Learning the power of forgiveness and why it mattered the rest of my life

At some point in all of our lives people will do bad things to us, intentionally and unintentionally. This may happen many times, in fact. And these can be awful things. They can be crimes. They can harm our family and friends. They can disrupt and destroy our lives. The victim will then have many choices to respond. Among the most powerful and liberating of all responses to injustice, violence, and evil is forgiveness.

President Abraham Lincoln, an ardent practitioner of forgiveness.

President Abraham Lincoln, an ardent practitioner of forgiveness.

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong,” said Mahatma Gandhi, a man of peace who also was murdered in 1948 by a fellow Hindu for his efforts to reconcile the violence that divided the Indian Subcontinent between Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths as the British pulled out of their Indian colony. President Abraham Lincoln, one of the world’s most revered leaders, also deeply embraced a philosophy of forgiveness while trying to lead his country out of a system of slavery and through the nation’s most bloody war. During his famous and searing Second Inaugural Address, prior to his assassination on March 4, 1865, he called for the warring sides to embrace forgiveness. When urged to punish the violent slaveholding South, Lincoln responded, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” And, like Gandhi, Lincoln too was killed, by a Southerner who considered him a traitor.

Clearly, forgiveness is not easy, and some of its most ardent practitioners have met with violent ends. “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth,” writes philosopher Hannah Arendt. “The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense.” The Christian gospels written in the years after his crucifixion are premised on the very notion of Jesus’ ability to forgive his tormenters. According to the Gospel of Luke, 23:34, the dying Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Again, another practitioner of peace, killed.

Source, Forbes

President Nelson Mandela (source, Forbes)

Former South African freedom fighter, prisoner, and president Nelson Mandela chose to embrace forgiveness as a tool of reconciliation to heal his nation after decades of the racist Apartheid laws that relegated non-whites to second-class status and excluded them from all forms of politics, education, and economic opportunity. After his release from Robben Island, he took many actions to heal the wounds the could have erupted in more bitter violence that was seen in neighboring countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia). As Barbara Mutch, a white South African noted after Mandela’s death in 2013, “Nelson Mandela sat down with his enemies and forgave them and moved on. And in doing so, he rescued his country, and he rescued each one of us, and gave us hope that there could be a future for our beautiful, fractured land. And for the greater earth that we all share.”

For me, my moment of action came when I was 18. I had finished high school and was working to save as much money as I could for college that hot summer in University City, Mo. I knew that this marked a pivotal transitional point in my life. I wanted to begin my journey was a clean slate, free from the baggage I carried from my earlier years. I wanted to explore a new path and forge a destiny  that broke from the past. I knew the most important thing I could do for myself was to let go of what I harbored against someone who caused great pain and hurt to me and my family and to themselves, in ways that I still cannot forget.

The only one who could really control the outcome of this experience was me. I had to own it for what it was. That meant I had to own accepting what had happened, and more importantly, letting it off my back and from my heart and soul. I remember the long drive I made on a hot August day with a stranger to Cleveland. I confronted the person who had done many wrongs. I told that person, with great sincerity I felt inside, that I forgave them for what they had done. I meant it. And then, a day later, I took a long bus ride back to St. Louis. Within two weeks I was in Portland, Ore., starting a new life in college, charting a new path that I would define and that would not be defined by this person or the experiences resulting their actions earlier in my life.

It was one of the most important moments I have ever had. I never forgot what it did for me and the party I forgave. Within three years, that person would be dead, and that chapter in my life would be closed.

According to Howard Zehr, the author of The Little Book of Restorative Justice, “Forgiveness is letting go of the power the offense and the offender have over a person. It means no longer letting that offense and offender dominate. Without this experience of forgiveness, without this closure, the wound festers, the violation takes over our consciousness, our lives. It, and the offender, are in control. Real forgiveness, then, is an act of empowerment and healing.”

Years later I am struck by what I gained during the few days in my life when I was striving to define who I wanted to be, and doing that through intentional deeds with a clear mind and a clear sense of purpose.

Some days still I lose focus. I stray from my path. I am tempted to go to a place that I know Lincoln and Mandela would not want to be. At those moments, I go back in time to that place when I became the kind of person I always wanted to be. Then I find the strength to do the right thing, even when it is perilous, as so many good persons have learned.

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The joys of a new bicycle

My new Surly Pacer

My new Surly Pacer in sparkleboogie blue

Buying a bike is always one of my rare guilty pleasures. I am not wealthy by American standards, nor do I have lots of disposable income to spare on an item that can range from $700 through several thousand dollars. So I have bought less than a half-dozen new bikes in my entire life. I have bought a couple of used bikes, but those lack the snap, crackle, and pop of a new bike.

Last Friday, I just picked up my new Surly Pacer road bike. It was the last 2014 model in the country, according to the store. The color is sparkleboogie blue. I like that name, but it is really like a baby or Carolina blue. The Pacer has a great reputation for being a no-nonsense machine that delivers a quality experience without the fru-fru and showiness of composite bikes or designer bikes that are all about displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption.

Surly understands the market I represent and, well, I might have fallen for some of their marketing language: “The current zeitgeist of road bicycles and road bicycling generally tends to overlook things that are not screaming for attention like a spoiled child, and the Pacer is a bit of a loner.  Pacer likes to put in the big miles and hang out in the country, way out in the country. Pacer cares not about the weather. It remains indifferent mile after mile, you just provide the propulsion and Pacer will handle the rest.”

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Yes indeed, I love to bike.

Yes, that is the kind of biker I am.

I also always feel like a kid when I ride a bike, so a new bike is having two kid pleasures at once. I feel particularly good about this bike because I delayed gratification for more than a year, as I debated the merits of spending $1,250 (bike alone) for a material object.

Really, this is about consumption. It is an absurd amount of money for a thing, which mainly is about exercise and fun. This amount of money is also equivalent to twice the annual income of a resident of Malawi or Afghanistan. For billions of people, literally, this type of object must seem like a frivolous waste. It does not generate income. It does not carry goods to the market. It cannot carry your family members like bikes in Africa and India I have seen.

Me and My Strada

That is me longing miles on my old Novara Strada, a very reliable bike that has brought me great pleasure.

But for the moment, I will let that all go, and just go for a ride.

This bike replaces a road bike I bought from REI in 1991. That was a Novara Strada, and at the time it cost me about $650. It still works just fine, though some parts are ready to collapse and die. Really, it was time to say adios to a good friend. It has logged thousands of wonderful miles in great places, from Alaska to North Carolina to California to Oregon and Washington.

I would say my new bike at best performs about 15 percent better. That is not a big margin, and it may not even justify the extravagance. But the bike for me represents a gift to myself for having completed some big life projects and tasks that took a number of years. I could not afford the reward when I wanted it the most. Rewards are critically important, to mark accomplishments and celebrate change. Hoping this change brings many great adventures with friends and celebrating the joys of being a kid, pedaling as fast as I can, smiling as wide as my mouth will allow.