14 August 2009

On Forgiveness

To err is human, to forgive divine."
~Alexander Pope

(In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say that this post has nothing to do with knitting, reading, cats, or any of my usual ramblings. Something has been on my mind recently, and yesterday something happened that challenged my "moral" high ground. I've been thinking about it, and decided to write this post.)

I have always found the quote above to be a challenge. I was raised to believe that even if other people do not forgive you for something, that if you are truly sorry in your heart and soul, and you ask God for forgiveness, he will grant it. It doesn't work to say, "I'll go ahead and do this, 'cause God will forgive me anyway," or "God will forgive me *this* time" (all the while knowing you'll do it again). No - the way I learned it, God would gladly forgive you, but only if you meant it. This was the "divine" part of the quote.

I am lousy at forgiveness. I try to forgive whenever I can, and I have actually accomplished it on occasion. But in general, I have to admit that if you cross me/betray me, etc., I'm usually finished with you for good. On a larger scale, there are public persons that truly make me furious, and I am literally unable to see anything about them that is positive. Those people, it seems, I am incapable of forgiving simply because they exist.

Conversely, I actively try to be better about the whole forgiveness thing. I read an article a few years back about the healing power of forgiveness. One of the people in the article was a woman whose young daughter had been brutally raped and murdered. The rage and ill will she felt towards the person responsible was literally making her incapable of leading a normal life. She sought counseling, and her therapist led her on a path that she hoped would result in the woman being able to forgive the perpetrator. The article discussed the fact that for a lot of people, forgiveness means that you are saying that whatever happened was OK; when in fact, true forgiveness allows you to acknowledge the hurt/trauma/wrong for exactly what is was, while allowing yourself to look beyond your own feelings, and move on with your life. I am not making it as clear as the article did, but I'm hoping you get the gist of things.

Anyway, the woman being treated worked long and hard, and after about a year or so of therapy, was able to forgive the person who had taken her daughter's life. She said that as a result, her life was better, and she felt more of a connection with her daughter than ever before. She was glad that the killer was paying for the crime, but she no longer spent time and lots of energy thinking about how much she hated him. As a matter of fact, once she had talked to him face-to-face to say she forgave him (even though he mocked her), she seldom even thought about whether or not he still existed.

This whole thing resonated with me. Because the woman was not told to "forgive and forget," but rather to just forgive and then continue to live her life the way she wanted to, not controlled by her negative feelings and energy.

Then I started working at a place that was founded on the idea that everyone deserves to be forgiven, and also that they then deserve a chance to live the rest of their lives as any of the rest of us do. This was carried to the extreme in that inmates were referred to only by their inmate numbers, and extreme care was taken to retain their privacy and anonymity, so that once their sentence was completed, they did not carry the permanent label of "criminal." (I am talking about the original philosophy behind Eastern State Penitentiary. Towards the end of its existence, it had the same purposes/philosophies as most modern prisons.)

Additionally, I have read reports of criminals with life sentences who had been released from prison early because they were terminally ill, so they could die at home. This seems like a humane thing to do, though I can also understand why it's not something that happens all of the time.

Yesterday, I saw an interview on the morning news with a woman whose young daughter had been killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Reporters had been sent to talk to her because the Scottish government is considering allowing the mastermind of the bombing to leave prison in Scotland and serve out his remaining life sentence in his home country of Libya, since he is suffering from terminal cancer. The woman was furious that the person who killed her daughter and so many others was getting any kind of consideration at all, when he had not considered the lives of so many innocent people on that flight. She felt that he "deserved to rot in jail, and then in hell."

I felt bad when I heard her say that, though I understand that to her, it seems like an incredible miscarriage of justice. On the other hand, I thought, just because he acted in such a horrific manner, does that mean she has to do the same? I thought about this for almost the whole day, and wished that she would find a way to forgive him and move on.

Then I turned on the evening news and learned that the Philadelphia Eagles had signed Michael Vick.

I don't know him. I don't want to know him. In my personal opinion, he is among the lowest of the low, and that is when I'm feeling generous. I feel that he got off easy as far as his criminal sentence, because in the end, dogfigthing is only about dogs, and they are only animals, and it's not like it was a person. (These are not my feelings, this is what I have heard a lot of people say.)

