A conversation with Pastor William D. Smart about divorce and forgiveness
We had a chance to connect with Pastor William Smart the morning after the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was on his way to a major press conference in the Los Angeles area in response to those events. He has a long record of bringing people together, having been a pastor for decades throughout the south, and working in D.C. for President Bill Clinton and then Hilary Clinton during her first presidential run. He’s currently the president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California.
But on this quiet morning, we are having a real conversation about how to build ‘forgiveness’ into a habit. A habit that does not shy away from the reasons for anger and resentment but one that empowers people to address it and move on with their lives for the greater good.
D: Before we get into ‘forgiveness’, can you give me your thoughts on the flipside of forgiveness. And how do those emotions play out when left unchecked?
Rev. Smart: The antithesis of forgiveness is holding grudges, showing hatred and animosity -unable to move forward. It opens people up to act certain ways and feeling justified because they feel they’ve been wronged. You become this person filled with anger that inhibits you from reaching your full potential. You become an Organizer of Chaos, you become an Organizer of Defiance, an Organizer of Meanness toward that situation, person or thing that has slighted you.
D: Would you go so far as to say at some point these things like anger, resentment, and hate become a habit?
Rev. Smart: Yes. You always have to look at what happened to cause that. In some cases, they were not able to forgive themselves or forgive someone else. They live with the pain instead of taking some corrective action and confronting the pain.
The act of forgiveness is a healing act.
Let me backup a bit. Forgiveness is very powerful from a religious perspective. You are reconciling the relationship and moving back to a place before the ‘injury’ took place.
People like to say, “I’ll forgive, but I will not forget.” True forgiveness is forgetting. When you say, “Oh, I’m gonna make sure that never happens to me again.” In reality, you have not forgiven because you haven’t forgotten. You cannot until you move past it all.
D: I couldn’t agree more. How do you help people let go in those cases?
Rev. Smart: First of all, spirituality is so important, so they can meditate, they can pray, they speak to the pain. They need to have some sort of higher calling or higher understanding, that is not what is expected of them to harbor that resentment.
Secondly, we need to look at what they had prior to this situation and the injury, but also the outcomes ~like ‘we don’t talk to this person anymore’ kind of thing. The third thing is to look at the other people injured by the situation. And the fourth thing is to really help them look at themselves and understand why did that affect you the way it did. Face the situation, and face the person and address it. Say, “I want to forgive you, but first of all, let’s talk about what happened here.”
Another thing to consider is to start by forgiving by building up your capacity to forgiving by ‘forgiving’ at the smallest level. And often.
For instance, someone just cut me off in traffic coming here this morning. There was anger toward me. I don’t know if there is more to his story, perhaps he’s having a bad day but I forgave him in that moment. No big deal. But this is one of the small ways throughout your day you can begin to build up the capacity to forgive.
D: Oh, you’re talking about building blocks of forgiveness ~in a way, right?
Rev. Smart: Yes. Right. You know, start off with small things.
D: Here’s a more specific example ~when it comes to a family going through a divorce ~two people who came together and started a family, out of love, and when they break up, it’s as if they can become the worst of enemies.
Rev. Smart: Yes, they do. That’s why they have to work on forgiveness even before they co-parent. As a couple going through a breakup- they may be saying, “we have decided to part ways, and there’s been a lot of things that happened in this relationship that I cannot forgive you for or, I cannot move beyond this. I cannot go forward.”
But they have to look at the bigger picture, especially if you have children. Let that picture be the impetus for you to say, “…the only way I can move forward, the only way I could do this is if I forgive this person so we can move forward and we can be the best co-parents we need to be from now on. We brought that child in the world, I am tied to this person, so let’s make that the focus.”
That’s the love.
That’s the impetus for their love, the impetus for them to make their (co-parenting) relationship work. Welcome the spiritual aspect in it because that helps you see a bigger picture ~it helps you maintain focus and perspective.
So with co-parents, the children become that love.
You know how it plays out, a lot of times when a woman is there with her son and she’s looking at him and she sees him do/say things like her former spouse, she’s got to find that love and show that love. She has to have moved beyond some stuff ~so she can continuously love that child.
D: Do you think there’s any validity in, fake it until you make it, you know, when you have a situation where two parents lack respect for one another -maybe they’re still trying to work through things, but they know in their heart of hearts they need to play nice.
Rev. Smart: I’d change the term a bit, but it’s like ~get along.
“I’m getting along with to deal with our kids or the situation. I’m determined that I’m going to make it work so I’m not faking it. I’m just getting along, you know, until things get better until I worked through some stuff .”
I like to talk to parents that are on the verge of divorce, after they’ve tried everything. I try to lead them into a place of forgiveness. They might not be friends but you both have responsibilities to the children. You have to set up rules of engagement, because the children were always be watching and listening.
Rule one – don’t act negative around the kids, that could be you’re ‘faking until you make it’. And you always lift up the role of the other co-parent. It’s about the little things.
Tell the child, your father is picking you up and say, ~your father is great for picking you up everyday. Your mother is great for making sure you have a great lunch. You lift each other up in your role as a parent. You might not be able to say anything good about them as a spouse, but you need to lift them up as a parent.
What can warm your heart is when your kid says something good that your co-parent has said about you.
D: Yeah, that’s great. You know, because there’s a reaffirmation that there’s a team in there somewhere.
Rev. Smart: Yes, I agree. That’s the best analogy, you’re a team. You might not live together, but you’re a team. Yeah. And to be a successful team you have to have solidarity.
D: One of the many mentions of forgiveness in the Hindu scripts seems somewhat profound and appropriate. “…there is only one defect in forgiving persons…that defect is that people take a forgiving person to be weak. That defect, however, should not be taken into consideration, for ‘forgiveness’ is a great power.”
Rev. Smart: Right. And you have to explain that to them.
You have to say, I’m forgiving you not because I’m weak. I’m forgiving you because I’m strong and I’m not going to let this pain to continue to contaminate me. You know what you did to me? This and that happened and it was bad. It was awful. But you know what? I’m strong enough to forgive you and move on.
D: And I think it pays back in dividends because so much of parenting, as you may know, is modeling, right? If you have children who grow up seeing a parent, flexing that muscle of forgiveness, then it just becomes part of them.
Rev. Smart: Right, right. That’s so important and it’s the impetus to get it right. Because like I said, they’re watching you, they’re emulating your behavior.
If a mother is saying to a daughter, that her dad is no good and not worth anything but she (the daughter) might love her father a lot. There’s a conflict she’s growing up with and may struggle to find a wholesome relationship. Or, there’s tremendous pressure for her to figure out the idea of a healthy relationship. There are so many hurdles for her, straight out of the gate.
Taking the steps toward forgiveness, divorced and separated co-parents can begin to mend those fences and set the stage so their kids can grow up with a solid foundation.
There are always going to be some level of conflict to work through as a co-parent. As a team focused on raising healthy kids you have to be dedicated to what is right for them and sometimes that means setting aside conflict, resentment, and anger between adults.
The pastor and I realize there are lots of resources to help couples work through issues and get on the path of forgiveness, whether it is in person therapy, family mediation, religious services/organizations or even apps like coParenter are providing on-demand co-parenter professionals to help you through it all.
At this point in the conversation, the pastor needed to get ready for the press conference. He finished by saying, “You’ve got to forgive situations in all directions. With work, with family, with your neighbor, and the people stuck in traffic right next to you ~so you can have a wholesome relationship with God. It’s the right thing to do.”
Words to live by.