The Art of Forgiveness in the Forest
“To listen with an open heart and ask questions to better help us understand the other person is a spiritual exercise, in the truest sense of the word.”- Harriet Lerner
Last week our learners encountered a very interesting group socio-emotional experience. Our wise learners are always gaining more and more respect for nature as we spend our days surrounded by wilderness and all of its beauty. However, as little scientists at work sometimes they may experiment with a new cause and effect, or new feelings, and they might decide to dive deeper in to explore the “what if” and the “what happens when I…”. Our role as mentors is to hold a space for them to explore as safely as necessary (not as possible) and freely, as each adventure, big or small, holds its own important lesson for our learners, based on what they need in that moment.
As that is the case, we may find a learner who is trying to carry a turtle and we gently remind them that it could be very scary for the animal and to “use gentle hands and soothing voices” or to simply observe versus touch so that we can respect the animal in its habitat. We might also have a learner who breaks a branch off a living bush, or those who might experiment with a whittling tool on a live tree. When this happens, we remind our learners of our Forest School Way, which is to 1. Take care of yourself, 2. Take care of each other, and 3. Take care of Mama Earth, with the emphasize on the latter for that scenario. It is important to explore the “what if” and push those boundaries with gentle reminders of respect for Mother Earth.
As Mahatma Gandhi once spoke, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”. Nature is one of the strongest forces and some days her strong winds may destroy our forts and shelters we have created. And some days, our learners may accidentally break a branch, squish a worm or say something unkind to one another. Thankfully, nature is the greatest classroom of all to practice forgiveness and resilience towards ourselves, towards each other and towards Mama Earth. Then, from that place of restoration, we can all rise up and begin again.
As human beings and especially with children, vulnerability and compassion is our courage in action and sometimes our learners feel regret and become upset after we remind them how to respect Mother Earth. This past week, we focused our energy on encouraging that respect and the importance of forgiveness in the forest and in life. Making mistakes is an essential part of the human experience and should be celebrated as experiential learning with an emphasis on now knowing better and being able to do better. We emphasize that making mistakes does not mean that we should stop trying new things. It simply means we can reassess and try another way.
What might creating a space for natural respect look like?
- It’s a non-judgmental community and a place where we practice nonviolent communication with an emphasis on taking care of each other.
- One where we celebrate mistakes as learning experiences and openly discuss ways of moving forward with our new and improved insights.
- To help with the feeling of regret after making a mistake, we work with our learners on the art of apologizing (more below) and understanding forgiveness. This is something we encourage amongst the learners when socializing, but this is also something we inspire them to practice when working with Mother Earth.
- Then, from that space of understanding their part of the situation, we encourage our learners to move forward by letting go of the what happened in the past and using their new insights in the present moment.
When working with our learners (and with ourselves) on the art of apologizing and seeking forgiveness, we often refer to Harriet Leaner, Ph. D and Author of “Why Won’t You Apologize?” and her 9 guidelines for true apologies:
- A true apology does not include the word “but” (“I’m sorry, but …”). “But” automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse.
- A true apology keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said by the rope swing,” is not an apology. Try instead, “I’m sorry about what I said by the rope swing. It was hurtful and I should not have said it.” It’s important to own your behavior and apologize for it.
- A true apology does not overdo. It stays focused on the hurt person only.
- A true apology doesn’t get caught up in who’s to blame or who “started it.” Maybe you’re only 14% to blame and maybe the other person provoked you. It can still help to simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this.”
- A true apology needs to be backed by corrective action. If your friend mentions that you went first on the rope swing that last few times, you can apologize and let her know that you plan on letting her go on the rope swing first next time.
- A true apology requires that you do your best to avoid repeating what happened. Working to make sure that you don’t make the same mistake that you apologized for is where the work comes in for us and our learners. As mentors and as caregivers, we are there to help them with gentle reminders and observations. Once we know better, then it’s time to do better. It’s a process that is not perfect and one that we can continuously practice together.
- A true apology should not serve to silence another person (“I said I’m sorry at least 10 times, so why are you still bringing up the again?”). Nor should an apology be used as a quick way out to get yourself out of a difficult conversation. Open communication between our learners allows for a space where each learner has the time and energy to express their feelings and to be heard, even if it’s uncomfortable. As mentors, we create that space and model active listening, while giving each learner the opportunity to express themselves. Sometimes having a talking stick or rock can help visually indicate who is doing the talking and who is doing the listening.
- A true apology should not be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse. Not all apologies are welcome. Making amends may be part of your healing process, but find another way to heal if the other person doesn’t want to hear from you. Sometimes our learners are not ready to hear an apology and rather need space. This is more than ok and is honored. Taking space is vital for our learners to find their center once again.
- A true apology recognizes when “I’m sorry” is not enough. A serious hurt or betrayal requires repair work overtime to restore trust. When a learner is not interested in accepting an apology, that is ok too. We now know that more work overtime is needed and the learners and mentors can work together to build that trust through continued kind actions and words.
These guidelines are a lifelong practice and can be the foundations from which we model forgiveness in the forest and at home. We encourage you to practice with us and tell us how it works for you and your families.
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