Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.
~ Bishop Desmond Tutu
What makes someone a hero? According to my online dictionary, it’s being admired for courage, noble qualities, and outstanding achievement. Someone who forgives a major offense or injustice fits that definition.
Forgiveness requires the courage to confront and accept our pain, plus the ability to embrace compassion and empathy – which are noble qualities. The capacity to let go of a story of victimhood and forge a path forward that shines a light in the darkness is an outstanding achievement.
We honor heroes and remember victims. We’ve all been treated unfairly at some point in our lives and been hurt in ways we didn’t deserve. Victims suffer and feel justified outrage. Sometimes victims get sympathy and compensation for their suffering. Sometimes they get to avenge a wrong. But victims don’t become heroes until they are empowered through forgiveness.
When we’ve been victimized, it’s natural to focus on ourselves and whoever or whatever is to blame for the hurt we feel. We need to understand and process through our pain. But if we’re not careful, we may stay stuck in the past, wallowing in bitterness and regrets, too afraid or resentful to create new, improved chapters in our life stories.
Forgiveness heroes also have regrets and fears, but they learn from the past and focus on a brighter future. They use their struggles to become strong and help others.
How many politicians garner votes and media attention not by helping others, but through fear of “others,” convincing us that we are victims of the “bad” group? Life will get better if we just become enraged enough – and of course vote for them.
But victims aren’t heroes.
I listened to a pastor tell members of the LGBTQ+ community that he was a victim of their advocacy efforts – that they were trying to make him feel bad for refusing to preside at their weddings or allow them leadership roles in the church. In his defense, he said, “My niece is a lesbian and married her partner. I went to her wedding and she assured me she loved me and respected me, even though I wouldn’t officiate at her wedding.” I thought, “Your niece is a hero. She has compassion for you and loves you without conditions. You, however, are stuck being a victim.”
I taught a class where we discussed the issues of “white privilege” and “critical race theory.” One woman felt ashamed of her white privilege and didn’t know what to do about it. I said, “Feeling ashamed isn’t the goal. Being aware and using that awareness to make your community a more just and welcoming place is the objective.”
When one group has oppressed the other, it’s common for both groups to become defensive and sometimes compete for victimhood status. No one should feel bad about who they are, but we should all feel bad about unjust or cruel behavior – even if it’s in the past and even if we weren’t directly involved. That’s the only way lessons will be learned and progress will occur.
Whether we’re talking about group or individual relationships, genuine forgiveness can only occur when past wrongs are acknowledged and their impact on the present brought into the light of awareness. Otherwise, both sides will dig in and exchange insults in a scenario resembling trench warfare, meaning horrible destruction with no productive results.
Forgiveness is all about the process of working through our grievance story so we can emerge from a house of sorrows into a garden of possibilities. It’s not about excusing, condoning, or overlooking wrongdoing. It’s about freeing ourselves from the burdens of bitterness and resentment. As a Lakota woman I interviewed said, “No one is going to make me hate.” She was a Sacred Pipe Carrier and a hero who overcame great pain to spread light and compassion.
There is darkness in the world and a very powerful part of our brain wants us to focus attention on that darkness. After all, to survive, we must see problems and recognize danger. But we can’t solve problems unless we shift our attention to the light.
One of the forgiveness heroes I interviewed for my research said, “When I was able to overcome my dark emotions, it was like a cloud being lifted. Forgiveness helps you see people clearly and understand them better. I’ve learned to respect opinions that differ from my own and take offensive comments less seriously.”
Life is hard and relationships can be difficult, but we can empower ourselves with love and forgiveness. Mister (Fred) Rogers said, “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle.’”
We can all be forgiveness heroes. But first, we have to have the courage and compassion necessary to let go of being victims.
Photo by Curt Landry Ministries, curtlandry.com