Forgive us our trespasses

The most distressing aspect of a career adjudicating and mediating disputes is the animosity that too often develops within families. Grievances over money, insults and misunderstandings can split a family apart.

What was once a loving relationship can become a battleground as one side and then the other engage in the most pernicious attacks with both professing to be the victim. Otherwise good people set about destroying a brother, sister, parent, or child. Other family members often get caught up in the maelstrom even as they try to remain neutral.

This sad phenomenon is evident on a national scale in the political dysfunction now paralyzing our political process. There is little common ground as one party accuses the other of the most sinister motives from greed, ignorance, and opportunism to class warfare, duplicity, and undermining democracy.

Are Republican leaders more intent on having President Obama fail than on achieving sensible compromises that would benefit the country but, at the same time, might diminish their chances of regaining the White House?

Common to these conflicts is the absence of good will. Instead, one side questions the motives of the other. Evil intent is frequently assumed to be the motivation of the other side. It sometimes is, but more often than not it is something less culpable. Human beings, in my experience, have an enormous capacity to exercise bad judgment. They can be selfish, rude, stupid, annoying, mean, thoughtless, and antagonistic; the list goes on.

Such behavior is harmful and hurtful but does not necessarily suggest an evil intent. If we can see these weaknesses in ourselves, we hopefully will be more inclined to forgive them in others; particularly in family members who have offended us.

What I find troubling is how good, God-fearing, church-going people can cling to a grievance. They see no conflict in being angry at, resentful of, or even hating a family member and being a good Christian.

Some regularly say the Lord’s Prayer which in part states: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Could it be any clearer? We appeal for forgiveness in the same measure as we forgive others.

I read that as applying to everyone, including those with evil intent who have intentionally harmed us. That may not be easy but we are not expected to become best friends. Fortunately, we occasionally see extraordinary, uplifting examples of forgiveness.

More than a few times while trying to resolve family disputes, I have invoked that phrase and another from the Beatitudes -- “Blessed are the peacemakers” -- in an effort to make the parties see the larger issue at stake in their conflict: the need to begin the healing process.

Lawyers sometimes contribute to a conflict by failing to see that in family matters, there is a larger issue. It is not the same as an arms-length dispute between unrelated parties. The undercurrents in those cases are rarely as intense as those that swirl within families.

I tell lawyers that, like doctors, they should be mindful of the admonition “Do no harm” as they try to resolve intra-family conflicts. To the extent possible, they should try to craft a resolution that at least does not further damage what remains of the family fabric and, if they can, try to mend it.

For reasons that are hard to understand, family disputes are more contentious. Perhaps because there is no anger or hate as intense as that directed against someone who was once loved. We swing from one extreme to the other, feeling the hurt as a painful betrayal of our affection.

Some find it hard to move beyond the belief that they have been victimized. Instead, they nurture a grudge that manifests itself in a desire for retribution, or in its less toxic form, refusal to communicate, the latter often for the most petty of real or imagined grievances.

Rarely have I been successful in persuading either or both sides to refuse to engage at a level of recrimination that diminishes both of them. Forgiveness is perceived as weakness or capitulation. They fail to see it as an act of compassion, mercy, and love, three virtues the world could use a lot more of.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.