Give Forgiveness A Chance

Imagine if the anniversary of John Lennon's murder became a day of forgiving - a difficult virtue with the potential power to heal

December 07, 2006|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Reporter

"He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself." Chinese proverb

One Saturday morning 14 years ago, Veda Allen's son, Everette Farmer, 22, went out to run some errands. What happened next, she doesn't remember too clearly - only, really, the knock at the door, the one many mothers dread.

It was a friend of her son's, there to tell her that a gunman had just accosted her boy in the streets. He was dead. The sudden loss of a child is an almost incomprehensible blow, but Allen found, to her amazement, that her sorrow was only beginning. For weeks, she woke up every morning crying out, "Oh, no, God, I'm still here." Her grief was so heavy it seemed to pin her to her bed. And when her darkness started enveloping her family - "I watched them just ball up," she says - she saw that the killer's crime was on the verge of claiming them all.

What happened next, Allen doesn't wholly understand, but she began to pray for the man who killed her son.

She has no great love for the offender, who never spent time in jail. She must work, day to day, to sustain her attitude of good will. But her decision bears out what a growing number of behavioral scientists have been learning: forgiveness heals.

"If I hadn't started [those prayers], I'd be homeless, in an insane asylum, maybe ready to commit murder myself," says Allen, 58, with three surviving grown children and 16 grandchildren. "Now, I can see the goodness in life and share it with the people I love. Without forgiveness, I'd have nothing."

Strangely enough for a virtue that has underpinned the world's great religions for millennia, forgiveness has been in the news a lot lately.

Two weeks ago, Yoko Ono took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, proclaiming tomorrow, the 26th anniversary of the slaying of her husband, Beatles member John Lennon, a day of world forgiveness and healing.

"Let's wish strongly that one day we will be able to say that we healed ourselves, and by healing ourselves, we healed the world," she wrote in a meandering open letter. She added, almost as an afterthought, that "as the widow of one who was killed by an act of violence, I don't know if I am ready yet to forgive the one who pulled the trigger."

In October, the Amish of Lancaster County, Pa., awed countless people with their unflinching and immediate forgiveness of the man who killed five schoolgirls in their community.

Then last month, O.J. Simpson briefly sought to peddle a book about the 1994 slayings of his wife and her friend, Ron Goldman. Goldman's father, Fred, still seemed consumed by anger toward the athlete-actor who'd been accused and acquitted in criminal court of the killings - a living reminder of the heartbreaking consequences of unforgiveness.

A human condition

For the famous and the not-so-famous, forgiveness is always a current event, because it's basic to the human condition.

"People will always hurt each other, betray each other in large ways and small," says Kim Sutter, a pastoral counselor who has practiced in Baltimore for more than 20 years. "As long as we live in a fallen world, there will be injustices. Forgiveness is the only thing that breaks the chain of bad human behavior."

In 1995, a Spokane, Wash., religion professor, Jerry Sittser, published A Grace Disguised, a book in which he recounted the head-on auto collision in Idaho that killed his wife, mother and son, shattering his life in an instant. By way of reclaiming that life, he explored and described the nature of healthy grieving. Our attitudes toward loss, he says, are more significant than the losses themselves.

Unforgiveness "can occur on a smaller scale, as we [see] in family feuds, gang warfare and conflicts between former friends," he writes. "[Or] it can occur on a large scale, as we see in Northern Ireland or in the Middle East. ... More destruction has been done from unforgiveness than from all the wrongdoing in the world that created the conditions for it."

An inability to forgive on a personal level "makes a person sick by projecting the same scene of pain into the soul day after day," Sittser writes, "as if it were a videotape that never stops. That repetition pollutes the soul." Forgiveness means, among other things, "that we refuse to play the videotape over and over again. We put it on the shelf. ... We play other tapes that are healing to us."

Forgiveness has become a hot topic among researchers in numerous fields, from sociology to religion to psychiatry.

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