Geraldine lived in one of the rough neighborhoods in Washington, DC. Derek, her only son, was thirteen. Derek’s father had disappeared many years earlier.
Samuel lived in the same neighborhood but knew neither Geraldine nor Derek. To gain membership in a street gang, Samuel had to demonstrate his toughness. So he got a gun.
One afternoon he was in a vacant lot when he saw a few of the gang members. This was his chance to prove himself. He pulled out the gun. “Hey, punk,” he called to a strange kid walking by. It was Derek. As Derek turned, Samuel pulled the trigger.
Derek was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Samuel was caught. Geraldine sat in the back of the courtroom through all the proceedings, her face stoical.
Samuel was convicted and sentenced to juvenile hall. As he was being led out of court, Geraldine stood and pointed at him: “You killed my Derek.” Her voice was low but carried through the courtroom. “And I’m going to kill you!”
Before the bailiff could reach her, she had turned and walked silently out of the chambers.
She went back to work the next day. She had to. Life goes on. But with Derek’s room empty, the apartment felt cold and lifeless.
Six weeks later she went to juvenile hall to meet Samuel up close. He walked in with an awkward swagger. But his eyes were unsteady. He slouched in a chair facing her.
She said nothing – just looked at him.
Finally, he looked away at the wall. “Sorry,” he said. “It wasn’t personal.”
“It wasn’t personal!” she exclaimed. “Derek liked applesauce with cinnamon. He liked to read stories. He put cheerios on the windowsill for birds. He was a person. It was very personal.”
Samuel twitched nervously. But he didn’t try to leave.
So she went on to tell him more about Derek, his likes, his dreams, his quirks.
Then she asked, “What’s it like here?”
“I can’t get cigarettes – no money.” He shrugged a little. “But I get three meals a day.”
Samuel didn’t volunteer information. But he responded obediently to her questions.
She found out that his mother was strung out on drugs or dead. He didn’t know for sure. He had no father. No friends. No one had visited him since his arrest. Nobody
She rose to leave. Then she turned back to him, opened her purse, took out a few dollars and said, “Here, this is for cigarettes.”
She began to visit him regularly, sometimes bringing small gifts like a pair of gloves to keep him warm in the drafty facility.
Years went by.
As his release date drew near she asked, “What are your plans when you get out?”
“Don’t have none,” he said.
“Where will you stay?”
“Don’t know. I’ll find something, I suppose.”
“I’ve got an empty room,” she said. “Why don’t you come stay with me?”
And so, Samuel moved into Derek’s bedroom. Geraldine found him a job. Without realizing it, he began to call her “mom.”
Then one afternoon when he came home, she said, “Come sit down. I want to talk with you.”
“Sure,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Remember the trial? Remember how I told that boy I was going to kill him?”
“Remember,” he shuttered. “How could I forget? Your words went through me like steel.”
“I meant what I said. I killed that boy. He no longer exists. I got rid of him forever. And in his place is you. And now I have another son.”
I found this story in a book called, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, by Jack Kornfield.* On a train from Washington to Philadelphia, Jack found himself sitting next to an African-American man who ran a rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders. Most of the youths were gang members who had committed homicide. He told Jack this story. I added names and a few details to ease the telling. But it’s a true story.
A pivotal moment in the story was when Geraldine gave Samuel money for cigarettes. I don’t think she was trying to get him to smoke himself to death. But the story I have is three tellings away from the actual events. It doesn’t say if she was already plotting to transform him – kill him with kindness as they say. Or if it was simply a spontaneous gesture.
Losing one’s child may be the most painful experience a human can endure. Thinking about the person who killed a loved one is conducive to righteousness and demonizing.
But at that moment, Derek’s death and Samuel’s role in it receded into the past. They weren’t forgotten. But they were a little in the background. In the foreground was a young man about the same age as her son – a boy who was confused and struggling awkwardly with his life.
Geraldine opened to that present moment and responded.
That is the essence of forgiveness: nothing more, nothing less. It is giving up trying to change the past and responding heartfully to the present.
