Elizabeth Lesser: Why Is It So Hard To Ask For — And Offer — Forgiveness?

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 10:46 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Forgiveness.

About Elizabeth Lesser's TED Talk

Before donating bone marrow to her sister — Elizabeth Lesser and her sister undertook a process of seeking forgiveness from each other. She says forgiveness is hard but necessary for our well-being.

About Elizabeth Lesser

Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder of Omega Institute, where she focuses on holistic education, meditation, and cross-cultural understanding. Lesser is also the co-founder of Omega's Women's Leadership Center.

She has written several bestselling books. Her latest book is Marrow: A Love Story, a memoir about Elizabeth and her younger sister, Maggie, and the process they went through when Elizabeth was the donor for Maggie's bone marrow transplant.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about Forgiveness, which is something that, on the surface, seems like it should be kind of simple. Right? You have a fight. You come together. You talk about it. One person - or maybe both of you - says sorry. And then? You move on.

ELIZABETH LESSER: Oh, in the best of all worlds, that's the way it would happen. Sadly, that's (laughter) not the way it usually happens.

RAZ: This is Elizabeth Lesser. She's written several books about spirituality and healing. And Elizabeth says part of the process of healing begins with forgiveness.

If someone were to say to you - you know, what's the point? Why should I even bother forgiving someone? - what would you say?

LESSER: I would say, what do you want in your life? What do you want in your relationships? And if you say, I'd like them to be harmonious; I'd like them to be free; I'd like not to be in a state of blame all the time or shame. If you answer like that, then I would say, look at what's unforgiven. Look at where you know you did wrong and you would like to go to that person and say - I'm sorry. Can we start over? If you want to have a happier life, I would say, practice forgiveness.

RAZ: Is forgiveness about the other person, or is forgiveness about me?

LESSER: It's always about both. It is very, very rare where a slight that turns into a grudge that is in need of forgiveness is only about one of the parties. In most of our day-to-day situations - with colleagues at work, with your partner, with your children, with your friends - most of the time, if you really got down with each other and put aside your pride and your defensiveness and you had those hard conversations, you'd find a place where both people had something to ask for forgiveness from the other and to forgive the other.

RAZ: And it's hard. Forgiving somebody is really hard. Why is it so hard?

LESSER: Well, I learned why it was so hard in the biggest way yet in my life. And I say yet because I'm going to keep learning this. But I learned it recently in the experience I had with my sister Maggie as she was fighting cancer, and I was her bone marrow donor.

RAZ: Elizabeth told that story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSER: Two years ago, my younger sister came out of remission from a rare blood cancer. And the only treatment left for her was a bone marrow transplant. And against the odds, we found a match for her who turned out to be me. I come from a family of four girls. And when my sisters found out that I was my sister's perfect genetic match, their reaction was - really? - you...

(LAUGHTER)

LESSER: ...A perfect match for her? - which is pretty typical for siblings. In a sibling society, there's love, and there's friendship, and there's protection. But there's also jealousy and competition and rejection and attack. When I discovered I was my sister's match, I went into research mode. And I discovered that bone marrow transplants are fraught with danger. If my sister made it through the near-lethal chemotherapy, she still would face other challenges. My cells might attack her body, and her body might reject my cells, and both could kill her.

Rejection, attack - those words had a familiar ring in the context of being siblings. My sister and I had a long history of love, but we also had a long history of rejection and attack, from minor misunderstandings to bigger betrayals. We were hesitant to tell our truths, to reveal our wounds, to admit our wrongdoings. But when I learned about the dangers of rejection or attack, I thought, it's time to change this. What if we faced any pain we had caused each other and, instead of rejection or attack, could we listen? Could we forgive? Could we merge? Would that teach our cells to do the same?

After the transplant, all the blood flowing in her veins would be my blood, made from my marrow cells. Inside the nucleus of each of those cells is a complete set of my DNA. I will be swimming around in you for the rest of your life, I told my slightly horrified sister.

(LAUGHTER)

LESSER: I think we better clean up our relationship.

RAZ: Can you tell me about your sister, about Maggie? What was she like?

LESSER: My sister was the one in the family who everybody loved. She was just a completely creative, funny, live wire of a tiny person. She was under 5 feet and jut a little, little thing but fill of energy and brilliance and humor. And she was tough. You know, sometimes people who are really small get really tough. So she had, like, a foul mouth at the age of, like, 5 and wouldn't let anybody think she was cute. And she became a nurse practitioner who took care of the rural poor in Vermont. And she was a farmer, and she raised her own food. And she slaughtered her own animals, and she also was a brilliant artist - very talented, very funny and kept everything inside.

RAZ: What happened with your relationship? Was there, like, a break, or was it just that you guys grew apart? Was there - what created the resentment between you?

LESSER: Well, one of the things that created the resentment between us is that we were siblings.

RAZ: (Laughter).

LESSER: I've never met any sibling who doesn't have both a loving and a real conflictual thing going on. But the real split came when we were in our 30s and 40s, when I went through a very difficult period in my life, when I got divorced, and Maggie rejected me. She turned away from me, and I never understood why. And our children were cousins and loved each other.

And even though we would visit, there was a real rift between us. And I never bothered to say - what is going on? I want more from you. What happened? And she never bothered to explain herself. So when my sister needed my bone marrow, we got really brave and said - what was that about? - and explained ourselves to each other. I found out things that had been going on in my sister's life with her own marriage that were so tragic.

