I believe in forgiveness because it works a kind of magic that is hard to come by in our disenchanted and heartbreaking world. I know a man whose only son was shot and killed while delivering pizzas at his part-time job. Azim told me that when he got the news that his son had been killed by a fourteen year old gang member, it was as if a nuclear bomb had detonated inside of his heart. He was in so much pain that he felt himself leave his body. When he returned to normal consciousness, it was with the awareness that there were victims on both ends of the gun. My friend ended up reaching out to and forgiving his son’s killer—and his forgiveness has created magic. He and the shooter’s grandfather have spent the last decade working together to prevent gang and school violence. And perhaps more importantly, my friend has found peace and a kind of happiness within a situation where most would find only despair.
Azim’s story is one of epic forgiveness—so big and beyond the ordinary that it seems as if forgiveness may be reserved for saints. But the kind of forgiveness I believe in is the everyday forgiveness without which it is hard to get through the day much less a lifetime. I believe in the magic of forgiveness because I practice it the way some people practice yoga or good manners or funny faces in the mirror and I have learned a bit about the way it works. Forgiveness is one of those things that is stunningly simple but far from easy. It is also one of those things that I regret not doing sooner in life, like stopping smoking or breaking up with the perfectly wrong guy. I’ve learned that I’d rather be happy than be right and I’ve also learned that I needed to contemplate that idea for a good, long time before I really understood it at all.
I teach literature classes at a community college and sometimes I have my students take their favorite poems or song lyrics and change just one word—they are usually amazed at the difference a single word makes. I think about Dr. King going to our nation’s capital and telling a quarter of a million Americans about his plan or his idea or even his vision and I am again blown away by the way that his dream started with the word itself. And so it is with forgiveness. The word, itself, gives us the key to making use of its magic. The prefix for means before and so to forgive means to give before. When I consider this formula I am struck by its simplicity and humbled by its challenge. When I practice forgiveness, I give first. For me, that means giving a listening ear before I get a spoken apology. It can mean giving the benefit of the doubt before I get the benefit of a satisfactory explanation. Maybe I’ll need to give release before I get restitution. Whatever it is that I am asked to give before, I am always rewarded with a kind of magic once I do it. When I heard that the Amish community had forgiven the man who had murdered its innocent children, I was strengthened in my belief that forgiveness is powerful magic and that the magic is for the one who has forgiven. It is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.
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