One excerpt from a story featured in Christy Heacock’s book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, is included on this website. Read Rose’s powerful story of forgiveness below and learn how Lakota spirituality guided her journey. (Please note, names used in this story are pseudonyms.)
You can purchase Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness here to read all the diverse stories of forgiveness from people with the different sacred belief systems of Agnosticism, Bahia, Buddhist philosophy and spiritualism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Lakota belief in Sacred Pipe and Red Road, Shirdi Baba follower, Syncretism (meaning the combination of different forms of belief), and Tibetan Buddhism.
Provide your email address and subscribe below to receive new blog posts regarding forgiveness.
No One Can Make You Hate: Rose’s Story
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” –Dalai Lama
Rose was a 66-year-old Lakota woman who was an educator and Sacred Pipe Carrier. Sacred Pipe carriers are individuals who have been walking their journey on earth in an admirable way for many years and have accepted the responsibility that goes with the honor. She was walking the Red Road, which is a Native American metaphor for living a spiritual way of life. Walking the Red Road means living your life with purpose and being guided by seven sacred virtues: prayer, honesty, humility, compassion, respect, generosity, and wisdom.
Rose’s mother, Irene, and pregnant sister, Judy, both of whom she was close to, were brutally murdered in their apartment about 30 years before our interview. Both were stabbed with a blunt instrument, which was believed to be a screwdriver, 60 to 70 times. They were victims of someone’s rage and anger.
Rose’s sister was three months pregnant and unmarried when the event happened. Judy had called Rose a few weeks before the murder to tell her she was with child. She was happy about the pregnancy, but concerned because she did not want to marry the child’s father. He was an alcoholic and she knew his lifestyle would create a poor environment for their child. Rose had volunteered to help raise the child and had assured Judy that extended family would provide her with assistance.
Rose had much respect for her mother, whom she described as very intelligent and talented. Irene was well-educated and a teacher. During her early years, Irene had been strong and a great role model, but the last several years of her life had been difficult. Rose remembered the heart-to-heart conversation she had with her mother a week before the murder and her mother’s last words to her.
“Always remember the values that you were taught when you were young, Rose. Our traditional Lakota values. Always be truthful to people. Be compassionate. Be respectful.”
“Yes, Mom. I won’t forget those. They are ingrained in how we believe. I won’t forget them.”
“All right. I love you very much. Always remember that.”
“I love you too. I really love you.”
Rose was grateful for that conversation and still thinks about it. “When I look back on that now, I wonder if Mom felt that it may have been the last time she would be able to visit with me.”
A week after the conversation Rose, her husband Tom, and their two sons were at home when they noticed that a friend, Bill, kept driving by their house. Rose told Tom, “I think Bill must want to talk to you about something. He keeps driving by the house, but for some reason he hasn’t stopped.”
The incident took place before cell phones were plentiful, plus, Rose noted, “We were kind of pitiful. We were poor. We had one working vehicle and we were living hand to mouth. We were just having a hard time. So we didn’t have a phone at home, a landline. And I had thought, ‘That’s okay, I’ve got a phone at work I can use when I need to make a call.’”
Bill stopped eventually, but still didn’t come in. He just sat outside in the driveway. Rose told Tom, “You better go out there. He’s not coming in.” Tom went outside, talked to Bill, and then came back in. Rose could tell by his sad, serious face that it was not good news.
“You have to sit down, Rose.”
“Something happened, right, something bad?”
“Yes, it’s bad. It’s very bad. But – but we’ll get through it.” Rose and Tom’s life had not been easy and they had been through tough times together, drawing on each other’s strengths. Tom felt crushed by the horror of the news he was bearing, but he was also determined that their family would persevere.
“I’ll sit down,” responded Rose.
Rose’s husband gave her the terrible news and said, “We’ll find out what happened, but for now, we’ll just sit here.”
“No,” replied Rose. “I need to go upstairs to the prayer room.”
“Okay,” said Tom, understanding Rose’s need for spiritual comfort and stillness. “Go to the prayer room. I’ll watch the boys. You go up and pray.”
Rose stayed in the prayer room for at least an hour while Tom watched their two sons, the youngest of whom was only a few months old. “The only reason I left the prayer room,” Rose reflected, “is because I wanted to hold my sons.”
Rose felt a key to her healing was following her instincts and immediately seeking spiritual solace and guidance. “I think if I had not gone into that prayer room and prayed – prayed really hard about it – I think my heart would have hardened. My gut was telling me to go pray. I’m glad I followed my intuition because it saved me, and it has taught me how to deal with other difficult things in my life.”
Choose Forgiveness Before Your Heart Can Harden
Rose intuitively knew it was important that she choose compassion and forgiveness as soon as possible – before her heart could harden. “I prayed for my loved ones and I prayed for their killers. I had my Pipe there in my hand and I clutched it and I prayed with it. I brought the Pipe down and I smoked it with my husband. I kept praying that my mom and sister didn’t suffer and that they died quickly. I hated the thought of them suffering.”
