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Forgiveness

Who hasn’t trotted out the reliable saying “I’d rather seek forgiveness than ask for permission.” It’s a good line, I have used myself. It states a desire to soldier on in a quest to achieve something that might be delayed or dismantled or rebranded if we stay patient and “go through the proper channels.” It shows that we are the visionary, and the bureaucracy that we battle is compliant-focused, inflexible, and tunnel-visioned.

Asking for forgiveness can be a tad uncomfortable, awkward, and even painful if our results don’t align with our vision. Then, we may have leaned into what our noble intentions were, the hoped-for benefits of our grand design, and the mitigating factors that waylaid our excellence. Many of us would rather sit in the smoldering “if only” much more easily than in the foggy “it could have been…”

But what about forgiveness? How easily is that attained? How readily is it dispensed? How complete is it? Who is most likely to be the most generous with it? How often do we know if it is really ever accepted?

I might have more readily gained your attention if I had started with this story. Wander back in time almost exactly 16 years to October 2, 2006. The date may not flag a quick recollection. The place might: Lancaster, PA. An angry 32-year-old dairy truck driver barricaded himself in a one-room Amish schoolhouse and systematically executed five Amish girls and wounded six others. As police surrounded the building, Charles C. Roberts IV, the gunman, shot and killed himself.

It was difficult for me to type that last paragraph, and I found it even harder to use this awful story to help me illustrate the point of this essay. Most of the time when tragedies like this occur, it’s become common practice not to use the shooter’s name and give him more attention. It’s hard to know, but sometimes easy to judge, why a troubled mind and desperate heart chooses to act out in such a way as this.

Naomi, Marian, Anna, Lena, and Mary Liz died as a result of the shooting at the West Nickel Mines School that awful October day. The same day, yes, the same day that the shooting took place, one of the girls’ grandfathers was heard imploring anyone who would listen that “We must not think evil of this man.” Was he in shock, did he really know what he was saying?

Another Amish man noted that the killer had a wife and children and “was now standing in the presence of a just God.” An Amish neighbor extended sympathy and comfort to the Roberts family and was with Roberts’ sobbing father, holding him in his arms for nearly an hour, trying to console him. 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and many of the Amish community donated to a charitable fund for the man’s family.

That’s probably a lot more than I meant to delve into that story. I just felt that the story needed enough context to illustrate what true forgiveness means. I have one daughter, and one granddaughter, and I have no idea how I would react if something of this nature befell them. I am thinking that my reaction would be less Amish than this.

A book has been written about this incident and there was a play Hallmark Movie Network made a movie based on the book as well. I’m guessing you haven’t heard of them. Forgiveness isn’t as trendy or as sexy or as visceral as revenge. Keanu Reeves has made three “John Wick” movies about a paid killer, and an internet search revealed that the character personally killed 299 people in revenge for someone having killed his dog. “John Wick” is a legendary movie character with a huge brand and the series has made billions of dollars in theaters… Needless to say, it is totally devoid of any references to forgiveness, grace, or forbearance.

Had the Amish set out on a crusade to wreak havoc and revenge, would anything have brought back Naomi, Marian, Anna, Lena, and Mary Liz? Of course not.

Studies have shown the enormous toll that anger, bitterness, and resentment, all ingredients, and contributors to seeking revenge are unhealthy and toxic to our systems. Think of any revenge-based movie, book, or related stories… does the avenging hero or heroine dance or sing or celebrate once they have achieved their pound of flesh? Do we ever feel bad about some peripheral or incidental death or destruction that takes place that the wrongly widowed, orphaned, or similarly victimized protagonist causes on their quest to even the score?

Granted, there were those who took issue with how the Amish handled this monumental tragedy. There were those who said when evil occurs that we need to call it by name and make sure that it is plainly identified and not given any opportunity to gain a foothold or branch off or flourish. The world would have understood a lot of responses to such a ghastly occurrence, but it struggled to understand this level of forgiveness.

Would I be able to sit outside a prison cell and commiserate and converse and forgive and forget a person who took away the lives of people that I hold dear? I don’t think that I can ever answer that question, and I pray with all my might that I am never put in the position to have to do so.

Some of us might be able to conjure up forgiveness and compassion for a stranger who is responsible for the death or grievous injury of a loved one in a car accident or similar mishap. We might it easier to do that than forgive a close relative or friend who we believe heinously perpetrated some awful breach of trust or dereliction of friendship.

We know that the old notion of “forgive and forget” is nonsense. We keep track. We keep score. We minimize our own infractions while magnifying the offenses against us. Do we loudly proclaim, “forgive us our trespasses” and then mumble or go silent on the next phrase “as we forgive those who trespass against us”?

There is freedom in releasing those who we try to hold in the detention of our grudges, anger, and bitterness. We might find the Amish amusing and out of touch with their insistence on eschewing modern conveniences. How has any road rage you might have expressed in your daily commute served you well as you went on your way?

