Forgiveness, the treasure hidden in plain sight

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
On August 22 of 2006, in a mine in the tiny southern African kingdom of Lesotho, a golf-ball sized 603-carat diamond subsequently named the "Lesotho Promise" was unearthed. The diamond, the biggest found in 13 years and the 15th largest in the world, is described by gem experts as being of exceptional color quality and almost flawless. Less than two months after it was found the diamond was sold at auction in Antwerp, Belgium, for $12 million -- more than 3,870 times the tiny nation's per capita annual income. Thus, almost overnight, a treasure which had lain hidden for millions of years became both a symbol of national pride and a cause for celebration for the citizens of this out-of-the-way country.

Exactly a week before the Lesotho Promise was sold, a half a world away in the tiny town of Nickel Mines, Pa., a very different discovery was made. A discovery that, despite the unspeakable horror of the events that exposed it, reveals the presence of a very different kind of treasure. A treasure ready to be discovered by all of us who are committed to becoming second-mile leaders in our homes, workplaces, worship spaces and communities. 

Forgiveness in action 

On a crisp, cloudless summer morning in a small Pennsylvania town situated at the base of rolling green hills, a devout group of Amish people who live a simple life without automobiles, electricity or modern machinery experienced an unimaginable tragedy. That morning, a man from outside the tiny community, who was angry over the death of his infant daughter entered a local schoolhouse and shot 10 little girls, killing five and wounding five. The gunman then took his own life.
This shocking violence caused great anguish among the Amish but to many people's surprise, there was agony, but no anger; hurt, but no hate; pain ,but no blame. The victims' families' forgiveness was immediate as was their willingness to reach out to the killer's suffering wife and children. In fact, as the killer's family gathered in their home the day after the shootings, an Amish neighbor came over, wrapped his arms around the father of the dead gunman, and said, "We will forgive you." 

Later, local leaders from Nickel Mines visited the gunman's wife and children to extend their sympathy, their help, their love and, above all else, their forgiveness. About half of the mourners who attended the killer's funeral were Amish townspeople, including members from the very families who had lost a loved one to this man's violent rampage. In turn, the Amish invited the gunman's family to attend the funeral services of the girls who had been killed.

Following an event that so easily could have sown seeds of discord or division blossomed instead flowers of hope. One man's savage act of heartlessness was countered not with the same, but with grace and compassion. A lasting example of forgiveness put into action! 

Learning from Nickel Mines 

Several days after the tragic events in Nickel Mines, Pa., the family of the milkman who killed the five girls released the following statement to the public: 

"To our Amish friends, neighbors, and local community: Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you've extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you've given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you".

Despite the shocking circumstances at hand, the Amish community's forgiveness was both inclusive and instantaneous. Their commitment to extending grace and compassion so complete that upon receiving numerous donations from all over the world to help pay for the health care of the surviving girls, as well as to cover burial expenses for those who were killed, they chose to share some of the money with the widow of the killer and her three children. They did so because they knew the killer's family was also innocent victims of this terrible tragedy and as such, needed the gift of forgiveness in their lives as much as the victims' families did. 

While studies reveal many people see forgiveness as the end of a long emotional process, the Amish people in this small community demonstrate it's really just the start. Their example helps us to understand that although we too may feel angry and depressed when someone hurts us, we do not have to let our painful feelings dictate our conduct toward others. Why? Because, much like the citizens of the tiny southern African kingdom of Lesotho, we also possess an invaluable treasure. A treasure not hidden from people's sight for millions of years like the Lesotho diamond was, but readily available to all who choose to grasp it. 

A treasure that costs us nothing but is worth everything. 

A treasure we commonly refer to as forgiveness. 

Forgiveness: the first step toward healing 

Each time we witness an act of forgiveness, we are shown its power to heal or to break a seemingly unending cycle of pain. Forgiveness is something virtually all Americans aspire to - 94 percent surveyed in a nationwide Gallup poll said it was important to forgive -- but sadly, it's not something we frequently choose to offer (in the same survey, only 48 percent said they usually tried to forgive others). 

Perhaps this is because forgiveness is something we don't fully understand. Or perhaps view forgiveness as more of a saintly quality that imbues only the very special and most certainly cannot be put into practice in our own lives. Second-mile leaders beg to differ.
Second-mile leaders understand that the example of the Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pa., reminds us of at least three truths about forgiveness that, upon recognition, allow us to apply it in our own lives. First, forgiveness is hard, especially in relationships tense with past troubles and torn by suspicion and distrust. Secondly, forgiveness hurts, especially when it must be extended to someone who doesn't deserve it, who hasn't earned it, or who may misuse it. Third, forgiveness costs. Especially when it means accepting instead of demanding repayment for a wrong that's been done; where it means releasing the other instead of exacting revenge; where it means reaching out in kindness instead of shutting down in resentment. 

Yes, forgiveness is hard, it hurts and it costs. But it also achieves something else that's vitally important. 

It allows us to begin to heal. 

Learning to forgive from the inside out 

Forgive and forget. Clearly, easier said than done. However, medical and psychological studies repeatedly show that forgiveness is not only good for your soul, but good for your body as well. As it turns out, people who practice forgiveness:
- Benefit from better immune functioning and have lower blood pressure;
- Have better mental health than people who don't forgive;
- Have lower amounts of anger and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression;
- Maintain more satisfying and longer-lasting relationships. 

The truth is, when we allow ourselves to feel like a victim or sit around dreaming up how we might retaliate against someone who hurt us, our negative thoughts take a toll on our minds and bodies and ultimately, on the quality of our lives. That is, unless we make the choice to let the hurt and anger go and grasp the power of forgiveness. 