And she was too afraid to tell me, and she was too afraid to be around me because she thought if she followed my lead, she would have to make the same changes in her own marriage. And she was terrified and afraid. So it was easier for her just to cut me out.

RAZ: Wow. So how did it work? I mean, how did you go about trying to fix your relationship?

LESSER: Before I had my bone marrow harvested, we actually went to a therapist several times. For me, that seemed like the natural thing to do because I'm such a psychotherapeutic person. For my sister, it was really out of the box of what she normally does. She's, like, more of get over it. Go take a walk.

RAZ: (Laughter).

LESSER: You know, like - she thinks a lot of what I do and think about is somewhat self-indulgent. But we both met in the middle, where we found a way to talk to each other where we both could listen and we both could understand and get down to the marrow of who each of us really were.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

LESSER: After the transplant, we began to spend more and more time together. It was as if we were little girls again. We looked at and released years of stories and assumptions about each other and blame and shame until all that was left was love. I left the hamster wheel of work and life to join my sister on that lonely island of illness and healing. We spent months together in the isolation unit, in the hospital and in her home.

My sister said that the year after transplant was the best year of her life, which was surprising. She suffered so much. But she said life never tasted as sweet and that because of the soul-baring and the truth telling we had done with each other, she became more unapologetically herself with everyone. She said things she'd always needed to say. She did things she always wanted to do. And the happened for me. I became braver about being authentic with the people in my life.

RAZ: Was there a point where you and Maggie just thought - wow, we wasted all these years by not trying to forgive each other?

LESSER: Yes. I think it was after the transplant actually, and her body was indeed beginning to reject my cells. And we went back into therapy, and I was kind of beating myself up maybe for not being as completely loving and forgiving as I could be. And in that therapy session, when I was beating myself up, my sister said to me, you know, Liz, you don't have to be perfect to be my perfect match. Let's stop trying to be perfect, and let's just be with each other.

RAZ: Did you feel like you guys got to a place where you both were totally reconciled?

LESSER: Yeah. And you know what? I would have to say, I have never been as close and in love with someone as I was with my sister Maggie toward the end of her life. We were still - I'm sure if she had lived a long time - capable of getting into other skirmishes. But what happened was, in those moments in our therapy and afterwards, when we kind of looked into each other's eyes and put down the past, I have never felt more at one with someone as I was with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEDTALK)

LESSER: After that best year of my sister's life, the cancer came roaring back. And this time, there was nothing more the doctors could do. They gave her just a couple of months to live. The night before my sister died, I sat by her bedside. She was so small and thin I could see the blood pulsing in her neck. It was my blood, her blood - our blood. When she died, part of me would die too. I tried to make sense of it all, how becoming one with each other had made us more ourselves and how, by facing an opening to the pain of our past, we'd finally been delivered to each other and how, by stepping out of time, we would now be connected forever.

My sister left me with so many things, and I'm going to leave you now with just one of them. You don't have to wait for a life-or-death situation to clean up the relationships that matter to you, to offer the marrow of your soul and to seek it in another. We can all do this. We can be the one to take the first courageous step toward the other and to do something or to try to do something other than rejection or attack. We can do this with our siblings and our mates and our friends and our colleagues. We can do this with the disconnection and the discord all around us.

RAZ: You know, I was thinking - like, what is it that stops us from doing this - I mean, just to be the person who's the first to step up and say - you know, to say I'm sorry? But then I think (laughter), you know, for me - and probably for a lot of people - you know, we'd have to let go of our pride. I mean, I would have to compromise my principles or undermine my position.

LESSER: Yeah. You know that cliche, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?

RAZ: (Laughter) Yeah.

LESSER: Sometimes you are right but actually rarely because right precludes the other person's point of view. And so do you want to be right, or do you want to seek a true relationship with another person? And often that means saying - oh, man, I'm sorry. Let's start over.

RAZ: And some things just you can't repair, right? I mean, there are obviously - there are many examples. And you've been through them, and I have. And I mean, you went through a divorce. I mean, some things just can't be fixed.

LESSER: Yeah. But forgiveness and fixing are two different things. There are some things that happen to us in life or there are some decisions we must make that are going to, quote, unquote, "hurt" another person. We don't want our life to be one of being a doormat or having no opinions or apologizing and not seeking righteous indignation when it's called for. Forgiveness doesn't mean being a wimp. It doesn't mean being weak. It doesn't mean having no principles and no values. Sometimes we have to stand firm for what we believe and make really hard decisions.

But when the fire is over, always, in the ashes, our opportunities to repair, to move forward without vengeance being required - that's kind of the way us humans seem to live. We make massive mistakes. We do stupid things. We do things to survive. And then there's an opportunity to learn from them and move forward with grace. And forgiveness and that gracefulness are very connected.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Elizabeth Lesser - she's the co-founder of the Omega Institute. Her book is called "Marrow: A Love Story." You can find her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVE SOMEONE")

MORRISSEY: (Singing) Use a weapon of words or fight with your fists. But can you forgive someone? Stand your ground and persist. And be the last one to blame. But can you forgive someone...

RAZ: Hey. Thanks for listening to our show on Forgiveness this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner with help from Ramtin Arablouei, Thomas Lu and Daniel Shukin. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

If you want to let us know what you think about the show, you can write us at tedradiohour@npr.org. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGIVE SOMEONE")

MORRISSEY: (Singing) And then recall, if you can, how all this even began. Forgive someone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.