Rose decided right away to make the decision to forgive. Making the decision to forgive didn’t mean she immediately was able to let go of her pain and feel fine. Rose knew she had hard emotional and spiritual work ahead of her. But she made the decision to start healing because forgiveness, courage, and compassion were vital to her belief system and moral identity. Her sacred beliefs guided her and allowed her to process the horrendous event that had occurred in an ethical manner. Her support system gave her the courage to work through her pain and eventually let go so she could emotionally forgive – so, as she described, her heart would not harden.
When we can’t forgive, our heart can metaphorically shrink, causing our health to deteriorate and our relationships to become harsh. We can’t be a light to others when we are locked in the dark cage of unforgiveness.
As I was writing about Rose, I realized why it can be so important to make the decision to forgive as soon as possible. Forgiveness is valuable at any time in our lives, but habits and patterns of thinking can be difficult to change. Forgiveness will be easier if we prevent damaging thoughts and behaviors from taking control of us. We can choose to take the difficult, but productive path of forgiveness right away and save ourselves from tripping on the seductive, but unhealthy, revenge or repression detour.
Rose’s personal understanding of spirits and the afterlife helped her cope with the tragedy. One of her grandfathers, who was a medicine man – a holy man – taught her, “A body is just a physical shell. It is not your soul. It’s not your spirit.”
“I know there are spirits,” said Rose, “and I felt that my mother, sister, and the baby went to a good place. I continue to pray for them and remember them in ceremonies. Their spirits are with us.”
Was justice ever done? Was there closure regarding the murders? Rose said, “My sister’s ex-boyfriend, the father of the child, was on trial for the murders, but never convicted. There were two hung juries.”
Rose thought it probable that the estranged boyfriend was responsible for the murders. “My sister told me she had separated from the baby’s father and she had informed him she was not going to raise a child with him because he was an alcoholic and was using drugs. She did not want to live that kind of lifestyle.”
Rose had a dream in which three murky looking men were in the apartment and took part in the murders. One of the men appeared to be her sister’s estranged boyfriend. Rose said, “It was apparent in my dream that the men were not in their right minds at the time of the deaths. I believe they were on drugs, they were high. I can truly say I feel sorry for whoever did it. I have compassion for them. I wish justice had been done and that they had been held accountable, but I did not have control over that and I didn’t want that injustice to have control over me.”
How do you have compassion for someone who brutally murders your mother and pregnant sister? It goes against our instincts to feel compassion for those who cause great pain to us or our loved ones. Our tendency is to see those people as objects that cause hurt, not as human beings who are hurting. We want to punish them or damage them in some way, believing that will make us safer and take away our pain. We may seethe with resentment and lash out at others, not realizing the cycle of hatred we are creating.
Pray For Those Who Hurt You
Rose wisely chose the productive path of compassion and forgiveness over vengeance and retribution. She prayed for the murderer or murderers. “People asked me if I prayed that something bad would happen to whoever murdered my mother and sister. I said, ‘No. I never pray against anyone. It serves no purpose to be vengeful and seek to hurt those who hurt us. It’s not for me to be the judge. Maybe the person was not in his right mind. Maybe he doesn’t even remember doing it. Maybe he is mentally ill. I can’t judge the behavior of others.’”
“What did you pray?” I asked.
“I prayed for the souls of the murderer or murderers. I prayed that whoever did it will find peace – will find their right path in life so they can make their own amends to their Creator. I’ve had people say, ‘I can’t believe that you forgave.’ But I say, ‘It’s based on my belief system and the Pipe and how we are taught. We must act the way we believe. I can’t say that I’m a Pipe Carrier if I don’t act accordingly. I don’t want to be a hypocrite.’”
Rose’s belief system provided her with a forgiveness foundation. “We know that we are only human, and because we are human, we will make mistakes,” said Rose. “But we should learn from our mistakes. We should not continue to repeat them.”
I asked Rose to explain how the Pipe is important to her. “The Pipe is very symbolic. It’s a reminder of Lakota traditional beliefs, and is similar in importance to the Christian symbol of the cross. The Pipe as a symbol reminds me that it is not my role as a human being to judge others. They have to come to terms with who the Creator is in their own minds. They have to choose how to deal with their own situations. We cannot walk in anyone else’s shoes. We can only walk in our own. It’s hard enough walking in my own.”
Belief Based on Faith, Not Certainty
Processing forgiveness issues that involve death means confronting an area of belief based on faith, not certainty. No one alive knows with certainty what happens when we die. None of the people I interviewed claimed to know exactly what happens when it’s time to leave our earthly bodies, but most felt there was an afterlife of some kind. They felt our job now is to learn and grow and live the best life we can.