Dr. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, was studying forgiveness when he found himself having to confront it first-hand when his mother was murdered by a youth who broke into her home and bludgeoned her with a crowbar. 

"I could make a decision to forgive this killer. But if he were caught, that doesn't mean there should be no social consequences for his act. ... Justice and forgiveness can work hand in hand." 

In the years following his mother's death, he chose not to be incapacitated by anger, but instead set out to lobby for international research on forgiveness; ultimately becoming lead editor for a Handbook of Forgiveness, a compilation of work by numerous researchers. 

Fortunately, few people will ever have to face forgiving a killer as did the men and women of Nickel Springs or Dr. Worthington, but it's very likely we will all encounter some form of betrayal, neglect or other deep wounds inflicted by family, friends or co-workers. But as Rabbi Irwin Kula reminds us in his book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, "forgiving doesn't mean condoning. It doesn't mean everything becomes all right or that brokenness goes away." Instead, he says, it requires us to "admit the betrayal, admit the brokenness and to make a decision not to put it in a place inside us that will be toxic." 

Choosing to forgive then is allowing our personal journey to continue while maintaining trust and hope in other human beings, even when they let us down. It's every bit as hard as we think it is, but if you don't have any practice, it's almost impossible. 

Thus, what's important for a would-be second-mile leader to never forget is that choosing to extend forgiveness to others is never a sign of weakness, but a source of strength. Something we may not be naturally inclined to do, but something we in fact can very much learn to do. 

Something which holds the potential to not only heal our own emotional wounds today, but which allows us to move into new, more gratifying relationships in the future. No matter whom we may be called to lead. 

Learning to forgive ... From the Green Beret?

Joel and Michelle Levey, in their book, Living in Balance, share a wonderful story about the power of forgiveness. They recount a time in the early 1980s when it was being reported that more than twice as many Soldiers were dying of self-inflicted wounds after returning from the war in Southeast Asia than had died in combat. In fact, a disproportionate amount of those committing suicide were members of one of America's most storied, decorated and elite forces -- the Green Beret.

Unfortunately, it seemed the only way many of these veterans could find to turn off the battle that continued to rage within them even after returning home from war was to take their own lives. Senior military leaders in the Pentagon were deeply grieved by this phenomenon and scrambled to find an answer to this terrible epidemic.

Shortly after reading about this ongoing tragedy in a national newspaper article, the Leveys were called by senior military personnel in Washington D.C. who asked them to help design and deliver an "Ultimate Warrior Training Program" for the U.S. Army Green Berets. The stakes were very high. In fact, the Leveys were asked to work specifically with two highly elite teams, whose mission had the potential to have far-reaching effects should it fail or be compromised.

The Leveys, despite initially feeling somewhat intimidated at the magnitude of the task, accepted the challenge. They then spent the next three years traveling far and wide, talking with people from diverse traditions and professions from all over the world about what might be included in such a monumental, one-of-a-kind program.

Finding the courage to forgive

Talking one day with a wise elder in one of the largest monastic universities in Tibet, the Leveys posed an intriguing question. "What do you think is the most important thing to teach these brave Soldiers?" The wise man before them thought deeply for some time, and then through his interpreter replied, "Most of all it is important to teach them courage."

"Us teach courage to the Green Berets?!" the Leveys exclaimed, somewhat taken aback by the response. "How are we to teach courage to the Green Berets, some of the best trained, most professional Soldiers in the world?"

"Just teach them courage and everything will turn out for the best," the wise man replied.

Thus, for the next several months, as the Leveys continued to conduct their research and gather their team for this difficult task of building the "Ultimate Warrior Training Program" for the U.S. Army, they pondered this intriguing statement. Then one day, really quite by chance, they had the opportunity to spend some time with the translator for the Dalai Lama. They mentioned the seemingly strange advice they had received from the wise Tibetan elder months earlier, and the translator began to laugh with delight saying, "Oh, that's perfect. Did you not know that in the Tibetan language, the word that we usually translate as courage, could also be translated as forgiveness?"

Immediately upon hearing this, the pieces came together for the Leveys. Realizing now what they needed to do to help these strong, dedicated, professional Soldiers was to help them find the courage to discover the one thing that can truly set them free -- the ability to forgive themselves and others.

Final thoughts

As the story of the Green Beret helps us discover, if we are committed to becoming leaders who will do all we can to promote the physical, mental and emotional well-being of those placed in our care, then we must help them understand that overcoming life's difficulties cannot be achieved by choosing to wade away from one another when the tide of trouble arrives, but rather, occurs only when we choose to swim toward one another -- especially when the current is most treacherous. But, we mustn't forget that choosing to extend forgiveness is not primarily a gift we share with another, but rather a treasure we give ourselves. A treasure that frees us from the negative emotions of anger, frustration, jealousy, fear and pride that if allowed to swell within us, will not only come to control our lives, but ultimately, destroy them. From the inside out!

Will extending forgiveness be easy? Nope.

Will it cost us? Most likely.

Will it hurt? Surely.

But will it also allow us to heal? Absolutely!

Remember, you don't have to be a member of an elite force like the Green Beret to discover the power of forgiveness in your life. You need but follow the example of the Amish people of Nickel Mines and not allow anguish to turn into anger; hurt to become hate; or pain to lead to blame. Staking claim instead to the treasure hidden in plain sight.
Not because you have to, but because you choose to.

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.