Forgiveness and Compassion

This week, I finished a book on the Columbine shootings. The piece was written by Dave Cullen, a New York Times journalist, who lived through the media circus that was the coverage of the massacre. The story uses hindsight to delve into many of the myths surrounding the shootings, the perpetrators, the victims, and the culture that permeated Columbine High School. The story is expertly told. However, I did not find the dispelling of the cultural myths attributed to school shootings to be the most compelling aspect of the book. For me, it was the stories of the ability of direct victims and the Littleton community to forgive the shooters and themselves for what transpired on April 20th, 1999.

Forgiveness has always been a somewhat foreign concept to me. I consider myself a compassionate person. I try to live my life with compassion and joy, and my moral compass is guided by a “Do no harm” mantra. Somewhere near the end of the book, the author quotes Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

As a twenty-something user of social media, this quote brings up images of vast landscapes with Helvetica text over top. It is supposed to be inspiring and uplifting.

However, the quote goes on in the novel:

“But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Not very uplifting anymore, is it? But I get it. If you refuse to bend to suffering, you will surely die. Maybe not in a literal sense, but certainly in a metaphorical one. I believe it was the Buddha who said “Life is suffering.” And it is. Life is pain and suffering. Life is natural disasters and cancer and death taking our loved ones from our arms. To live life is to be heartbroken.

If you’ll excuse my quasi-literary analysis here, but I believe that’s what Hemingway was getting at. To truly live is to feel pain, but to rise again. So many people ask themselves how they can possibly keep going? When you are in pain, it is completely natural to wallow in that pain, to feel the hurt in your bones, to feel like it is going to last forever. And it will. True pain does last forever. Patrick Ireland, one of the survivors of the Columbine shootings, was shot in the head by Eric Harris. He has permanent brain damage. He still graduated valedictorian of his high school after he left an intense year and a half of physical and speech therapy. He re-learned how to walk when he was told he would never walk again. In 2008, he was married to his college sweetheart and walked her down the aisle, sporting a leg brace that he will wear for the rest of his life. Patrick Ireland’s pain is with him every day of his life. But he is quoted as saying that he would have never been able to get where he was if he didn’t find it within himself to forgive what had been done to him. He forgave the troubled boy who put a bullet in his head. He forgave him and moved forward at a time that even his own mother couldn’t.

Last month, Desmond Tutu initiated the Global Forgiveness Challenge. Tutu believes that being able to forgive is being able to let go of pain. To not let the pain kill you.

I have been hurt in my life. I have been hurt in ways so deep that very few people have ever heard me explain the full story. I have been heartbroken, vengeful, and enraged. I am not a perfect person. I do not forgive easily. But I am slowly starting to realize that everyone, literally everyone, no matter how deep they cut you, deserves to be forgiven. If you cannot forgive them for their sake, forgive them for yours. The pain will be with you every time they enter your thoughts. You will feel it boiling deep inside your stomach. Everything they ever made you feel will wash over you and chain your hands behind your back. You will not be able to move, and thus you will not be able to move on.

Forgiveness is hard. I admit it. There are days when I think of the way people have hurt me and I can barely stand the pain I feel. But I have to let it go. I have to forgive. If I do not forgive, I become the perpetrator of pain. It’s one of those cliché sayings that you always hear people throw out, but it is true that hurt people hurt people.

Forgiveness is a process. It is on-going. I have to work at it every day. I have to fight for it. I have to fight harder for it than I have to fight for anything. I have to love people. I have to be vulnerable to them and love them so that I can forgive them. You don’t have to like someone to love them. You don’t even have to talk to someone to love them. But you have to respect them. You have to respect them and see them and open yourself to them so that you may live with grace and honesty and compassion.

While I obviously can’t make any promises, I’m sure that Desmond Tutu has days where his pain seems unbearable and he is so angry at those who have hurt him. I’m sure the Dalai Lama has days where his pain seems unbearable and he is so angry at those who have hurt him. Even Jesus, who was said to be God personified, had days where his pain seemed unbearable. He was angry and those who had hurt him. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tried to bargain with God. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!” He was afraid of the pain and angry at a brother for betraying him. I am not a religious person, but this has always been one of my favorite Bible stories. The Jesus we see on the eve of crucifixion is Jesus, the man, not Jesus, Our Lord and Savior.

You will be afraid and you will feel pain. Pain is unavoidable. Happy lives are not without suffering. It is when we can forgive ourselves and those whom have hurt us that we can grow and find strength. If you are unwilling to forgive, as Hemingway puts it, the world will not spare you.