When Being Right is Wrong
From the Screenplay of Philomena
A Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope Based on a book by Martin Sixsmith
Philomena: Stop it! Stop it!
I am sorry, I didn’t want him to come in here like this and make a scene.
Martin: Why are you apologizing to them? Anthony was dying of AIDS and she still wouldn’t tell him about you.
Philomena: I know! But it happened to me. Not you. And it’s up to me what to do about all this. It’s my choice.
Martin: . So you’re just going to do nothing?
Philomena: No. I am going to forgive. Sister Hildegarde, I want to you know I forgive you.
Martin: What..? Just like that?
Philomena: It’s not just like that! It’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do. I don’t want to hate people. Look at you. I don’t want to be like you.
Martin: I am angry!
Philomena: I know. it must be exhausting. Sister Clare, would you be kind enough to take to take me to my son’s grave.
Martin: Well...she’s outdone all of us
Just like that, we can rewrite the script of our lives and our relationships with others.
Just like that we can become the people we are meant to be
Just like that! But is a hard thing to do!
Today I want for us to search our souls. To go deep down, to draw from reserves that we did not know we had, to pull up something special. We all have the capacity to do the very, very hard work of forgiveness.
Our reading this morning is remarkable because “just like that” it shows in an instant the lifetime of daily work it takes to develop one of the most essential human qualities.
This fragment from a screenplay rises to the level of sacred text and source of inspiration for us, because it points us to that spacious and bright life we are all meant to live right now. When we are in balance we are just like Philomena Lee, played brilliantly by British actress Judy Dench. Just like Philomena we are able to recognize our own hurt, and our own strength, we are able to see the ways that others are hurting, and their strengths. She shows us how to name the feelings of other as she names her own feelings and makes a choice that saves her life.
Let me set the scene and give you some of the films plot, especially if you have not had the chance to see the movie which is great. Philomena Lee is a woman who after 50 years builds up the courage to seek out, in earnest a son that she was forced to give up as a teenager. In the film we are shuttled back and forth between 1950s Ireland and contemporary United States and Ireland. In the 50s Philomena became pregnant after a tryst with a young man at a fair. She was sent to a convent where she would be under the care and supervision of nuns, and this was of course to hide the fact that she was pregnant out of wedlock from her community. The nuns forcibly arrange the adoption of her son, Michael to an American family. Then nuns spend the next 50 years pretending not to know the sons fate, even though they were in contact with him. Along the way Philomena finds Martin Sixsmith a reporter who wants to help her uncover the truth about Michael’s destiny. Ok, perhaps I am giving too much away.
So this scene is where Philomena and Martin put all the pieces of the puzzle together and go back to the convent to get answers. And, Martin is pissed off; they had to travel across the Atlantic to get at the answers the nuns knew all along. Martin was ready for justice, or blood, or both, it is hard to tell.
Philomena is strangely conciliatory, which is she throughout the film, which almost makes you want to scream at her get it together, they’ve been lying to you along!
I can remember completely identifying with Martin, a character played by Steve Coogan. I was thinking, just like him, those nuns were awful people, look at what they had done, they lied took Philomena’s son away, they were hideous to her while she lived in the convent, they lied to her about her son’s whereabouts, they didn’t have any decency, mercy, even when they were presented with the evidence and admitted their complicity and delighted in their past misdeeds. They were defiant, not even a little bit of remorse for their years of deceiving Philomena and her son.
Philomena and Martin were right, they were victims, they had history and evidence and justice on their side, and no one could deny that. But, for Philomena that was not enough, because the only result of such damning evidence is evidence of damnation.
Oh and anger, endless, unmitigated, exhausting anger. One must be angry at those one condemns, even if you are “right.”
To be right would wrong because it would be insufficient, correct facts could not cope with the magnitude of challenge she lived through. Just like that Philomena chose a different way, not because it was easy but because she had to, otherwise she would be consumed by the resentment that eating Martin alive before her very eyes. She chose forgiveness to save her life.
And, by doing that Philomena, she has outdone us all.
