The Power of Forgiveness in Life

  • You are a parent. Your child is great friends with a kid from a block away. You receive a phone call at work. There is some type of emergency. You arrive at the hospital to learn that your child was accidentally shot and killed while they were playing with a handgun at the friend’s house. Your knees buckle. You are devastated, angry, and enraged. There is a deep hole in your heart filled with bottomless grief. You hate that boy and the evil parents for callously keeping a loaded gun where a child could get it. Now your precious child is lost forever.
  • The principal calls you at school. Your child has been having nightmares, fighting, has been depressed and moody, bad grades, belligerent, and has been acting up. The principal calls you at school. The school counselor has found out that your child has been sexually molested for a year by your very close adult friend who frequently visited you and was very friendly to your child. You trusted the friend. You are devastated. You absolutely loathe the friend. What a low down scumbag to breach your trust. Your kid’s innocence and childhood is destroyed. How could you have not noticed it? You blame yourself.
  • Your spouse of ten years with two kids has been working extended hours late into the evening this past year. They have been gone to work-related conferences during which they were often too busy to call. They were sometimes gone shopping during some Saturdays, Sundays, and some evenings for extended periods. You have been holding fort in the home making sure the family and the relationship was all right. A lover’s note accidentally left in a book tells it all; during all that time they have been gone they have been having a love affair. You are devastated. You hate the very guts of your spouse. You want them and the weasel of the lover’s heads torn off. You have so much hurt, rage, deep disappointment for endless days and weeks. What did you do wrong? Do you deserve this pain? Will this pain ever end?
  • You are a Jew in a NAZI concentration camp at the end of World War II living in hell on earth. The Americans and Allied forces liberate the camp. You find out that your entire family has been decimated in gas chambers. You learn that six million Jews were sent to the gas chambers. You are devastated. You hate Hitler, the NAZI, the Germans, and the world. How can you ever lead any meaningful life? Everything has been brutally taken away from you while the world watched? You have no family, no home, no money, and no future. You have nothing. You could tear Hitler into shreds yourself with your bare hands. You have such anger, rage, melancholy, and helplessness.
  • You are an African-American slave on a plantation in the 1800s. The news of the Emancipation Proclamation is spreading like wild fire. There is yelling and leaping with joy and jubilation in the slave quarters and on the hot plantation fields. Since you were sold when you were in your teens, you don’t know where your parents and family are.  You endured incredible brutality and hardship from the cruel white slave masters. You have no family, no land, you don’t know where and how to go back home to Africa. You are devastated, angry, and helpless. Where is your future? As long as you live you will have reason to hate all whites from the deepest part of your soul. They destroyed and took away your life and that of your ancestors. You loathe every white person. If you had not a gun, but a machete, you could do unimaginable cruel acts of revenge to all whites for enslaving you. Even those whites who didn’t own slaves. After all, they all just sat by and watched as slavery was being practiced.

These and some of the worst human tragedies generate deep rage, devastating and soul-engulfing anger, hate, frustration, helplessness, hostility, and very profound deep pain. It is the kind of pain and rages the depth of which most people can never imagine. The English language probably does not have one word that can sufficiently reflect the overwhelming, profound nature and depth of this type of pain. The Tumbuka language of the Eastern province of Zambia perhaps best captures this pain which they call kukomola. When this type of pain is left to exist for a long time, it becomes a festering wound. This type of pain continuously generates anger, frustration, hate, helplessness, aggression, sense of deep loss, and desire to revenge and obliterate the perpetrator. It is a very destructive pain that gradually eats at the victim’s soul if left for too long unabated. The only action that can abate this type of deep pain is forgiveness. But why is this type of profound pain so difficult to handle?

This type of pain is caused by what author Beverly Flanigan calls: “the Unforgivable Injury.” Victims of all types of unforgivable injuries inflicted from one individual to another, from one group to another and even one nation to another experience deep enduring pain. In all these cases, this pain cannot go away until the victim forgives the person who has done the inflicting. What exactly is to forgive?

Contrary to popular misconception, to forgive is not to forget, nor a sign of weakness. It is done from a position of strength as the injured victim empowers themselves by confronting the pain, the inflictor, accepting that it happened, and finally deciding to move on with life with the best foot forward.

What is the significance of the four earlier anecdotes? In all the four instances, only forgiveness can eventually repair the emotional rapture that has occurred in the victims. However, the process of forgiving is not as easy. In these instances, the parents, the Jews, and African-Americans who are the victims may be prepared to forgive. But their victimizers might not be willing to come to terms with the pain they inflicted. The careless gun owner may say it was not his fault since the child “stole” the weapon. The child knew the rules but disobeyed. The child sex molester may simply move out of state and deny everything; hence denying the victim the opportunity to confront the offender. The German Nazi and the former slave owners may rationalize the evil actions or simply deny they ever did anything wrong; further adding an insult to the emotional injury.

Although forgiving on an individual and national scale is difficult, some nations have tried it in recent time. The “Reconciliation Commission” hearing in the former apartheid South Africa is a good example. Can the US ever conduct such a gesture with African Americans and the issue of slavery? Why is it difficult for Europeans and Americans to apologize for the Atlantic slave trade?

*****Beverley Flanigan, Forgiving the Unforgivable: Overcoming the Bitter Legacy of Intimate Wounds, New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1992.