That grandfather might have been on to something. Are we too quick to jump right into thinking evil of someone?

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Tom Dietzler
Tom Dietzler
Lifelong, proud somewhat strident Wisconsinite, I love my state and love to sing its praises. A bon vivant and raconteur, lover of history, literature and good conversations. Laughter and music are salves that I frequently am applying to my soul. I have spent time (too much) in manufacturing and printing and have found great joy in my current position as director of operations at a large church in the same area where I grew up. Husband to Rhonda and father of two adult children Melanie and Zack, I’m the constant companion of my five-year-old Lab, Oliver, who is my muse to a lot of my stories. I’m a fan of deep conversation and my interests are in learning and gaining wisdom, so in the last few years I have become and less politically vocal, and hopefully more respectful and open-minded. Rhonda and I sold our home in 2018, bought a condo and have traveled a bit more, golfed a bit more and are enjoying life a bit more. If you take the time to get to know me, prepare yourself for an invite to the 30th state to join the union, a gem located in the upper Midwest, full of beautiful scenery formed by the glaciers, with lots of lakes and trees and gorgeous scenery, and the nicest people that you’d ever want to meet.

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5 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Hey Tom

    First, I must address the movie reference. . . For a slight change of context. . “Until that dog arrived on my doorstep. A final gift from my wife. In that moment I received some semblance of hope. An opportunity to grieve unalone.” ~ The fictional John Wick

    OK, I share that in part to change the context of your presentation of the question (and I’m certainly not saying that it justifies the carnage that follows in the film). After all, it wasn’t about the dog. . .

    But therein is the issue, right.

    From here, I would be happy to take this one offline. Call me, or email if you don’t have my number.

    • Ok, Aaron – I made a point and I took a lazy writer’s angle and oversimplified something. Yes, there is way more to “John Wick” than nasty people killing his dog and John wreaking havoc thereafter. There would be no John Wick franchise with a softened, grace-filled answer as I am suggesting. My point was about the popularity of the books/movies of the two ends of the spectrum. Oversimplifying is never the right way to go. I understand your point. I do have your number. I will make that call. Thanks, as always for your friendship.

  2. Tom, I am not a religious person, but as I was reading your fine piece, my minions went diving through my rusty mental filing cabinets. “Here it is,” one said, waving a yellowed piece of paper. “Read it,” I replied.

    “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.”

    Yes, that’s it. Who am I to judge the Amish? Who am I to judge anyone, for that matter? When you think about it, isn’t that (one of) the blights we suffer under today? “I don’t like what you’re saying, believing, how you’re acting, so I’m going to find a way not to let you do it.” Examples? Books. Gender identity. Abortion/the right to choose. Guns. Same-sex marriages etc. Maybe “I don’t like how you’re thinking” is next. Whatever happened to tolerance? Whatever happened to talking it out? Thoughtful debate? Compromise?

    Our noble experiment is on the brink. We’ve lost our way. And that’s because there’s no “we,” just “us” versus “them.” It’s not even about those issues anymore. It’s about the power to decide. The power to judge.

    • Jeff, I can always depend on you for deep dives into the topics we share here. I agree with you that there is groupthink and mischaracterization at the heart of many things that divide us today. One of the things that strikes me, and it may be the anchor to another thesis that gets tossed out in this platform is how many people, too many, on both sides of most issues, are puritanical. I will own this feature – I am 100% without any equivocation a puritan on freedom of speech. I allow no truck with any backsliding or softness for censorship or curtailing the right to express oneself. I allow myself that, I feel it is that important. Take a bunch of other me’s to other topics and anchor them just as securely to their points of view in all the areas that you addressed and then we have a people snarling over barricades and no one talking to anyone.

      Here is the caveat: I will discuss my feelings and anyone’s feelings about the freedom of speech anywhere, anytime and endlessly, if need be. What happens in today’s discourse, or lack thereof, is unwillingness to speak about many of these things because someone believes that they are so obvious, and clear to any thinking person, that discussing them is beyond the pale. That’s where I believe we have lost our way – it’s not that there are some sins that are so unforgiveable, or that we shouldn’t judge people… I believe that I am fallible and human enough that I require to be judged and reined in at times, and that I can be wrong. Not everyone holds to those viewpoints – there are somethings that some people just cannot discuss. That, at least in a general sense, is unforgivable.

      • Tom, a key question that I try to keep in my head came from author Monica Guzman, and it goes something like this: “What might I be missing about this person or situation?” That has served to make me put the breaks on jumping to judgment. And just to be clear, I’m talking about everyday political discourse, not the person who walks into an elementary school and murders kids.

        My only personal caveat on speech is to reserve my comments for the ideas, not the person. I respect a healthy, honest debate. What I won’t warm up to are personal attacks. I have often chosen not to respond to a few people here because it’s not in the spirit of 360°. As my mother used to say, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.”

        Thanks, Tom, for a thought-provoking piece.

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