Looking for forgiveness in the wake of the elections

dean-seal.jpgFor Dean J. Seal, founder of Spirit in the House, it’s time to talk about forgiveness.

Seal, a former Executive Producer of the Minnesota Fringe Festival, is in an ordained Presbyterian minister whose work focuses on using the arts to stimulate interfaith dialogue.

For the next two weekends he’s organized a symposium on forgiveness that will feature both artwork and a variety of performances, including a one-man show by Ari Hoptman, spoken word by Bobby Wilson, a staging of Dracula, and a new play called Marietta.

What inspired you to organize a symposium around forgiveness?

Three years ago, Stephen O’Toole brought me the play, Marietta, a true story about a woman who forgave the kidnapper of her daughter. We did two readings of it, one at the Playwrights Center, and it seemed to hold up. Forgiveness on that scale is like going to the moon. As Jack Kennedy said, “We don’t do it because it is easy, we do it because it is hard.”

Then I kept thinking about other things that could connect to it, and I suffer from “mission creep.” Forgiveness is very complicated, and like a diamond, there seem to be many facets, but not all of them are beautiful.

Talk to me about the uglier side of forgiveness.

There are a couple issues about forgiveness that bring up ugliness. First is a problem that has come up with the Amish. There are beautiful stories of them forgiving murderers and drunk drivers. But there are ugly stories about, say, a teenage girl raped by her brother, who then has to forgive him, and then he rapes her again. Or you can go into a more widespread problem of women who forgive a man who beats them up and then apologizes. There is an old Carole King song, “He Hit Me and It Felt Like A Kiss.” That’s about the idea that he hit me because he cares so much. That’s not the realm of good forgiveness. It’s the realm of wrong forgiveness.

Do you think we lack forgiveness as a culture?

Yes, I think people who forgive are considered to be losers. It’s another way we are not healthy. Dr. Frederick Luskin talks about the cardio benefits of forgiveness- it can lower your blood pressure, reduce your heart rate. It’s part of the us-versus-them, no-compromise fever that has taken over the media-political landscape. Chris Christie and Obama show what we could be, and we haven’t seen that in 20 years.

With individuals, it can be crucial in maintaining relationship. I’ve been married 27 years, and you don’t get that far without a lot of forgiveness. The Buddha has a great punch line on this: “Holding a grudge is like holding a hot coal in your hand, that you will throw at the person you are mad at the next time you see them.” Some people would rather be right than to forgive, and that just kills a relationship, because we all need forgiveness.

Why use theater and comedy to talk about it?

Let’s start with comedy. The best comedy is about serious subjects. The people with the best sense of humor are the survivors. If you saw comedian Tig Notaro’s bit about getting cancer and the death of her mother, it was powerful, heartwarming, and funny. Comedy opens people up, and then they can receive a deeper, more powerful message.

Theater comes out of Greek funeral services and also Medieval Church services. They both share this intent, to make an event happen that carries meaning. Good theater is an emotional construction that brings you into someone’s world, so you can live through something, and learn what thy learned, without having to actually suffer what thy suffer. Compassion is when you allow yourself to feel someone else’s pain, and that is something theater can evoke.

What do you hope to accomplish?

This is all an introduction to several conversations about forgiveness that are happening. It’s part of therapy, medicine, restorative justice, the Dakota Wars, the years of American slavery, the Holocausts of Jews in Europe, it’s about marriage, and sanity. It’s about a 20 year war in Northern Ireland- how do you stoop the vengeance? There are also spiritual and religious aspects. I hope to get people talking. There’s plenty to talk about.

Is there ever a time when it is okay to NOT forgive?

In the aforementioned instances of misplaced forgiveness, where forgiving just sets you up for more abuse, then it’s wrong and bad. Also, in therapy, you should not forgive if you have not worked through your anger. And that may take a while. It may take forever. But if the anger is still there, it may be too soon to work on forgiveness.

Finally, there is the ambivalent state of Jews and Native Americans, where they live in a state of awareness of a Holocaust, and the people around them either won’t acknowledge the seriousness of the pain, or acknowledge that their own people are part of it. Christians need to understand that the Nazi Holocaust was mostly sold as a Christian thing. White people in America need to acknowledge that killing the Indians was a Christian thing that all of us, like me, still benefit from, and that Native Americans still suffer PTSD from. And if we cannot understand that we need forgiveness for that., we keep committing more holocausts. Like 3 million dead Vietnamese, or Army guys killing themselves faster than the Taliban can kill them. If we shield ourselves from the need for forgiveness, we become repeat perpetrators.

Finally, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has a message of forgiveness? Really?

When I asked Megan Wells for a show about forgiveness, and she said Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I said, “I guess I have no idea what you are talking about.” But the second woman victim warned her would-be saviors, “You can’t kill him with hate. He is as much under this evil power as anyone. If I fall under this spell, will you kill me with hate? You can only kill him with pity.” And as a fan of Dr. King, that goes straight to his assertion that evil cannot drive out evil- only love can drive out evil. Plus, Megan is just a great storyteller.

The Forgiveness 360º Symposium runs November 9 – 18 at Concordia University in St. Paul.

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