This morning I would like to talk about forgiveness. On this first Sunday of a New Year, I’m supposed to talk about buckling down on those New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, exercise, meditate, be patient, whatever. But we all know resolve is a clumsy tool for self-improvement. Will power requires constant vigilance. Eventually we tire and our New Year’s resolve retires. As they say, “Habit is stronger than will.”
Rather than look at past failings and resolve to do different in the future, it is wiser to forgive ourselves in the present.
This is my annual New Year’s sermon on forgiveness. I’d like to explore forgiveness not as a moral commandment but as an experience that connects us more fully and mysteriously with life itself.
The essence of forgiveness is giving up trying to change the past. The experience of real forgiveness is an expansiveness or sense of freedom that comes with release from trying to change the impossible. As much as we might like to go back and change the past, we relax into the truth that the past is, indeed, beyond our reach.
Conversely, lack of forgiveness leaves us frozen. Life is always in flux. To engage deeply with life, we immerse ourselves in that fluidity. Lack of forgiveness takes us out of life’s flow by fixating on something in the past.
There are three kinds of situations where can get stuck in lack of forgiveness: (1) someone hurts us, (2) we hurt someone and (3) we hurt ourselves. Whatever the situation, something hardens or tightens up inside and won’t let go.
Let’s look at how forgiveness helps in each of these three situations.
The first situation arises after someone hurts us. Sometimes we accept this and move on with relative ease. Other times we get stuck in resentment, grudges, hurt, fear or lingering judgments. Think about times you’ve felt this. … Perhaps you even tried to forgive. But deep down you couldn’t let go. There is a lump in your heart.
What can you do?
First, distinguish between forgiveness and approval. One thing that can create that unmoving lump is the thought that what the person did was not okay. But saying, “I forgive you,” is not the same as saying “What you did was okay.”
Samuel killed Derek. Samuel was mixed up. Even if we empathize with his confusion, the killing was not okay. It was wrong.
All of us have been hurt, neglected, abused or put down in ways that are wrong.
However, at its deepest level, forgiveness is giving up trying to change the past. It’s not approval or disapproval of the past. Forgiveness merely says, “What happened is over. I can’t change it now. It is time to embrace what I feel now and let the present unfold as it will.”
Another thing that can create that lump is fear that the hurt is not over – fear that it will continue or repeat. It would be much harder to forgive Samuel if he was still roaming the streets ready to shoot people to prove his toughness.
If someone is stealing things from your desk or keeps hurtfully blowing you off, it may be hard to forgive them because it may happen again.
In this case it is helpful to distinguish between forgiveness and naïveté. To say, “I forgive you” is not the same as saying “I know you’ll never do it again.” That may be dumb.
Forgiveness is wise in letting the past be in the past. In the present, you may be wise to protect yourself or restrain the person or prevent the hurt from reoccurring.
This is why it is easier to forgive someone if they show genuine signs of remorse, regret or self-improvement. If not, you may want to be more attentive, confront the person, hold them accountable or avoid that relative who often turns abusive.
Just because you forgive someone doesn’t man you become passive. You can open your heart and still keep good boundaries. Taking appropriate action may help you to be able to forgive.
Whatever the case, forgiveness does not require naïveté.
A different kind of situation where we can get frozen in lack of forgiveness is when we have hurt someone or done something wrong. All of us have done things that are not okay. We may feel guilty. So think about guilt in your life. … Forgiveness is giving up trying to change the past. Guilt is a fixation on the past that leaves us stuck.
If this is the case, there are a few things you can do to loosen up that lump of guilt.
First, make amends: apologize, make restitution, do anything reasonable to alleviate the hurt or correct the mistake. If you don’t do this because of pride or fear or ego then, bless your heart, you should feel guilty. You are passively prolonging the hurt.
Second, reflect on how you came to do something you regret. Learn from your experience. Wisdom and self-knowledge grows out of such reflection.
Third, if you’ve made amends and gained some insight and still feel stuck on the past, you may need to look deeper. There may be something you are missing.
In these reflections it is helpful to distinguish between guilt and remorse. Both refer to lingering bad feelings. But guilt says you are a bad person who has done something bad. Remorse says you are a good person who has done something bad.
We are all inherently good. And we all do bad things. Wisdom and depth come from reflecting on this paradox.
