I recently wrote a post about the four requirements in life for happiness: friends and family, doing for others, forgiveness and gratitude. Of these four, the one that seems the hardest for me (and many others) is the one involving forgiveness. How is it possible to forgive those who have hurt us deeply and grievously?
Occasionally, you turn on the news (something I tend to avoid these days in order to preserve my sanity), and you see a story about a person whose family member was killed by a drunk driver, or died during the commission of a violent crime, and the person comes forth to publicly forgive the perpetrator. You wonder; how can these people find it within themselves to forgive someone who caused them so much pain?
I mentioned earlier how Nelson Mandela forgave those who held him unjustly in horrific conditions for 27 years because he realized that was the only way he could be free of the prison his life had become. In doing so, he also became instrumental in avoiding the mass genocide of millions of white South Afrikaners. I recall a few years ago on a visit to Johannesburg staying with such a family, and having them share this remarkable story with us. In 1990, when De Klerk announced he would release Mandela and fully dismantle apartheid, ceding rule of South Africa to its predominately black population, everyone expected a blood bath to follow. The couple we were staying with, in their mid-fifties, told us that every white person was armed to the teeth, carrying cell phones, and waiting for the start of the violence in which they all fully expected to die based on how outnumbered they were by all those they had oppressed through generations. Their first sign of hope in the truth of Mandela’s promise to avoid retribution came when Mandela as the newly elected president attended the rugby match between South Africa’s all white Springboks and the powerful New Zealand All Blacks. Rugby and their Springbok team had an almost religious following among the Afrikaners, and this pivotal, history changing event is the center of the movie Invictus with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.
Those brought up in the Christian faith are all familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, recited innumerable times in our lives, often with little attention to the true meaning of “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…” Yes, we all desire forgiveness for our sins, for the wrongs we have caused. But do we really forgive those who have wronged us? The history of the human race is interlaced with conflict, war, violence, hate – all because we do not see the need to forgive those who have wronged us, feeling our grievance is just and our enmity equitable for the wrongs against us. We not only hold anger against those who have harmed us, but against those whose family members have hurt our family members, against those whose race have caused harm to our race, our people. Be it the Hatfields and the McCoys, the Irish and the British, the Jews and the Arabs, the white and the black races, we do not forgive. As the song from the musical South Pacific says, “You have to be taught early to hate, before you are six, seven or eight…”
I remember someone I once considered a close friend. We spent a lot of time together, worked and traveled together, enjoyed many of the same passions in life. I was the best man at his wedding. One day, as someone who had ownership in a building, he came to me and told me that if I didn’t rent space from him and his partners, they would send all their business to a competitor. I was shocked and angry, asking him how he could do this to someone who was his friend. His reply was, “This is nothing personal. It’s only business.” Though we still talk occasionally, that interaction ended our relationship. I was not able to forgive him for what I felt was a callous choice of money over friendship or the willingness to use what I felt was blackmail for financial benefit. I’m older now, and while I still feel his actions were wrong, I perhaps didn’t consider what pressures were placed upon him to come to me with his offer, or to accept him as a flawed person with other redeeming characteristics. None of us are perfect, and we all view the flaws of others as greater than our own. I reached out to him a few times, but our lives have followed different paths, and he has not seen a need to expand effort in trying to revive a relationship from the past. At least now, I feel I can forgive him, and perhaps ask if there is anything from him for which I need to ask forgiveness.
What is there in your life for which you need to give forgiveness? And what is there for which you need to ask to be forgiven? Don’t wait too long. Not if you want to be happy.