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(UPDATED : Just wanted to add that I wrote this because I honestly find it hard to know what forgiveness really means and whether or not it's something people feel obliged to do, rather than because they actually feel any real connection to the concept of forgiveness - is it more that we are told we will feel better if we do? I think some people thought I was asking "should we forgive?" and I'm not, I'm asking what it looks like to forgive, what form it takes and how we know if we've done it or not! I have often felt very guilty and somehow less of a person as I seem unable to achieve this "forgiveness" thing, in fact, I can't even really work out what it is!)
Forgiveness is a concept that really fascinates me. Possibly because I seem so unable to do it! Well, that's not entirely true, I can forgive the small, insignificant things. I'll forgive you if you say or do something hurtful without meaning to, I'll forgive you if you forget my birthday (!), I'll forgive you if you do all sorts of things but, when it comes to the really big things, the things that truly matter, I seem to stumble.
I've been ruminating on what "forgiveness" actually means for quite literally years. In fact, ever since a very close friend of mine was murdered back in 1980. If you'd have asked me in the years following his death, I think I'd have said one of those non-committal things like "who am I to forgive anything?" or "what does my forgiveness matter?" but, deep down, I think I'd have avoided directly answering the question because I don't much like the truthful answer.
In all honesty, have I forgiven the perpetrator? I'm not at all sure I have.
I was motivated to write a blog piece about forgiveness after the dreadful events in Aurora, Colorado as I had already seen and heard some of the relatives talking about forgiveness. I remember in the aftermath of the Amish school shootings, the one thing that really struck me, was their immediate ability to forgive the perpetrator and their actions following that fateful day. They sent a delegation to attend his funeral, they genuinely seemed to harbor no ill will towards him and I was at that time, and still remain, somewhat envious of that position.
And yet, even the Amish community seemed to concede that they struggled to find a way of coping with their grief. Maybe that admission allowed me to somehow feel that I wasn't the only person who was quite so incapable of "moving on" from what happened to me.
I won't copy over here my entire blog post as I'm sure those of you who wish to, can read it on the blog linked to above, but I'd like to take a few excerpts from it and post them here as I'm genuinely interested in how other people come to their own versions of forgiveness and, indeed, interested to know if they ever do!
The point which has always had me stumbling, is that I can't seem to separate my emotions about what happened, from the actuality which was that the perpetrator was very seriously mentally ill (both sides agreed on this at sentencing although the Judge, for reasons best known to himself, decided he was fit to plead guilty, despite him declaring that "God had directed him plead that way" against his own lawyer's advice.)
I've seen the guy represented on various documentaries about the murder subsequently, even heard his words as he has spoken to people from prison about the event, but still, I cannot really either understand what he did, or find anyway of truly forgiving him. I mean, I want to forgive him, but I just don't know that I do. I can't blame him, perhaps instead I blame a society that allowed him to fall through the proverbial cracks and not receive the treatment he so obviously needed. I'm anti the death penalty and have campaigned long and hard against it for decades. The murder of my friend did not alter my feelings about that one little bit, I would not have supported it for the perpetrator of his murder any more than I would ever support it for any other perpetrator.
Does anyone really forgive? I know people say they do and I don't doubt their sincerity, but I suppose I just wonder what that looks like for them. What does it translate into? What does it actually mean?
As I wrote in the blog :
The murder affected many of those around me in different ways - some seemed able to move on, others did not. I can think of at least one person who rarely left his house afterwards, installed a plethora of security devices and became nervous and uncomfortable whenever he was around large groups of people. I was very angry about that for years, angry that one mad act had changed someone else that I loved dearly, changed their life and made their life so much more difficult and, for a long time, so very unhappy. And not just those around me, it also changed the way I lived my life, changed the entire course of my life in many ways and, even more than that, it left an indelible stain on me, something which I've never been able to shake off, about the absolute absurdity of existence coupled with the enormity of realizing that terrible things happen all the time to really good people. Not that anyone deserves to be gunned down and murdered of course, but just that it took away my innocence for ever - that one single-second act, changed my view of the world permanently.I grieved for the loss of my friend in my own way, but for many years I couldn't cry about it and I've never understood that either. A couple of years ago I did an interview about his death for a British archive and, only when doing that, did I realize just how emotional I still was about it. Towards the end of the piece, I had to ask them to stop recording as I was incapable of coherent speech, something which I didn't feel ready to share with the world at that point. Even writing about it is something which is truly very difficult for me as, yet again, it brings up emotions and feelings which seem to lie deep within me that I'm not particularly proud of and always hope might dull or disappear given enough time.
I wish I could work out what it means to forgive someone because I can't help feeling it would somehow be an important thing for me to learn and/or know. Wouldn't society be so much better if we could all forgive? If we were all able to rationalize terrible events or actions, or if we could all somehow draw on faith or something deep within us to assist us with processing such things? I have a feeling it would.
I finished my blog by talking about the future ...
And, in case you're wondering, the perpetrator of the murder of my friend, was charged with second degree murder. He initially entered a plea of "not guilty by reason of insanity" (something I don't disagree with), but he subsequently changed this to a "guilty" plea, against his lawyer's advice, claiming that "God had ordered him to enter a guilty plea" and was declared competent to plead guilty (something which I DON'T necessarily agree with). The judge finally ordered that he should receive psychiatric treatment in prison and sentenced him to 20 years to life imprisonment. He has subsequently taken part in various documentaries about his conviction, speaking mostly by telephone from the penitentiary. He has lobbied for release on parole a number of times but, thus far, has never been released. I suspect he WILL one day be released and, much as I support the idea of rehabilitation and the concept of everyone deserving a second chance, I really can't begin to imagine (if I'm honest) how I would cope with his release, if it ever happened...But, being someone who has never been able to offer platitudes or say things that I don't truly mean, I'm still stuck with not being at all sure if I'm ready, willing or prepared to forgive and I'm completely confused about whether it matters or not? And, again being entirely honest, my desire to be able to work out how people forgive is not motivated purely by altruism, I also feel like less of a person not being able to do it, almost as though society condemns those of us who cannot quite get there.
I'll say again, I genuinely don't doubt the sincerity of those people who say they forgive, but I suppose I'm always left wondering if deep down, they really do?
I wouldn't go so far as to say I don't forgive, but just that I don't know if I do or not as I'm not at all sure what it means, if that makes any sense?
What do others think and what does forgiveness mean, as a concept, to you?