Recently, while considering ways to use focus to enrich my life, another f-word kept appearing in the works I was reading: forgiveness.* Being better at focusing than forgiving, I suspect this is no coincidence.
These thoughts on forgiveness began to take shape following another mass shooting. My friend and mentor Frank Wade wrote about this intractable yet solvable fact of life in America back in 1999 after the Columbine High School massacre:
“Problems among people are solved by forgiveness, not force. It is generosity that heals and cleanses, not genocide. Mutual hope is what makes us safe. Trust is what we need, and we will never, ever get it through triumph in any form.“
In 50 very short rules for a good life, number 34 is: forgive, forgive, forgive. The repetition suggests we should apply it on a daily basis.
These two passages from different traditions spurred the thought that perhaps we do not conceive of forgiveness as a solution for horrific tragedies such as mass shootings because we so seldom consider forgiveness as part of our response to the challenges in our day-to-day lives.
In a recent article on memoir writing, Lisa Cooper Ellison begins with a story where a writing instructor asked the students to bring in a scene from their memoir-in-progress that included the character who challenged them the most. The scene Ellison chose could’ve been titled “The Reason I Hate My Mother.” As Ellison read the assignment on the board she saw:
“Write the scene from your antagonist’s perspective.“
Ellison bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying, “Do you know what she’s effing done?” In too many of life’s troubled experiences, that’s our response: do you know how I’ve been hurt? By this jerk?! And I’m suppose to forgive them?!!
In my experience, forgiveness, like focus, is hard and requires bravery.
It is hard in part because we misunderstand it, assuming that when we forgive we bury our feelings, forget what happened, and stay friends with one who has hurt us. It requires bravery because it is far easier to have a rehearsed story that may begin with “let me tell you what he did” and inevitably produces gasps from friends. Those rehearsed stories are usually “what forgiveness specialist Fred Luskin calls a grievance story.” While the responses Ellison received to her rehearsed story were highly satisfying, each rendition kept her in the role of victim without any power.
Grievances, like force, never solve problems among people. We don’t understand that forgiveness empowers. We should forgive because it is only then that our personal healing can begin.
And we should forgive even if the other person is not ready to receive it.
I can think of no better example of forgiving even when the recipient is not prepared to be forgiven than one we saw in 2015. A 21-year-old white supremacist had just murdered nine innocent people in a venerable Black church in Charleston. Time and again at the bail hearing, the family members of those murdered simply said, “I forgive you” to the angry young man who found it appropriate to kill their mothers, aunts, brothers, and children because he — in his own misguided way and spurred by the hatred so often found in our public discourse — felt his world was threatened. It was a moving and deep faith-based response in contrast to those who quickly call for violence as a response to violence.
When painful events hold power over us, we give in to the mythologies of separation and violence. When that power overtakes me, I am certain about how things really happened, limiting the frames by which I see the world.
Forgiveness not only helps us write a better memoir, it gives us a power that is stronger than the power of hate. A power that builds instead of divides and denies.
In the midst of growing grievance fueled by those who benefit from our isolation, it is time to give forgiveness a chance to demonstrate its power in the world.
More to come…
*What? Your mind went elsewhere? I forgive you. Hat tip to Lisa Ellison for the idea.