Forgiveness can be difficult to describe. Words and logic only go so far. Rose said, “Sometimes it’s difficult to explain to people why and how I forgive. My beliefs are in my heart. They’re a part of me. I don’t analyze everything. Some things are just part of the way it is.”
There were songs at the funeral of Rose’s mother and sister as well as prayers for their souls. One of Rose’s sisters, who was at the funeral and who was Catholic, had a comforting experience during that time of song and prayer. Rose’s sister told her, “You may not believe me, but I’m going to tell you what I saw while you were singing and praying. A white buffalo [sacred to the Lakota] emerged between the two caskets. It went up towards the ceiling and became like a cloud. It then disappeared and I saw what appeared to be spirits also rise right after that and fade through the ceiling.”
To Rose’s sister, the vision was a message that her loved ones had gone to heaven and were okay. Because she understood they were all right, she could move ahead with forgiveness. Forgiveness gave both Rose and her sister peace, but they will never forget. Rose stated, “Both of us say we can’t forget, but we understand.”
Forgiveness Takes Away An Offender’s Power to Hurt Us
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgiveness takes away a memory’s power to hurt us. Forgiveness transforms a memory so we can learn, grow, and move forward.
Rose was a bit surprised that the vision appeared to her sister, who was Catholic, but the vision was consistent with Lakota traditional beliefs. Rose’s grandfather had advised her to always look up at funerals, not down. He said, “When someone dies, people often look down at the grave or pray with their heads down. You should look up instead because you may see something very miraculous.” Rose remembered her grandpa’s advice and said, “When I go to funerals and wakes, especially when people are buried, I look up. I look up in the sky and see wonderful things. Oftentimes, I’ll see an eagle flying around carrying prayers or some other positive symbol.”
Forgiveness of a major offense will always be hard, but we can develop a forgiveness disposition that allows us to forgive more freely. Forgiving her family’s murderer(s) was extremely hard, but it transformed Rose. “I’ve gotten angry at certain situations and things, but since this incident, I’ve always worked to resolve situations in a positive way. I realize that some people have not reached a point of self-worth or self-actualization. Everybody is essentially different and I can’t judge people because I don’t understand their particular situation and what level they are at in their lives.”
Rose was an example of humility and forgiveness from a young age. She related to me an experience with her grandmother that brought tears to my eyes as well as deep admiration.
“There was an earlier incident that I remember with my grandmother when I was probably about nine or ten years old. I was bright enough to know what was going on, but it took me a minute to process it. We had gone to eat in a restaurant, just my grandma and I. Both of us are easily identified as American Indians. In the restaurant the waitress kept walking past us – she wouldn’t give us the menu or anything. She just kept walking. Finally I stopped her and said, ‘Ma’am, are you going to give us a menu?’ The waitress looked right through me and said, ‘Well, I don’t think so.’”
“I’ll never forget how that experience affected my grandmother. Tears were coming down her face. I never really analyzed it with her because I was so young, but I think she felt bad because that was one of my first experiences with racism. My grandma was in her sixties so of course she’d dealt with it. I think my grandma was sad for me and I was sad for my grandma.”
Rose remembered her thoughts about the waitress. “You are really ignorant because you don’t want to serve us. We have money to spend here. And you are mean. My grandma is a beautiful lady. I love her dearly and you made her cry.”
Rose’s grandma said, “Maybe we should leave.”
Rose responded loudly so all the people sitting by them could hear. “We’re going to leave. Let’s go. If they’re not going to serve us because we’re American Indian, then we don’t have to spend our money here.”
Rose recollected, “My grandma looked a little bit embarrassed that I did that, but afterward she said that she was proud of me. I’ve always been a little bit outspoken.”
Rose reflected that forgiveness was easy in that situation because she perceived the waitress as ignorant and because she had been able to stand up for herself and her grandmother. “The waitress did not have the sense to know that we are human beings,” Rose explained, “and we just came to eat like everyone else.”
Rose was assertive, but not aggressive or mean. She learned how to deal with people who judged her negatively based simply on her Native American heritage. How was she able to deal with racist actions? “You either get consumed by hatred or handle it in a positive way,” Rose said. “I’ll be darned if anybody is going to make me hate myself or hate anybody else. I knew from an early age that that’s not how I was going to live my life. Nobody was going to control me.”
Lack of Knowledge Prevents Compassion
Rose realized that sometimes people don’t have an understanding of another group of people. “Lack of knowledge prevents compassion. People are just not educated about us [American Indians].” Rose didn’t like being judged by people who didn’t understand her, and she chose not to mimic that behavior.
Rose was grateful for her parents, who raised her and her siblings to be proud of their American Indian heritage. “My parents told us we have the ability to do whatever we want,” explained Rose. “They were very important role models, as were my grandparents and extended family. I have some really strong women in my extended family who have been key role models in my life. I watched how they conducted themselves, how they spoke, and how they handled different situations. They taught me a lot.”
