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Rose Elizondo: When I was 7 years old I, I was saving money for a pair of pink cowboy boots. And so I loved my piggy bank. I had it high up on like a cabinet that was supposed to be hidden. It probably really wasn’t. But there was a gathering at our house. And I went into a room that I shared with my brothers and I saw my pink piggy bank shattered on the floor with all the money gone. And I went to my father and I said, somebody broke my piggy bank and stole my money. And I told him that my brother and my cousins did it and they should get in trouble. Like I wanted that revenge. I wanted them to be punished. That was my money from my cowboy boots that I so wanted and I had been like not eating candy to save that money.
So my father was with other men in our family like my uncles and they were drinking. And he just laughed and he said, you know, so what. And then all the men started laughing.
I felt humiliated.
Dacher Keltner: Rose Elizondo is now a pioneer in the field of restorative justice and forgiveness. She founded the San Quentin Prison Interfaith Roundtable where incarcerated men gain deeper understanding of the impact caused by their crimes. But while working with the prison roundtable, she learned that she still held onto anger toward her father.
On every episode of our show, we have a guest try a research-based practice designed to increase happiness, resilience, kindness, or connection and then we talk about the science behind why it works.
Dacher Keltner: I’m with one of the most inspiring people that I know and that’s Rose Elizondo, who has created some of the largest programs on restorative justice and forgiveness embedded in that in the world.
So you chose to do the Nine Steps to Forgiveness practice. And I’m really curious because you’ve got this deep life background and philosophical background of restoration and forgiveness, what was it like for you?
Rose Elizondo: So it was really powerful. When the Restorative Justice interfaith roundtable started in San Quentin there were some men who said they noticed that when I spoke about my father they heard resentment in my voice and anger.So it comes from some things in my childhood. I grew up in a family, where there was… I’ll just say there was alcohol.
They said to me, we’re fathers. And when we hear that in your voice we think about, do our children resent us? And so they said, “We would like for you to work on forgiveness with your father.” And I cried. And I said
“No, I don’t want to do that right now.” And then maybe a month later my father was diagnosed with cancer and he was given two weeks to two months.
So I had these like huge aspirations that I was going to be able to go to
my father. My father was a hard-working cowboy from this long line of Tejano cowboys and so sitting in circle and
sharing feelings, sharing stories, in that way was not a part of his life. So I
went to him and I told him I wanted to work on a forgiveness practice with him
and we started. And I shared about how I felt. I felt harmed from things in my childhood and I wanted him to recognize at least a couple of those things.
And he stood up and he cussed me out… in like this Texas rancher way. And then I got upset. You know I probably cussed him out. And things got worse. You know the whole…
Dacher Keltner: And it wasn’t going as planned.
Rose Elizondo: It wasn’t going as planned. And so what was beautiful is the men inside San Quentin, they really helped me. They guided me on this process and said that’s OK you made a
first step. And you chose you chose to forgive. And so these are the steps of forgiveness. I did choose to forgive my father and I chose to work on it. And
you know even if it got rough to work on it. And it was really messy for a long time.
I’m trying to learn to drop my narrative.
The nine steps to forgiveness says that’s part of why we suffer, is we tell ourselves stories and then those stories can change. And we have to you know reflect on that.
And I can talk to you about how I felt because that’s important to get in touch like that.
That’s one of the first steps of forgiveness. How did you feel about this? Like what was not OK? And so what I felt was that I was bad, that I was unworthy and that I wasn’t valued. I wasn’t heard or seen. It was really important for me to make a commitment to feel better.
Dacher Keltner: Which is the second step to forgivenesss. Making a commitment to yourself to feel better because forgiveness is for you and no one else.
Rose Elizondo: Yeah, And so this is my father my father is a wonderful man that so many people loved, Dacher. He was this charismatic, he is this Chicano activist and so many people admired and loved him. And so you know, but growing up sometimes with someone who is an activist or a public figure, that can be difficult.
And so I had to realize that he was a wonderful man. Many people saw him that way. But I lived with him. And so maybe at times because he was so wonderful in the community, I was neglected. And so I needed to think about how can I feel better about that.
Dacher Keltner: Yeah. And it’s funny how when we make these kinds of commitments these meta-level commitments like you’re talking about earlier, the narrative that you keep coming back. Like “Ah, I didn’t get it” just changes that dynamic of well, I’m committed to a different narrative in a sense of whatever direction forgiveness takes you.