For example, when I was ten I wanted to play king of the mountain with my friend Lindsey. He didn’t want to play. But I insisted. For our mountain, we used a picnic table in his back yard. I talked him into climbing up on it. Then, to start the game, I pushed him. He fell and broke his arm.
I felt so terrible that I ran home.
Later I genuinely apologized. It was all I could do. Lindsey didn’t hold a grudge, but his father was mad at me for years.
In my own ten-year-old way I did reflect on what I’d done. I saw I had acted out of enthusiasm, not meanness. And I saw I had been insensitive to Lindsey’s wishes. This taught me something, changed me a little and helped me grow.
My guilt feelings subsided. But my remorse lasted for years. In fact, to this day I regret breaking his arm. But I’m not stuck on it or see myself as being a bad person.
Remorse embraces the past without getting stuck. Remorse is a healthy response to doing something wrong. Guilt is not. Remorse helps us become humbler and wiser.
The third area where forgiveness is helpful is when we have hurt ourselves – we are both the perpetrator and the victim, the harmer and the harmed. Everything I’ve said about the other two arenas can be helpful here: apologizing heartfully to oneself, making amends, reflecting on how you came to hurt yourself, separating remorse and guilt, and so forth.
This arena can be both subtle and pervasive. For millions of years we evolved in small hunting and gathering bands. The shift to agricultural, city, industrial, and post-industrial cultures happened in only a few thousand years. This is not long enough for our biology to adapt.
Hunters and gatherers worked three or four hours a day. How many hours do you work? They lived close to nature. Education was an organic part of tribal life. There was no processed food. Exercise was part of living. There were difficulties, to be sure. But it is natural – we are biologically wired – to live this way.
A large part of our difficulty adapting to 21st century life is that it makes unnatural demands on us. When we have difficulty adjusting, rather than making New Year’s resolutions to “do better,” we are wiser to reflect on why we did what we did and forgive ourselves. This allows us to be in the present and cope with more clarity and kindness.
There is a natural joy – a brightness and lightness of being – that is part of our natural selves. The Buddha described a road map that goes from this joy all the way to nirvana, enlightenment or merging with the divine. Joy is where this path to nirvana begins.
If this joy – this lightness and brightness – is elusive, the most effective medicine is not self-indulgence, tough spiritual discipline, or greater resolve. It is forgiving ourselves for having a mind that gets stressed, a heart that gets pulled in many directions, habits that aren’t always fulfilling, eating patterns that aren’t optimal, or whatever disturbs.
The road to the joy that leads to enlightenment begins with self-forgiveness.
To summarize, let’s go back to another pivotal moment in Geraldine’s story: the moment she decided to visit Samuel in juvenile prison.
The version of the story I have is not explicit about what she was feeling or intending. But I can imagine her sitting in that empty apartment with her grief, anger, and despair like an immovable lump in her heart. She doesn’t know what to do next. She’s frozen.
A subtle force in her wants to be alive and loving and whole. It says, “To get moving, you have look into that young man’s eyes for Derek’s sake and for your own.“ So she confronts Samuel, not to vent her feelings but to see who it was who could do something so monstrous. Who was he really? She wants to see the raw truth.
If she had seen a hopelessly damaged psychopath, she might have felt pity for his miserable existence. She could have forgiven him and left never to return.
But she saw a lost young man who had done some terrible things and who was struggling to say he was sorry. She saw redeemable good in him.
Forgiveness is not about right and wrong, okay and not okay. It’s not moralistic. It’s not about being passive or naïve. In essence, it’s about seeing the truth and acting from it. Truth without love is not truthful. Love without truth is not loving.
All of us have done bad things. All of us have goodness at our core. All of us struggle awkwardly to resolve this paradox. All of us deserve forgiveness. All of us would be wise to find ways to forgive ourselves. All of us have the ability to live enlightened lives. Regardless of what you’ve done in the past, you have the ability to live lives of depth and service from this moment on.
* Bantam Books, 2000. p. 235-236
Copyright 2008 by Doug Kraft. First delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento, on Sunday, January 4, 2008.
I gave at least one talk on forgiveness each year, often right after New Years. Below are links to some of these talks: