Share this on Twitter Share this on Facebook Share this on Linked In Share this by Email

Lawyers as agents of forgiveness

By Kenneth Cloke

“Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! For ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers ….  Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering ye hindered.”

                                                                                        —Jesus, Gospel of St. Luke, 11: 46, 52

Kenneth Cloke

Whatever your religion, these words strike home. What are these burdens? What is this key of knowledge? In part, the burdens are destructive adversarial approaches to conflict, and the knowledge is our growing realization that legal advocacy can be unnecessarily divisive and harmful. 

What might we do differently? As lawyers, we can develop non-adversarial collaborative practices, promote the use of mediation and after encourage forgiveness. 

What is forgiveness? Forgiveness is a method for releasing ourselves from the burden of our own false expectations, from the pain we have experienced at our own hands and the hands of others. Forgiveness is reclaiming our life-energy, releasing ourselves from negativity, blaming and judgments, including toward ourselves. Writer Annie Lamont said forgiveness is “giving up all hopes of having a better past.” 

Forgiveness does not mean we condone or agree with what others did. It does not mean we can change what happened or erase the pain we experienced. What’s done is done. What we can do is release ourselves from adversarial emotions and recriminations.

The purpose of forgiveness is to free ourselves from the past, reestablish control over the present, and move toward a more positive, healthier future. It is a gift to ourselves, our peace of mind, self-esteem, relationships with others and emotional wellbeing. It requires us to surrender our need to be pitied, to be right, to remain connected to our opponents by negative intimacy. 

Forgiveness requires us to accept responsibility for our role in conflict, for our words, actions and feelings, even for our pain, loss and humiliation. It means accepting responsibility for the consequences of the choices we made, including the choice of anger. While anger looks powerful, it leaves us feeling frustrated and powerless. While forgiveness looks weak, it leaves us feeling stronger and less vulnerable to the harmful actions of others. 

Forgiveness cannot be forced or coerced. It must be offered freely. It is a choice, a power we have independent of how others behave. Yet it is not something we do for others, but to free ourselves from endless anger and pain. Anger hurts not only the ones it is directed at, but the ones who wield it. By not forgiving those who hurt or wronged us, we continue to inflict on ourselves, by our own actions, the pain they initiated. 

Most of us have not learned techniques for encouraging forgiveness, yet we all know that it begins in the heart. All we need in order to begin is to want to be released from the pain of the past. Forgiveness requires: 

  1. Remembering in detail what happened and how it felt
  2. Understanding what the other person may have thought happened and how they may have felt
  3. Identifying all the reasons for not forgiving them, and all the expectations we had of them that they did not meet
  4. Choosing to release ourselves from all the reasons for not forgiving them and from our own false expectations -- or identifying what it will cost us to hold on to them
  5. Designing a ritual of release, completion and closure,  for example, asking them to shake hands or burning our lists of what they did wrong

After forgiveness comes reconciliation, in which we open our hearts and are able to be in our opponent’s presence without being angry, frightened, off-balance or vulnerable.

What does the endless anger produced by adversarial litigation cost our clients? It costs them their lives. As Henry David Thoreau reminds us, “The price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” By encouraging our clients to reach forgiveness and reconciliation, we can reduce this price, lessen the adversarial burdens we have laden them with and offer them a key, not only of knowledge, but of wisdom.  

—Kenneth Cloke is the director of the Center for Dispute Resolution in Santa Monica. He has served as a mediator, arbitrator, attorney, coach, consultant and trainer.