Rose Elizondo: Uh huh. And then blaming my father. My father did a lot. So could I not look at you know the bad but also look at the good and appreciate that? But also recognize my own feelings? Blame him less and just like kind of give him credit for what he did do as a parent. What could I be grateful for? And that helped me to lessen my suffering …was thinking about like I am so grateful that I was born into the family I was born in.
Dacher Keltner: It’s funny how these states go together sometimes when we forgive and we recognize suffering on the other side is this feeling of gratitude, sometimes. I had this hard stuff, but I got this out of it. It’s interesting how they go together sometimes.
Rose Elizondo: Yes, yes. And I do think that the life, the universe gives us opportunities are gifts.
Dacher Keltner: So the next step to forgiveness says it doesn’t mean reconciling and also to stop expecting things from other people.
Rose Elizondo: Yes. So give up expecting things from your life that other people choose to not give you. So Iwanted my father to give me an apology. It didn’t work.
Dacher Keltner: He just refused or did you ask him or…
Rose Elizondo: I was meeting with him and I had an agenda, Dacher.I wanted him to change. I couldn’t change my father. So how could I accept him for who he was? So one of the things that the men in San Quentin invited me to do was to start a kindness practice and to be kind to myself and to be kind to other people. And so the Greater Good Science Center has these wonderful kindness practices. So it took working with kindness and being kind to other people—like super-generous, being very apologetic, you know generous with my apologies, generous with my time and also kind to myself. Because I think that’s one of the hardest things is… I need to have self compassion.
Dacher Keltner: That’s a hard one.
Rose Elizondo: And realize that if I didn’t feel loved or I didn’t feel worthy, how can I meet those needs as an adult? Like what can I do to embrace that young little girl that wanted, you know, to feel worthy and feel good. So how can I do that myself? So I worked on practices to do that and then I committed to a centering prayer meditation practice.
Dacher Keltner: What do you do?
Rose Elizondo: So I set…I’m not going to say every day, but I try to sit and I sit in silence. And it’s a letting go practice. When thoughts come to you especially intrusive thoughts like ruminating thoughts,you let them go.
I gave up wanting an apology. I gave up the narrative.
So I went to our ranchito and I asked my father, “What do you want to do
today?” And that’s not like who I was before. And I tried to be as happy
as possible, like just bring this happy presence that I take in to San Quentin.
I tried to bring that to my father and not to think about the past hurts and so
he said let’s go out for barbecue.
So I was a vegetarian at the time.
I said, yes let’s go out for barbecue. And I ate brisket with him, ribs and then we ordered these double fried curly french fries and we fought over them like in this loving joking way
and it was like, oh my gosh, I’m back to my father. I’m back to the father who is so funny, who’s like a comedian. We had a great time. And the next day, he said what do you want to eat today? He’s like you know if you want to eat your style of food we can eat your style of food. He said, “What would that be?” I said, “Well it would be a salad.”
Dacher Keltner: In Texas.
Rose Elizondo: In Texas. And he’s a rancher and
just a salad. And then we had sliced cantaloupe. And I don’t think he liked the
salad but he said the cantaloupe was just delicious. And we just had so much
fun, just joking around that you know he’s a cattle rancher and I’m a
vegetarian. What does that say? Just like laughing about things. And it was a
really beautiful time. So I gave up my need that he had to apologize and I just
worked on relationship. Could our relationship be reconstructed? And it
Dacher Keltner: And it often begins with food. Amazing.
Rose Elizondo: And then sadly six weeks later
my father passed away. But what I felt was… it felt complete. Because even
though there hadn’t been an apology, there hadn’t been this, I love you. The
time we spent together was communion. We had a great time together. And those
are the memories that I have.
Dacher Keltner: You know it’s amazing in the science of how we make peace. Peace is made in many different ways and it’s not necessarily the words you know I’m sorry I did this wrong. It’s eye contact and it’s a tone of voice and its laughing over brisket or whatever it is. And I think your description brings that to mind.
It’s so striking that often these happiness practices are really about the big lifethemes. And I just want to hear about your work now.
Rose Elizondo: I feel so honored to be
working with the Navajo people. It’s looking at my life purpose and looking at
what lights me up and also what breaks my heart. So one of the things that
breaks my heart is domestic violence and violence happening in the home. And so
it’s bringing these traditions like restorative justice and peacemaking… how
can we bring that into the community?
