Jack Kornfield is a bestselling author. He is also, as I understand it, a Buddhist monk. Jack has taught mindfulness techniques and meditation around the world. Lots of people are familiar with his work. I have long admired and at times borrowed some of his stories. Today is one of those days.
On the train from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia, while on his way to attend his father’s memorial funeral service, Jack sat down next to an interesting fellow who worked with young boys, particularly those in jail and prison, as part of an inner-city project in Washington, D.C. The stranger told Jack this story:
A young kid, 14 years old, wanted to get into a gang. The way that he proved himself to enter the gang was to shoot somebody – it was an initiation rite. The 14 year old kid shot another kid he didn’t know. A kid who was a perfect stranger. In order to gain entrance into a city gang.
The young shooter was apprehended, brought to trial, and at the end of the trial, convicted of first degree murder.
Just before the young man is taken away in handcuffs, the mother of the boy who was shot stands up in the courtroom, looks the boy in the eye, and says, for all to hear, “I’m going to kill you,” and then sits down.
After being in prison for a year or so, the boy is visited by that mother, and he’s kind of frightened. She says, “I’ve just got to talk with you.” They have a little bit of conversation, and as she leaves him she says, “Do you need anything? Money for clothes or snacks?” and before she leaves the jail she leaves a little bit of money for him with the jail cashier.
She starts to visit him. She goes every few months, and over the course of three or four years, she starts visiting him more regularly, talking to him and listening to the story of the young boys life.
When he’s about to get out of jail at the age of 18, she asks, “What are you going to do?” and he says, “I have no idea. I’ve got no family, no nothing.” And she says, “Well I’ve got a friend who has a little factory – maybe I can help you get a job.”
So she arranges with the young man’s parole officer for the young man to get a factory job.
Then she asks, “Where are you going to stay?” and he says, “I don’t know where I’m going to go.” And she says, “Well I have a spare room where you can stay with me.”
So he comes and stays in the spare room, takes the factory job, and after about six months, she says, “I really need to talk with you – come into the living room. Sit down, let’s talk.”
She looks at him and says, “Remember that day in court when you were convicted of murdering my son for no reason at all, to get into your gang, and I stood up and said, ‘I’m going to kill you?’”
“Yes ma’am,” he says. “I’ll never forget that day,”
She looks back and with tears in her eyes she says, “Well, I have. You see, I didn’t want a boy who could kill in cold blood like that to continue to exist in this world. So I set about visiting you, bringing you presents, bringing you things, and taking care of you. And now I let you come into my house and got you a job and a place to live because I don’t have anybody anymore. My son is gone and he was the only person that I was living with. I set about changing you, and you’re not that same person anymore. He’s dead, and you’re here. And I’m alive, and here, too.”
“But,” she said, “I don’t have anybody, and I want to know if you’d stay here. I’m in need of a son, and I want to know if I can adopt you.”
The young man said yes and she adopted the boy who killed her son.
What is forgiveness?
What is this human capacity for forgiveness? What is the human capacity for dignity no matter what the circumstances of life?
As this story shows, forgiveness is not just about the other. It’s really for the beauty of your soul. It’s for your own capacity to fulfill your life.
Forgiveness is, in particular, the capacity to let go, to release the suffering, the sorrows, the burdens of the pains and betrayals of the past, and instead to choose the mystery of love, as God commanded us to live. Forgiveness shifts us from the small separate sense of ourselves to a capacity to renew, to let go, to live in love. As one mystic put it,
“If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.”
With forgiveness we are unwilling to attack or wish harm on anyone, including ourselves. And without forgiveness, life would be unbearable. It’s hard to imagine a world without forgiveness, because we would be chained to the suffering of the past and have only to repeat it over and over again. There would be no release.
It’s not easy. Love and forgiveness are not for the faint-hearted. But someone has to stand up and say, “It stops with me. I will not pass on to my children this sorrow.” Whether it’s in Ireland or Israel, in D.C. or Nebraska, in your family or mine, someone has to say, “I will accept the betrayal and the suffering, and I will bare it, but I will not retaliate. I will not pass this onto the next generation, and to endless generations of grandchildren.”
When someone betrays you, you can hate them, or at some point, you can say it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it to live day after day with hatred. Because for one thing, that person who betrayed you could be in Hawaii right now having a very nice vacation – and you’re here hating them! Who’s suffering then?
