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Forgiving and Forgetting: Part Two

impossible

“Find exemplary examples.” ~ Catherine Collautt, Ph.D.

My last post, Forgiving and Forgetting: Part One, you may have found to be, ‘a hard one’ – simply by virtue of the fact that it was on forgiveness.

Forgiveness is hard because of the level it asks us to engage with life on; one we often spend time and energy, trying to avoid.

Unfortunately, but necessarily, this post is going to cut even deeper. The good news is it’s not about you, it’s about a half dozen or so extraordinary individuals. In this sense, more than forgiveness, this post is about what I refer to as ‘exemplary examples’: people who remind us of what is possible. People who by their very existence contradict claims about what is impossible. (For more on ‘exemplary examples’, what I mean by them and how I use them, see my interview on MarieTV and/or download the Success V Freedom pdf here.)

Just as I was finishing what is now Part One of Forgiving and Forgetting, I finally opened a link my husband had sent me, coincidentally, to the following New York Times article:

Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice? 

It blew my mind. Please read it. I reckon it will blow yours as well. Into a million pieces. This is good.

The problem was, I read it right after I finished the piece on ‘forgiving and forgetting’; so I could not help but ask myself: ‘What… would you actually ask the Grosmaires – to forgive and forget? Would you dare??’ If I was going to let myself talk about forgiveness, I felt a responsibility – and inability to avoid answering this question to myself, and to you.

So I answer, (without hesitation): No. No I would not. I would not dare to ask the Grosmaires to forgive the young man who ended their daughter’s life in a fraction of a moment, at the young and promising age of 19. I would not ask them – or any other person for that matter. The only person I might ask to forgive is myself, and anyone else I may have wronged. I do not consider it my place to ask another to forgive those who have caused injury.

I just know that it heals.

And that it does the injured party(ies) more benefit than carrying anger, resentment and hatred around. (This is what Forgiving and Forgetting: Part One was about.)

But no, I would never deign to ask the Grosmaires to forgive.

And yet, if you read the article you too will bear witness to their incredible, pretty much unfathomable, truly awe-some act of forgiveness. Seriously, it is so worth reading; here’s the link again: Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?

This is what I learned from the Grosmaires, from the McBrides, and from the professionals who found enough courage to make living and breathing room for extra-ordinariness:

1. What is possible. These human beings have and, likely, will continue to enact what we’d probably have written-off as impossible for ourselves, and for another human being; what the Grosmaires themselves would have considered impossible too. Beyond role models, and even more importantly, they are living examples of the profound – for all intents and purposes infinite – strength a human being is capable of. They have reminded me of what actually is possible.

2. The power of love. Not that I know the Grosmaires beyond the confines of the 10-page article, but I still think it is safe to say that the Grosmaires have not found it in themselves to forgive Conor McBride, to they extent that they have been able to, because they are weak, or stupid, or do not love their daughter Ann as much as you love [insert name of loved one here]. On the contrary: as far as I can see, they were/are able to forgive precisely because of the love they feel for their daughter; and their truly humbling power to maintain enough presence to choose loyalty to their love – instead of hate, revenge and despair.

It is only their love for Ann that could have enough power to choose forgiveness; and the razor-sharp clarity to protect and serve Ann, her life, her legacy, her meaning and contribution to the world (past, present, and future). That could find the strength and determination to say I will do everything in my power – even if it means overlooking my own pain – not to allow this life, and this loss, to have been in vain; nor to be irrevocably defined by that one moment in time. Mrs. Grosmaire herself is quoted as saying: “Before this happened, I loved Conor,” she says. “I knew that if I defined Conor by that one moment — as a murderer — I was defining my daughter as a murder victim. And I could not allow that to happen.”

Despite the unfathomable tragedy, these humans are actually making an effort for redemption – not first and foremost revenge and retribution, but redemption. It is not because they are weak or stupid, but because their love for Ann supercedes their pride, their uncompromising need for reasons and answers that would make sense of their loss, their anger, and their pain. That, and self-preservation: “Everything I feel, I can feel because we forgave Conor,” said Mrs. Grosmaire, “Because we could forgive, people can say her name. People can think about my daughter, and they don’t have to think, Oh, the murdered girl. I think that when people can’t forgive, they’re stuck. All they can feel is the emotion surrounding that moment. I can be sad, but I don’t have to stay stuck in that moment where this awful thing happened. Because if I do, I may never come out of it.”

The power of these parents to hold presence, to understand their options, and the truth of those options, in the midst of their indescribable pain and loss is, to my mind, another expression of their extra-ordinariness and of what, apparently, is possible. May we all find this power, to not lose our minds completely in our pain, in our suffering, and in our unfathomable circumstances; so that we, too, contribute to:

3. The butterfly effect of not making it worse. Reading the article it so easy to see the moments in time, the split-seconds where decisions and choices are made about how one will act or react. These moments, often so tiny in duration, are colossal in terms of their influence on the way the story goes. (For example, when Mr. Grosmaire and Mr. McBride see each other for the first time after the shooting at the hospital.) There are many of them. Many of them where these people had enough presence of mind, even while their world was crumbling around them, to just not make it worse. And so many times too, of actually choosing to make it better – whatever that meant, and however hard it was to do it.

For a culture that holds the highest incarceration rate (and prison population) out of any other country in the world – (the figures are astonishing, see, for example, Professor Daniel J. D’Amico’s numbers here) – it is difficult to imagine what might be ‘better’ than retribution, punishment, revenge, and the withholding of basic human rights – which will, of course, include love and esteem.

The consequence of this lack of imagination is nothing less than overcrowded prisons (our prison system is currently estimated at an overcapacity of 39% above the maximum limit, expected to be 45% by 2018; many, like California whose 140,000 inmates are held in 33 prisons designed to hold 80,000, are known to be ‘at break point’); recidivism (repeat offenses); and increased alienation between offenders and the possibility of what else they might become (like reformed, reconciled, upstanding members of the community). And so inflation, in the worst of all directions, continues.

Presenting a real opportunity for reparation and redemption, where possible, is hard because it requires forgiveness. And it is scary because, after all, we could extend our hand only to have that chopped off too. But, (assuming you read the article), can you see the amount of pain, suffering, and future crimes the Grosmaires, the McBrides, and the professionals involved are likely to have spared the rest of humanity by choosing not to make things worse, but to clamp the artery to prevent further hemorraging of life-lost, and to erect the most beautiful shrine possible to stand in the place of their loss? And can you see what their forgiveness made possible?

Paul Tullis, who authored the article, writes:

[The Grosmaires’] forgiveness affected Conor, too … “With the Grosmaires’ forgiveness,” he told me, “I could accept the responsibility and not be condemned.” Forgiveness doesn’t make him any less guilty, and it doesn’t absolve him of what he did, but in refusing to become Conor’s enemy, the Grosmaires deprived him of a certain kind of refuge — of feeling abandoned and hated — and placed the reckoning for the crime squarely in his hands.

The Grosmaires’ ability to not act from a place of hate and revenge opened up a space for Conor McBride to do the same. Of course it is theoretically possible for Conor, or another offender, to find this place on his or her own; but don’t let this eclipse the fact that it is infinitely more difficult to do so. The man, whether 19 or decades older, that has been publicly and definitively ousted, abandoned, forsaken, and deemed irredeemable does not have many options but to fend for himself. And he’s lost a good deal of the motivation to even make an effort toward a different way of being.

Having hope does not make the future any more certain; and, as I said above, it may feel scarier than writing-off the possibility of even some small element of redemption. But for the present, Conor got a job a the prison’s law library, enrolled voluntarily in anger-management classes, and intends to  to speak to local groups about teen-dating violence and volunteer in animal shelters (because Ann loved animals) when he finishes his sentence. At least at the moment, he is consciously and concertedly focusing on ‘the issues he needs to come out a better person than he was when he went in’. Do we understand how much harder we are making it for that person if we are asking them to get there by means of hatred, criticism, withholding our own love, and derision? The clinically anti-social or psychopathic personality that we’re all terrified of – the person who really could careless about our hatred and ostracization – is not the majority of the prison population and less than 3% of the entire population! So for the great majority for whom it does matter, at least before they become ‘hardened’ (and what, incidentally, do you think they are becoming hardened to?), it hurts, and it wounds. And I’m sure that is partly the point; but the question should be: does it do us, collectively, more harm than good?

This is not about giving charity, especially to an offender over the abused. (All you have to do is read the description of the pre-plea conference to know that, indeed, the restorative-justice process enacted requires infinitely more from the offender than a criminal court of law.) This is about getting what we want. I mean, as much as you can of course. The Grosmaires couldn’t get Ann back; but what about answers? What about Conor’s acknowledgment and commitment that he would need “to do the good works of two people because Ann is not here to do hers”? And was there anything they could do prevent their daughter’s life being taken any more in vain?

If we want to live in a world with less crime and violence, then reformation, reparation, and assimilation are important to us. What might get us there should be equally important. Even if it’s hard for us to do. The Grosmaires, the McBrides, and the professionals involved in the restorative-justice process too, are an example of what is possible – what is, clearly, extremely hard and extraordinary, but nevertheless apparently possible – when humans find the strength within themselves to be present enough to face and deal with reality, in all its tragic horror, and to choose not to make it worse. Choosing to make it better when we can is obviously an even greater victory; but this should not overshadow the fact that simply not making it worse is often enough to avert a hurricane half way around the world. For the ripple-effects of further loss of blood, and life, and joy, the Grosmaires, the McBrides, and everyone in between, have disarmed or neutralized, I remain profoundly humbled, inspired, and grateful. I hope you do too. Here’s the link to the article again, please share:

Can Forgiveness Play a Role in Criminal Justice?