Truth and reconciliation where people get to tell their story because intergenerational
trauma and trauma are root causes of that we criminalize poverty, we
criminalize trauma. And so if we can work at those root causes of the root
causes, hopefully we can keep people to not be incarcerated. So if parents can
learn positive parenting, maybe they won’t be having to go to court for
domestic violence cases.
Dacher Keltner: Sadly.
Rose Elizondo: So I feel really honored to do that and then we’re also, I’m helping to create an institute of Navajo peacemaking as a part of my project.
Dacher Keltner: That sounds amazing.
Rose Elizondo: Yes. And a model site so not just the institute not just the head stuff but a model site where people can come and see the practices of, What does this entail on a societal level.
I’ll be first in line. Well Rose, I am so grateful for the work you do in the world. It’s absolutely essential. So thank you for being here.
Rose Elizondo: Thank you Dacher.
Dacher Keltner: One of the counterintuitive themes that surprises people when we think about the science of happiness is how do we develop principled ways to handle the hard stuff of life. You know bereavement and trauma, conflict and so forth and one of the great lessons that we’ve learned in the science of happiness comes out of this science of forgiveness which Rose did a practice around with the Nine steps of forgiveness.
So the first thing that we have to really grapple with honestly is that although
there’s a lot of pro sociality in the science of happiness, at the same time because
we’re individual beings with our own self-interest and our own desires there’s
a lot of conflict that’s just part of social living.
There are really funny studies by Judy Dunn and her colleagues showing for example when
you study little 4 year olds and 2 year olds in American homes they’re getting
into six conflicts an hour. The mom or dad who’s around is getting into another
half dozen conflicts an hour with one of the kids. So what that tells us is in
the average American family there are 8 to 10 conflicts every hour as we engage
in the complexities of family living.
What this tells us is conflict is just inherent in human relationships and we need to forgive.
One of the really key theoretical discoveries about forgiveness and it tells us that we
have an instinct to forgive really comes out of the groundbreaking work of Frans
de Waal who’s a primatologist. He studies the bonobos and the chimpanzees and other primates in
his research career and really important to the science of happiness. And he
started to get interested in what he called peacemaking and reconciliation.
There was this hypothesis out there called the dispersal hypothesis that if two primates
are in conflict with each other and they’re tangling, and they’re wrestling and
they’re biting each other and pulling each other’s fur or the like, it’s really
wise for them to disperse to get physically far away from each other— that makes sense. And Frans was doing these
observations of various primates and he found naturalistically, the opposite
happened said in fact what happens is the two individuals who are fighting will
find opportunity to get closer to each other or a third party will often bring
them into physical contact. And then he documented this systematic process of
reconciliation which really looks like the precursor to human forgiveness. So
one individual will bow, they’ll express certain kinds of vocalizations,
they’ll have open-handed gestures, and then the other individual will actually
embrace that primate or groom them or come into close physical contact. It’s as
if what they’re seeing are these initial elements of an apology almost, and
then some sort of forgiveness.
So in the human literature we define forgiveness as having four components and you really
saw them in Rose’s narrative. You really work hard to accept the transgression.
So Rose had to think hard at multiple occasions why was her dad sort of more
loving in the outside world than inside with the family. You have to reduce
this punitive tendency to seek revenge. You have to as Frans de Waal
describes you have to really. Instead of moving away from the individual, you
have to come close and have the face-to-face, eye-to-eye contact.
One of the great studies early in the forgiveness literature is by Charlotte Witvliet a professor at Hope College in Michigan. What she did is she brought people to the lab she hook them up to measures of their cardiovascular physiology like heart rate and the transmission of the blood through the veins which measures how you know fight or flight oriented you are.
And she had people think about a kind of a grudge that they had towards somebody else. They either kind of got into this process of thinking about
their grudge and holding onto their grudge which we love to do sometimes or Wiliet
had the participants release it just mentally imagine letting go of the anger
that’s associated with the grudge and very nicely what she found is just
letting go of this grudge and forgiving the individual led to a calming down of
stress related response in the cardiovascular system. So it actually kind of
calmed your fight or flight response. Forgiveness has these physiological
If you’d like to try the Nine Steps to Forgiveness or other practices like it, go to GGIA dot Berkeley dot EDU.
Then call us at 510-519-4903 and let us know how it went!