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?