It sounds great on paper. Your gut may even tell you that it’s the “right” thing to do. But when it comes down to it, does forgiveness help?
What would happen, for example, if America collectively said, “We forgive those who attacked us on 9/11?”
My own experience with forgiveness is limited, as I’m not really one to hold a grudge. There are, of course, exceptions: in sixth grade, a classmate did something to me – in front of a school bus loaded with kids – that was terribly cruel, and quite frankly humiliating. I didn’t realize how I had held on to a tiny sliver of that pain until his name popped up on a Web site for my 20-year high school reunion. The deep feelings of hurt and frustration I experienced on an afternoon in 1983 shot through my adult body like an electric shock. It took me a few days, but I quickly came to term with these feelings and realized the only way I could resolve them was by saying his name aloud, along with three very sincere, deeply heartfelt words: “I forgive you.”
Forgiving my parents, on the other hand, was an entirely different story. As I worked through the sometimes bewildering feelings of grief I experienced after they died in 2003, I found myself getting irritated, and then downright mad. I wrote a letter to my Mom, seething with anger over the fact that she gave up on life. Everything I should have said to her after her suicide attempts came out at once, snowballing, right or wrong, into a mild (and, in hindsight, completely irrational) rage that she couldn’t hang on a few more hours in the hospital until I could talk to her. I am so grateful now that I finally realized what needed to be done. I lit a candle in front of a picture of the two of them holding me as a baby, and just as I did with a schoolyard bully, I said the words aloud for both of them to hear: “I forgive you.”
It was as if a weight lifted from my shoulders.
During a remembrance and blessing service held by a group of area Buddhists today, the subject of forgiveness was in the air. A man who sat 20 feet above the point where Flight 77 hit the Pentagon – and miraculously survived, going on to eventually embrace the Dharma as a way of dealing with his pain – rang a bell each time someone mentioned the name of a loved one lost on 9/11. The names turned those who had been left behind. People invoked blessings for all the parents who lost children, and for all the children who lost their parents. A woman spoke of the victims of the “war on terror,” while another man asked for wisdom for our nation’s fractured political leadership. After a few minutes, as the bell continued to ring, a small voice arose, asking for compassion and forgiveness for the 19 hijackers responsible for the killings on that dark day.
My own experience tells me that forgiveness is an absolute necessity to healing. Had I lost my spouse or child on the morning of September 11, 2001, I am certain that forgiveness would be among the most difficult of aspirations. At the same time, I have seen for myself – in my own life, in the world around me, and more importantly, in the lives of others who have dealt with enormous tragedies – that anger can smolder for generations, begetting more and more individual and communal suffering.
I imagine it took a big dose of courage for someone to ask forgiveness for the hijackers this morning. But I am glad she said it. It seems that the human condition on our relatively tiny, deeply connected planet is deteriorating by the day. What if we all had that same strength to ask forgiveness – of those we have wronged and those who have wronged us? Imagine how radically different our world would be today.
(As part of this weekend’s activities, I also watched a screening of the 2007 documentary “The Power of Forgiveness,” which addresses the subject of 9/11 and the Amish school shooting in Nickle Mines, Lancaster County, Pa., plus the story of Thich Nhat Hanh and a father who befriended the grandfather and guardian of his son’s murderer. I highly recommend getting a copy of this documentary if you struggle with whether or not forgiveness is the right step – or even possible.)