June 3, 2016

Forgiving the Unforgivable

He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.
–George Herbert

When I teach Forgiveness Classes certain questions always arise: How can I forgive someone who hasn’t asked for it? Don’t I need to make the offender “pay” for their crimes? By forgiving, am I simply justifying their horrific actions? These are important questions, especially from those who have endured great pain.

I try to answer them by discussing the foundation of healthy forgiveness. We talk about what forgiveness is:

  1. Forgiveness is making a choice to release your grievances—for your own health and not the health or benefit of anyone else.
  2. Forgiveness cuts the bondage of resentment—therefore, releasing you from the person or situation that has caused you pain.
    “When you hold resentment toward another you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.” Catherine Ponder
  3. Forgiveness is about exercising your personal power.
  4. It is about your healing and liberation—and it does not depend on what someone else does. With it, you are choosing to reclaim your life and energy.
  5. It is a decision to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you—and not to pursue resentment or revenge.
  6. It is a decision to be at peace right in this present moment.
  7. It is a decision to take responsibility to become the hero of our life story, not the victim.

We talk about what forgiveness does not mean:

  1. It is not the approval of wrongdoing.
  2. You do not have to reconcile with the person who hurt you or spend time with them. You are not condoning anyone’s selfish, hurtful or cruel actions. You are simply releasing yourself from those actions.
  3. Not forgetting or minimizing what happened.
  4. Not skipping the process of grief that comes after loss.

This list helps establish the practical, rational reasons to forgive. But, I believe, real-life examples of heroic forgiveness hold greater capacity to change our hearts. The most powerful reminder for me to forgive each day rests in the example left by my son, Jason.

Before going into the battle that took his life in Wanat, Afghanistan, he asked one of his Army buddies to deliver a Farewell Letter to us if he did not survive. A portion of it read:

To My Family,

I feel my days are numbered and so I want to say this while I can. Never have I felt as strong that what I am doing here in Afghanistan is the right thing and is understood and accepted by god. As a result, death is easier to accept…

….For the man that took my life, I know he felt exactly the same way about me when he killed me. I’ve always used the analogy if you are told the color blue is green your whole life, you can have all the facts in the world to prove it’s blue, but at the end of the day it’s still green to you…

If Jason could show empathy and forgiveness to the Taliban insurgent who was about to kill him, I can release my anger toward those who have hurt me. I can confidently teach and ask others to forgive as well