and they remained on good terms afterward. In a group meeting later, the boy said he was grateful for what the supervisor did. I often wonder how the boy is doing now. I hope he took the supervisor’s loving gift and has made a good life for himself.
But whatever effect the encounter had on the boy, it had a profound effect on me. I’ve never forgotten it. It changed my life. I saw in an experiential way that love could be very, very firm and still be love. I think of that encounter every time I face the issue of what forgiving behavior looks like. We really don’t know. There really is no formula.
True, most of the time yelling is straight from the ego; in fact, I saw other confrontive supervisors at that group home who in my opinion were acting like angry jerks. You could just tell that their mindset wasn’t loving. Often, “tough love” is just hate dressed up as “This is for your own good.” But the Holy Spirit knows exactly what is needed in any given situation, so true forgiveness in action can take many forms – even, on rare occasions, the form of a shouting match.