Rose appreciated and respected her relatives. She is now motivated to be a good role model herself. “I want to be a good example for my children and the Lakota people. I want them to be proud of me. I’m careful not to tarnish the image of our tiospaye[extended family].”
“What are some important aspects of your sacred belief system that help you forgive?” I probed.
“I was taught that all life is sacred and that the things you do in your life affect the people around you. We are all connected so it’s important we are careful with what we say and do. We can connect with each other and the Creator through prayer and we can pray in different ways. We can pray through crying, through oratory, through songs with people and communion with others who are also crying. What we call the Silent Prayer is just letting out that which is within your heart and soul. Prayer helps clear our minds and can create positive energy. That’s why it’s important not to inadvertently create negative energy by praying for something that’s judgmental or harmful to others.”
Quieting Our Minds
Prayer is a universal spiritual practice and it reflects the significance of quieting the mind. Quieting the mind is an important concept in psychology as well. We don’t have the capacity to think clearly when we’re fearful, anxious, or distracted.
Calming our minds means taking a break from busyness and activity for reflection or meditation. This can be difficult in our society, where it seems everyone strives to be very busy because being busy is equated with productivity and happiness. But is that always the case?
“Some people are afraid to be still,” Rose noted. “In my adult life I’ve found that people often like chaos and lots of noisy distractions. They always have to have their iPods or some type of gadget going. They’re looking at Facebook, or Twitter, or something. They can’t just sit and chill. Just be quiet or go on a hike or go to a quiet place in their home. I think everybody needs to do that. But that’s my bias, I guess. I believe everybody has to connect with themselves at one point or another.”
Busyness can help us avoid facing tough issues, as can alcohol, pills, and other diversions. But our pain won’t go away unless we are brave enough to wrestle with it. “If you harbor hatred or negative feelings towards someone or some event, whatever it is, then it only eats at your heart,” said Rose.
Dealing with a painful situation and connecting with ourselves can be daunting. That’s why forgiveness takes courage and compassion. We have to take a look into our souls and make peace with the parts of us that are scary. The parts that are afraid, angry, resentful, ashamed, humiliated, or embarrassed. And we need to treat those scary parts of ourselves with kindness and compassion if we want to lighten our burdens and brighten our outlooks.
Prayer helped Rose be at peace with herself and sustained her daily. “Every day I thank the Creator for the blessings in my life and the gifts I have been given. I ask the Creator’s help in using my gifts in a good way so I can help my people live.”
“Who do you include as your people?”
“When we say ‘the people,’ we mean all people, not just people who are Lakota,” explained Rose. “That’s how I was taught to pray, especially in ceremony but also every day. Mitakuye Oyasin are Lakota words that reflect the world view that we are all related and interconnected.”
If We Don’t Know Ourselves Well, We Can Be Easily Tricked
Rose displayed compassion for all people as she realized that we human beings can be easily tricked, especially if we don’t know ourselves well. We may tell ourselves lies, and we may tell others lies if we cannot understand and accept who we are.
“We Lakota have stories about Iktomi. In Lakota mythology, Iktomi is a spider-trickster spirit. We all have Iktomis that like to cause trouble and trick us into doing things we shouldn’t. If we continue to lie to ourselves and others about our behavior, things only get worse and worse and worse. On the other hand, if we tell the truth and seek the truth and seek the light, things work out a lot better. Always look to the light in life and in people. Don’t become one of the people that walk around with little clouds over their heads, living a negative life. I feel bad for them. I feel sad for them. They have not been able to find peace in life.”
Rose was aware of the dangers of negative, hateful thinking. She was also aware that if you take off the negative, you need to replace it with something positive. In Lakota tradition, burning or smudging with sage symbolizes healing and taking the negative off, while sweetgrass represents blessings and putting on something positive. We can take off our bitterness and shame and replace it with acts of kindness and thankful thoughts.
Rose’s sacred beliefs, prayers, and solid family and spiritual attachments gave her the courage, compassion, and creativity she needed to forgive. She viewed life through a wide angle lens and said, “We’re not here on earth very long so live each day the best that you can and nurture love, not hate; gratitude, not negativity; forgiveness, not revenge.”
Thank you for reading Rose’s powerful story of forgiveness. If it was helpful to you, you may wish to purchase Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness here to read all the diverse stories of forgiveness from people with the different sacred belief systems of Agnosticism, Bahia, Buddhist philosophy and spiritualism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Lakota belief in Sacred Pipe and Red Road, Shirdi Baba follower, Syncretism (meaning the combination of different forms of belief), and Tibetan Buddhism.
Also, please consider signing up below using your email address to be notified of when new blog posts regarding forgiveness are available.