People who have been subjected to workplace bullying or mobbing may be urged by well-meaning family or friends to forgive, forget, and move on. But given what work abuse can do to lives and livelihoods, the idea of forgiveness — at least in its conventional meaning — may seem downright impossible and even wrong to those who have experienced it.
Among all of the human responses to abuse and mistreatment, forgiveness may be the most challenging and perhaps misunderstood. I’d like to take a closer look at a more nuanced conceptualization of forgiveness and its application to bullying and mobbing at work.
The story of Lyndon Harris
At the recent annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, I had the privilege of spending some time with Lyndon Harris, a forgiveness coach and workshop leader who, by his own admission, “came kicking and screaming to the work of forgiveness.” Here’s a bit of his story from his website:
His journey to forgiveness began at Ground Zero on the morning of 9/11/01.
Serving as the priest in charge of St. Paul’s Chapel, he initiated a volunteer force that rose to over 15,000: serving meals, offering supplies and giving encouragement to the rescue workers 24/7 until the site was closed eight and a half months later. His work has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and featured in the award winning documentary, The Power of Forgiveness.
After 9/11/01, Harris partnered with forgiveness researcher, Dr. Frederic Luskin (Stanford) and several other activists and forgiveness luminaries to founded the educational non-profit Gardens of Forgiveness.
Lyndon’s story is not one of a linear, hearts-and-flowers path to enlightenment. Rather, his journey from Ground Zero to today was painful and hard:
With over 240+ days exposure at the site, Harris was diagnosed with severe PTSD, depression, and compromised lung function. Becoming bitter and increasingly isolated, the combination of adverse circumstances and mistakes he made would cost him his marriage, his home, and his career. He would spend years in darkness.
Lyndon would go on to work with leading forgiveness researcher Dr. Fred Luskin (Stanford U.), author of Forgive for Good (2002) to develop approaches for education and coaching about forgiveness. He is currently the co-director of Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center in Zirconia, North Carolina.
Immediately upon listening to Lyndon’s workshop remarks, I saw with much greater clarity the potential application of forgiveness for targets of work abuse.
Lyndon emphasizes that forgiveness is not about excusing wrongful behavior, compelling reconciliation with an offender, denying or minimizing one’s pain, or foregoing attempts to obtain justice.
Rather, forgiveness is about taking back one’s power, healing, recovering mental and physical health, letting go of unresolved grievances, and “becoming a hero instead of a victim.”
Applying forgiveness to workplace bullying and mobbing situations
Okay, I understand the reluctance to go here. I know what it’s like to carry anger and grudges due to injustices at work, and my awareness of so many instances of horrific workplace bullying and mobbing has sometimes fueled those emotions. I won’t claim to be completely free from all that.
But I’ve also learned that to carry it with me all the time is personally toxic and debilitating. Ironically, perhaps, it makes me less effective at advocating for positive change in our workplaces and society in general. And it feels a heckuva lot lighter not to be carrying around grievances and resentments.
A decade or so ago, I would not have been so receptive to these insights about forgiveness, but now I do get it. It’s not about excusing abuse or letting an offender avoid accountability. It’s about healing, self-empowerment, and our own well being. In that sense, the idea of forgiveness as articulated by Lyndon Harris and Fred Luskin is a response to many challenges that I’ve discussed here before, such as:
I understand that this is not easy stuff for those who have been through terrible experiences of injustice and mistreatment. But ultimately, it is about reclaiming one’s life from abuse and abusers. To borrow from Lyndon’s summary of Luskin’s work:
Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.