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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Never forget who you are, especially if you are a bastard

Tyrrion Lannister and Jon Snow

This image, published by web site FanPop, captures one of the best moments of dialogue in the whole bloody saga that is Game of Thrones. This is the first episode, season one, when the two characters meet. I like both characters shown here a lot.

As an adoptee, I have great affection for all characters, mythical, imaginary, and historical, who share my status as a man who was born without his biological parents joined in marriage. The word for us, through history, is “bastard.” Don’t worry, fair readers, us bastards are comfortable with the word. We know its true meaning and know how others respond to it. It may be you who is not at ease with the word and the reality.

So it may be no surprise that one of my favorite little scenes from the series Game of Thrones is when the Imp, Tyrion Lannister, gives advice to the main bastard character of the series, Jon Snow.

“Let me give you some advice, bastard,” says a drunken Tyrion. “Never forget who you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor.”

In other words, make your apparent weakness your strength and own the fullness of your identity, regardless of what anyone may say. Good advice for a bastard. I should know. And so should Jon Snow.