There are those who said that even though they didn't like what he did, he served his time, is remorseful, and deserves the chance to make a living. Various NFL coaches and players said that he was someone who learned his lesson. Andy Reid, the Eagles head coach, is a usually soft-spoken man in press conferences, and from all appearances, tries to live his life according to his Mormon faith. He stated that Michael Vick deserved the chance to turn his life around, and that the Eagles were happy to have him join the team.

Does Michael Vick need my forgiveness? No, he doesn't know or care that I even exist. Do I need to forgive him? Probably. Even if I don't make a huge effort to do so, will I be able to move on? I hope so. But boy is it going to be difficult. Before, I could forget about his existence until I heard/read something about him. Now he's going to be right here, and I'm guessing that at least for a while, there will be news stories about him at least once a week.

Sigh. So much for my moral high ground.


Lorraine said...

Bridget- Forgiveness is about your own feelings- because hurt, anger and revenge is life and soul destroying.

I've come to the conclusion that the only person you are in control of is ourselves- and in the end, it's ourselves and God we have to answer to. We are not in control or accountable for others behavior, however terrible it may be.

Channon said...

For me, I have a hard time with "forgive and forget." I can forgive, because goodness knows, I have needed and will continue to need to be forgiven, but the forgetting trips me up.

In other words, I can forgive, really and truly, but I can't absolve anyone of their sins, even against me. They still happened, and while I'm not bitter or angry, it does still impact how I choose to move through life, especially regarding that person.

Make any sense at all?

Bridget said...

Lorraine and Channon ~ these are my feelings exactly! It sure is complicated, isn't it?

Tora: said...

Thanks for the nice words Bridget, my hubby is a really nice guy and I know I'm very blessed.

I loved ths post - I deal with forgiveness issues as well and try my best to forgive as much as possible.

My sister-in-law murdered my brother in 1993. She lied to the police and said it was an accident - that he had accidentally shot himself while checking for an intruder and didn't actually confess to the crime until 9 years later.

In this particular case - I sort of feel that it's God's place to forgive her not mine. I guess we all ave our demons to deal with!



Carol said...

Interesting ideas. I thought about this a lot a few years ago. After the OJ Simpson trial, Ron Goldman's father was all over the media, vowing revenge. Clearly he had neither forgiven nor forgotten -- and who could blame him, given how cocky OJ acted after his criminal acquittal. But as time went by, Mr. Goldman started to look almost unhinged, and it made me sad. Around the same time, Amy Willard's mother was on local tv, and after the guy who murdered her daughter was convicted, she said she didn't favor the death penalty for him and she would try to forgive. When she appeared in the media after that (much more rarely), she seemed much more at peace. I don't know how any parent manages to get through such a horrific thing and I pray to God I never have to find out how I would handle it, but I suspect I'd be more like Mr. Goldman.

Marie said...

Perhaps if Michael Vick stays true to his currently stated remorse (I saw him on 60 Minutes last night), then at some point you will be able to forgive him in your heart. Listen to me talk; right now I can't think of any punishment good enough for the crime of hurting animals. Maybe someday I can forgive him, too.

Brigitte said...

I can "forgive and forget", it's something I learned a long time ago as I watched my brothers ruin their lives by living in the past and stewing. It's just not worth it. You have to be responsible for your own life and emotions, and living in the past full of regret and "what ifs" will only serve to bring you down to an even worse level.

As for Vick...Shame on the NFL. There is a player in the NHL who was convicted of vehicular manslaughter who was let right back into the league, as though nothing was. My issue with both of those examples - if it were you and me, would we have been given such a chance?? Nope. Anyway, they are both indirect examples of forgiveness, as it's not done to me directly - but I can tell you it diminishes them in my eyes, and I can choose not to have anything to do with them. As Marie said - there is no punishment sufficient for abusing and hurting animals. But, someone will take care of that one day. And that's all I need to know.

Carrie K said...

Forgiveness, that's a hard thing. Sort of where the rubber meets the road and you really don't know where you stand until you're standing there.