Forgiveness: Keep Living Your Values After They Have Been Violated
© Copyright 2000 by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D.
Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services,
Nelson New Zealand, September, 1999
Certainly there was a victim.
Trying to pass in a no-passing zone, the lumber truck hit the horse-drawn buggy head on. Leah Graber, age 44 and mother of thirteen children, and her horse, were killed instantly. Marvin Hampton left the scene of the tragic accident and was found and then convicted of his crime three months later.
Mrs Graber, her husband and children were members of an Amish community in the state of my birth, Missouri, in the U.S.
During Mr Hampton's trial, members of 39 families signed a letter of forgiveness. They gave it to the judge asking for leniency in sentencing Mr Hampton. At the top of the signatures was that of Leah's husband, Amos Graber.
Explaining what he went through to forgive Mr Hampton, he said, "Oh it was hard".
"When I was asked to sign my name to that letter, I didn't respond right away. It was tough".
"Then I thought about Jesus. He had nails in his hands and was about to die on the cross and he asked God to forgive . . . I knew I needed to do that too. We were taught to forgive. It wouldn't have helped anybody of he was punished by us".
Mr Graber went on to say, "Marvin has to live with what he's done. And that's punishment enough".
According to a neighbor, Michelle Alexander, "That accident and the way the Amish forgave him changed Marvin's life. Before the accident, he was like a lot of others around here, the anti-Amish people".
"But the whole thing has changed his heart", Alexander said of Hampton. "I know it has because now he stops and has coffee with some of his Amish neighbors regularly".
Painful Events May Trigger More
Events that cause great pain or death can initiate the kind of negativity that might claim additional victims. That could have happened in this tragic situation.
Persistent anger accompanied actions of revenge would be the easy path. The problem with this is many-fold. The underlying value being sought by anger-based revenge might have been the universal and timeless value of justice. However, pursuing justice in this unhealthy way is like wielding a tragic sword: the angry, hateful and vengeful feeling must pierce our own heart first before we can stab another with it. And negative consequences loom as well, many of which are not predictable. As the saying goes, "the person who seeks revenge should dig two graves".
The Path of Leadership
Mr Graber chose another path.
He and other members of his community practiced the values of love and forgiveness. They prevented an escalating series of negative, hurtful events, or what I often call a victim cycle. Through forgiveness, they also brought about more good will, enhanced the reputation of their community, and, helped Mr Hampton as well.
When Amos Graber took the time to pause and think about forgiving Mr Hampton, he did the good though difficult work of leadership. He led by acting first. He began healing his pain. He expanded his thinking. He gave himself new choices about how to think and how to behave. He gave himself a chance to access and activate his values - those that were deeper and more important than a more superficial, though intense desire for revenge-based justice. He then projected those values into a genuine act of forgiveness.
Whether he accomplished this by thinking of Jesus, as he did, or whether he had done it by thinking of Buddha or used some psychological/emotional process, the fact is, he paused . . . he got connected with his own timeless values. Then he expressed those values in a healthy way through forgiveness.
To me, this is an inspiring example of values-based leadership. When I first read about it in the local newspaper, I thought, "Wow! What extraordinary strength and leadership! If Amos can forgive Marvin for causing such an enormous tragedy, maybe I can forgive others for many lesser hurts". Perhaps it is one that you too can emulate as you encounter lesser hurts in daily life - those common values violations that are all too familiar. (Leah and Amos Graber's story came from an article in The Kansas City Star on the 4th of September, 2000.)
Other examples come to mind from the world stage as well. The actions following Nelson Mandela's release from prison certainly exemplify forgiveness as a key aspect of his success in leading South Africa to a new era. He even invited former prison guards to his inaugural presidential dinner. The Dalai Lama from Tibet inspires me and many people all over the world in similar ways as well.
We each feel the pain caused by the hurtful actions and decisions of others. However, how we choose to respond determines whether we become victims, by responding in kind with an eye-for-an eye attitude; or whether we become leaders, by pausing to go beneath values-violations to activate our deeper values, and then to bring them forth into action.
Feedback from You, the Reader
I'd like it if you would let me know how you think and feel about this article about forgiveness. Any feedback from you as a reader will help me know what to write in future columns to support your continued leadership development
For more information about VBL skills (Values-Based Leadership), contact Marian Richards, Training and Development Facilitator, at ext. 7281.
Steps to Forgiving Others
1. Focus on reality. When your values are violated, PAUSE, and become aware of how that happened and focus on and feel your own pain. After a pause, in a healing context, anger or hateful passions can have positive functions if you use them as signals to know it is time to heal, prior to doing anything harmful.
2. Engage in self-healing. Go through whatever healing processes you know that will help you heal your inner wounds. This may mean venting to a friend, praying or meditating, crying or feeling sad, sorting through the situations analytically to deepen your understanding, or if appropriate, using some from of humour. There are many other methods of self-healing from VBL, psychology and other religious and cultural traditions. Use them as needed.
3. Activate your deeper, timeless values. This means thinking about or meditating on what is most important to you. Some people like to pray for help, emotionally. Ask yourself, "What do I want, through having anger (or blaming, or labelling negatively, etc), that is even more important?"
4. Bring forth your values into action. As you swim in the ocean of your deeper, more important values, allow them to soak into and permeate your thoughts, your feelings, and your whole body. Then begin planning your actions to respond to the reality of what has happened. Do so in a way that is consistent with your values, in a way that is healthy, and in a way that has positive consequences for you and others.
5. Enjoy the results of your leadership. While you may not be able to control how others respond to your forgiveness. You can at least not aggravate the situation. You can heal. You can bring forth and act on what is deeply important to you. In short, you can lead the way to a cycle of values fulfillment for self and others. And doing that is doing values-based leadership.
(Technically, Forgiveness is the flip-side of Apologising. If you want to negotiate to influence someone to forgive YOU, then take a look at the VBL process for Apologising.)