Not quick or sentimental
Forgiveness does not mean that we condone what happened in the past. It’s not forgive and forget. In fact, forgiveness might also include quite understandably the resolve to protect yourself and never let this happen again.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to speak or relate to a person who betrayed you, necessarily. It’s not about them. It doesn’t condone their behavior – it can stand up for justice and say “no more.”
Forgiveness is not sentimental, or quick. You can’t wallpaper things over and smile and just say, “I forgive.” It is a deep process of the heart and mind. And in the process, you need to honor the betrayal of yourself or others – the grief, the anger, the hurt, the fear. It can take a long time.
Forgiveness is also not for anybody else. There’s a story of two ex-prisoners of war. One says to the other, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” And the second says “No, never, I will never forgive what they did to us.” And the first one then says “Well, I see they still have you in prison, don’t they?”
Some principles of forgiveness
One of the interesting things about forgiveness is that you find it in all different traditions. There are African indigenous practices of forgiveness. There is of course the Christian teachings of Jesus which we heard today. Forgiving what seems like an impossible number of times. All religious traditions have some practice of forgiveness … forgiveness of ourselves and forgiveness of others.
Some things to consider:
– Understand what forgiveness is and what it is not. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not condoning, it’s not a wallpapering over, it’s not for the other person, it’s not sentimental.
– Sense the suffering in yourself, of still holding onto this lack of forgiveness for yourself or for another. Start to feel that it’s not compassionate; that you have this great suffering that’s not in your own best interest. So you actually sense the weight of not forgiving.
– Reflect on the benefits of a loving heart. Why choose love? Why choose love over hate, or bitterness, or resentment, or hostility? Why choose a loving heart over a hard heart that chooses to not love? What benefit is there in that?
– Discover that it is not necessary to be loyal to your suffering. This is a big one. We are so loyal to our suffering, focusing on the trauma and the betrayal of what happened that it can begin to define you? Ask yourself if holding on to this suffering is actually helping you or hurting you. You’re the only judge of that.
– Understand that forgiveness is a process. It’s a training, it’s a process, layer by layer – that is how the body and the psyche work. One step at a time.
– Set your intention. By having that intention, you make obstacles become surmountable because you know where you are going … whether it is in business, a relationship, a person you love, a creative activity, or in the work of the heart. Setting your intention is really important and powerful.
– Sometimes the practice of forgiveness includes making a confession – taking responsibility for whatever part you have played in what has happened. Sometimes forgiveness includes making amends.
– Start the easiest way, with whatever opens your heart. Maybe it’s forgiving a child or another person that you most love and can forgive. Then you bring in someone who is a little more difficult to forgive. Only when the heart is all the way open do you take on something more difficult.
– Be willing to grieve. And grief, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has spelled out, consists of bargaining, loss, fear, and anger. You have to be willing to go through this process in some honorable way, as I’m sure Nelson Mandela did. Indeed, he has described how [before he could forgive his captors] he was outraged and angry and hurt and all the things that anyone would feel. So be willing to grieve, and then to let go.
– Forgiveness includes all the dimensions of our life. Forgiveness is work of the body. It’s work of the emotions. It’s work of the mind. And it’s interpersonal work done through our relationships.
– Forgiveness involves perspective. We are in this drama in life that is so much bigger than our own “little stories.” When we can open this perspective, we see it is not just your hurt, but the hurt of humanity.
Everyone who loves or is in relationship with another human being is someone who is going to get hurt in some way at some time. It’s a part of the human condition.
Ultimately, Jesus teaches us, that we forgive because we have been forgiven. God offers the gift of forgiveness to each one of us, forgiving us when we are hurtful and make bad choices. Accepting God’s love and forgiveness allows us to forgive others who make bad choices and hurt us.
Being able to forgive is a gift you give to yourself
and a gift you give to the other person who has done something hurtful.
Jesus essentially teaches us: Don’t Keep Score. Be willing to forgive over and over and over again. Then everyone wins.
Maybe time today can be spent asking God for forgiveness we have not yet sought.
Maybe time today can be spent forgiving ourselves for something we have not yet forgiven ourselves for.
Maybe time can be spent today asking forgiveness from another person.
And maybe time can be spent today forgiving someone who has hurt us, and God is asking us to forgive the other person, and in essence, to set ourselves free as well.
Know that you are in my prayers, and please keep me in your prayers too. Forgiveness is something we all need to work on.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog