by Dave Davis
If you are anything like me, there are moments during a given day when something you’ve come across has triggered an image or memory from an earlier time, and you find yourself playing a mental game of “what if?”
What if I had been more sensitive to my friend, and not used such hurtful words that time? What if I cleared up that misunderstanding I had with a coworker at my last job, before leaving the company? What if I told my partner how much they’ve really hurt me, rather than continuing to erect a wall to protect myself?
For many of us, these types of wounds run deep, embedded not only within our psyche over the course of years, but often manifesting themselves as part of our physical being in one form or another. The degree to which we hold onto such hurtfulness throughout our past often defines our courses of action moving forward. If left to germinate and fester, they eventually limit our ability to experience life to its fullest potential in the present moment.
As many writers and spiritualists who subscribe to the Eastern perspective might agree, forgiveness isn’t solely about the other person, but more so originates from within. It’s about examining our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses so that we may establish a more solid foundation of connectedness.
A few years ago, Jack Kornfield, an author and teacher who is recognized for pioneering the concept of mindfulness in the Western Hemisphere, led a talk on behalf of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley titled “The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness,” where he divided the presentation into several distinct components.
Though I found each portion of the talk quite relevant to the subject, it was the middle segment where Kornfield shared a personal conversation he had with a fellow train passenger, who described an emotional story about an incarcerated young gang member and the enraged mother of his defenseless victim. That story held me captive.
He began by taking us into a courtroom, where the 14 year-old had just been convicted of murdering an innocent kid as part of an initiation into a street gang. As the boy is being escorted out in handcuffs, the mother of his victim stands up, stops the procession, looks him straight in the eye and emphatically states, “I’m going to kill you!”
Fast forward a year or so into his incarceration. To the dismay of the convicted teen, the victim’s mother appears at the prison one day, requesting to speak with him. They have a short conversation, and before leaving, she leaves him some money, knowing that he has little or none to his name. Over the course of several years, she continues to visit him at regular intervals, each time, wanting to understand more about this person who killed her only child.
As the young man is about to be released when he turns 18, the victim’s mother asks him what he intends to do once he gets out. He has no idea; he’s without family or anyone to assist him. Knowing this, she says that maybe she can help by lining up an interview with a friend who runs a small factory in the area. The parole officer supports her effort, and subsequently, he is hired. She then asks him where he intends to live, and once again, he is at a loss. Not willing to let him wander the streets, she insists that he take the spare room in her own house. He does.
After some six months of their arrangement, she invites him to join her in the living room to discuss something very important regarding his future. She proceeds by asking him if he remembers what she said when confronting him as he was being taken out of the courtroom in cuffs.
He replies, “Yes Ma’am, I’ll never forget that day.”
What she says next brought me (and no doubt everyone in the audience) to tears.
She responds, “Well I have forgotten. I didn’t want a boy who could kill in cold blood like that to still continue to exist in this world. So I set about visiting you, and giving you presents and bringing you things and taking care of you, because I don’t have that son anymore. He was the only one I lived with. I set about changing you, and I know that you aren’t that same person anymore. I want to know if you will stay here. I need a son and want to know if I can adopt you.”
He said “yes” and she did.
Is Kornfield’s story a more extreme example of one’s capacity to forgive? Maybe, but it also reinforces a sentiment that he conveyed to his audience earlier on in the talk, when reflecting upon the options we all have in life: “Forgiveness is the capacity to let go. To release the suffering, the sorrows, the burdens, the betrayals of the past, and instead, choose this mystery of love.”
Ultimately, he later adds, “It’s the freedom to choose your spirit, no matter what the circumstance in life.”