We all have instances where need to be forgiven, where we need to forgive another person and where we need to forgive ourselves. Some of us might have been raised, or come from faith traditions where were taught that work of forgiveness is already done for us, through the expiation God’s infinite wrath towards all creation, and act of atonement only achievable through the sacrificial death of a savior who was also a son. And as a result of that kind of mythmaking real forgiveness has taken on a supernatural or quasi-magical quality that always keeps it just beyond the reach of mere mortals.
But for us as Unitarian Universalist Forgiveness is in the here and now, it is in our lived experience, both in our spiritual practices, which connect us to that Life and Love that is larger than ourselves, and in our daily practice of how we talk to each other, over the counter, on the phone, how we email each other, how we text message each other, how we interact in homes with our families and with our mates in the bedroom.
In his book, Forgiveness is a Choice, the Forgiveness scientist, Dr. Robert Enright, says that Forgiveness is simply a process to free oneself from anger and resentment. It doesn’t require that one accept injustice, or remain in an abusive situation, nor does it require that trust be restored, or reconciling with the unrepentant.
One forgives to restore their own sense of peace and well-being --and perhaps from there other good things will follow. But, forgiveness begins with you!
If you can remember only one thing that I will say today, Forgiveness frees us from anger and resentment. We deserve that kind of Freedom.
Anger and resentment hold us back from living a life worthy of the light, at our core, it holds us back from living with worth and dignity, it separates us from our humanity and our true nature of connectedness.
Even before the final scene in the film there were instances where Martin’s anger made it difficult for him to be in relationship with Philomena, and threaten to destroy their working relationship.
Most of all anger and resentment causes us to suffer and to unintentionally inflict suffering on others, sometimes in ways that are even more painful, than the harm both physical and emotional harms, that others have done to us. In a statement attributed to an ancient commentator on the Buddha, Anger is a hot coal that we gasp with the intention of hurling at another.
If you can imagine picking up a solid rock so hot that it is glowing with orange and yellow, and holding on it with your hand. Your body sometimes wiser that your consciousness, wants to let it go, wants to release the pain causing stimulus, but you trying to override that autonomic imperative by holding on, so your nervous system causes other parts of your body to jerk uncontrollably, and as you fight the need to let go of the coal, you knock down the people nearest to you, your husband, your wife, your kids appear, whack, pets whack, friends, neighbors, colleagues, whack, whack, whack, your better-self, whack, as you fight against need to let go of the hot rock, burning a hole through your hand.
Many of us are holding on to rocks, so hot, they glow orange and yellow, in a way no mere mortal was meant to. But, we can let it go with forgiveness. In our American culture, we don’t spend much time on forgiveness, that’s why I am glad we are exploring this concept today and next Sunday with Sam Gugino in the pulpit.
This is a happy coincidence that when it happens, I hear the refrain of the Spiritual sung in the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple “God is trying to tell you, God is trying to tell you something, maybe God is trying to tell you something, right now, right now.”
Forgiveness is counter-cultural, even subversive. In our society we want to talk about who is right and who is wrong.
Our culture is one where we often reward those who are right, and forget about the righteous, we celebrate the correct answer, but not always the compassionate answer.
We really want to be right. It feels good, it is treated as an accomplishment, and it speaks to the fact that we, those of us who are right, that is, are better, more worthy, more intelligent, healthier, perhaps even more good looking compared to those who have no other recourse but to wallow in the filth of their perpetual wrongness, perhaps like some kind of pig, only worse.
And, there are many who would let their right answers take them to the path of most destructive consequences.
We have an example where one of our sister churches in New Orleans was invaded by an Anti-Choice, Anti-Abortion group, who chanted slogans during the prayer taking place in the Sunday service. This group was so convinced of their correct answer on the question of abortion that they would violate the sanctity of a house of worship, in the middle of services to make their point!
Not only was this group “right” in their own eyes, but they were angry at “us” UUs for being so vocal in our wrongness. Thankfully, our friends in New Orleans handled themselves admirably with dignity and decorum; they sang hymns, loudly and more faithfully drowning out the protestors in their sanctuary, as they were escorted out of the building.
I am not quite a pacifist, but nonetheless committed to non-violence, and when I heard about what happened in New Orleans, I thought about how I might have handled such a fundamental violation of my sacred space. It did not happen to me, but even now I get angry when I think about it, I shudder to think of what I might do.
There are times when I think about what happened and I want to hurt them, the protestors, in the same way they hurt the people I care about, my people. I am sure some of you who heard about the incident feel the same way.
What gave them the right to do that, those protesters were absolutely wrong, anyone could see that.
What would our reaction be, if such a group of people came into our sanctuary today, under the pretext of being visitors and during our meditation what if they got up and started shouting: “Abomination, you are going to Hell!”
I can’t help but wonder of that group of protestors saw the UUs that Sunday as human beings practicing religion in a sanctuary, or if they only saw non-human animals, pigs writhing in the muck of their lamentable ignorance? I don’t know.
I hope we could rise to the occasion in the same way that First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans did. They give us a very good example; I hope we can follow it, if such a time were to come to Germantown. I hope we would not let our anger get the best of us. They say that Philadelphians are a tough lot, so I don’t know. But, deep down I trust we would comport ourselves as a people committed not just in word, but indeed to Beloved Community, with compassion, service and empowerment.
I understand that desire to throw the hot rock, at the perceived enemy, at the proven threat very well.
My parents bless their hearts, in one their earliest, and clearly most memorable lessons, taught me, that if someone hits you, you hit them back. And, living in an unforgiving urban environment, often demanded such an approach as a matter of survival, so I don’t fault them, even though that is probably not a lesson I would want give to my own children.
But we all learn that lesson, if not from our parents, than from our hardwired, genetic, reptilian drive to survive, or our government, acting on our behalf overseas.
I also know all too well, the impact of jerking bodies, holding onto hot stones and the unintentional harm they cause to the bystanders who happen to be perhaps in the right part of the house at wrong moment. Whack. I am a survivor of such moments.
Being forgiving never mean staying around to be a punching bag, in the physical or emotional sense, far too often women and children are told to stick around, it’ll pass, ignore it, it will make you stronger, but forgiveness does mean embracing yourself fully, your ability to be vulnerable, which is a strength and celebrating your will to survive!
I want for us to be able to stop the pattern of hurt and pain, because this Faith tradition, (if nothing else) calls us to and empowers us to do just that, to disrupt the pattern of hurt and suffering in our own lives and the lives of those around us.
Let us start by recognizing what that lingering resentment feels like in our own bodies. What it feels like in our chest, in our belly, at the back of our neck, at the top of our head, in the palm of our hands where the coal burns through, wherever we are carrying it. Let us begin to pray for those who have offended us, let’s us start by calling their image to mind and showering them with the warm glow of compassion and peace. Let us wish for them wellbeing as true evidence of how well we are living.
It is not enough to congratulate ourselves for being on the right path and still holding feelings of ill will toward others. Any named religion or philosophy that allows such a contradiction (I can be right and hate you) to live in a person is illegitimate and is not worth the cost of the paper its name is written on.
So, I encourage us begin to create the families, the culture and the society we dream of today. It is not enough to be right, it not enough to be justified, to have the laws supporting our positions or to win the argument. It is worth so much more to be in relationship when possible, to recognize the humanity, and the human frailty in the other, as well as our own humanity frailty.
The French philosopher Jean Vanier in his essay “Forgiveness and Celebration” wrote:
To forgive is also to understand the cry behind the behavior. People are saying something through their anger and/or antisocial behavior. Perhaps they feel rejected. Perhaps they feel that no one is listening to what they have to say or maybe they are incapable of expressing what is inside of them.” (94)
Forgiveness starts when we recognize the ways we all fall short of perfection. We all have unspoken needs at work behind our actions. I am not sure if reconciliation was possible or desirable for Philomena and the nuns who once cared for her. It takes truth and vulnerability of all parties, and the nuns at least how they were portrayed in the film were not ready to be vulnerable to admit where they may have made mistakes, where they were simply human.
When we recognize that even our right answers fall short of perfection we unlock the human spaciousness that lends itself so well to forgiveness. This is the spaciousness and awareness that was at work in the heart of Philomena as she looked into the eyes of the people who made a career of deceiving her and said “Sister Hildegard I forgive you.” and when she told Martin “I don’t want to hate.” This is the very hard and very holy work before us. It starts with the man, or woman, the person in the mirror.
As the writer of the Christian Gospel according Luke reminds us: may we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. (Luke 6:27)