What’s the point of forgiveness? After all, doesn’t it let the wrongdoer off the hook? The last thing we want to do when someone harms, hurts or even kills someone we love – is forgive. So why, is there so much emphasis on the power of forgiveness? And how can it benefit our Mental Health?
This is my personal story……In my 40s I met a man and fell in love. Not something I planned, nor was I looking for a life partner but we met and clicked instantly. We had similar tastes in music because we both came from the same era. Morrissey, the sex pistols, the clash all of those groups and musicians who came up through the 80s, so you see – we had a lot in common. As our relationship grew, like many couples we planned a future together. He had his own place, I had mine and every weekend we’d get together and enjoy our time. One Sunday evening – and I keep wondering to myself looking back, was there anything different about that evening? Did anything happen that I could’ve picked up on? Was there anything remarkable? The answer was always no, but that Sunday evening was the last time I saw my partner alive. Months before, he’d taken in a lodger, someone to go halves with the rent and bills. Many of us have done it, nothing unusual there right? What he didn’t know, was the person he took in as a lodger, would eventually kill him in a knife attack leaving 17 stab wounds on his body. Receiving the news that the man I loved had been killed, devastated me to the core. In that moment my body froze and I couldn’t warm it up, it was a moment when as a non drinker, I desperately needed whiskey, something – anything. If I’d only known, if I said I love you just a little bit more meaningfully, if I’d made more of an effort on that last weekend, but I didn’t. So where do you turn in moments like this?
The man responsible had already been arrested and remanded in custody, later to receive a life sentence. He’d been dealt with – he was out of the way. My partner’s body lay in the mortuary, but me that was a whole different issue. As time moved on, I turned more and more to my faith as a Buddhist, looking for answers. The issue of Karma was a very big realisation for me and one that probably saved my mental physical & spiritual health. Buddhism teaches how we all have past lives, and how we live those lives determines how we will be reborn in the next. Mistakes and wrongdoings from the past life are carried into this one to be resolved and put right. Part of that journey may mean paying for what we did, for example dying young, experiencing trauma, even killing someone or being killed. Don’t get me wrong though, Buddhism isn’t all doom and gloom, we carry over good karma as well, but being able to make sense of the law of karma helped me to realise something very powerful. Nothing wrong had actually happened here! Of course it felt wrong, and devastatingly painful, but what had actually happened, was one karmic experience of my life ended and another one was about to begin. The karma of my partner, was to meet me in this life but also to leave this life at a young age because of his past. The karma of his killer, was to be born in this body, to commit this crime and be punished-or forgiven. Not everyone believes in Buddhism, not everyone has faith but this was mine. It made me think how tormented someone must be to be born in the body of a killer, and live with that mind 24 hours a day tormented by feelings of anger and rage. Surely to be born with a body and mind like this, warranted compassion rather than rage. What good would rage and anger do? My friends also said “he should be hanging for what he did” but what good would that do? My partner would still be dead, I would still be alone with my grief and trauma, and he would still be serving a life sentence in prison, so what good would come out of that? Three years after my partner’s death, I was invited to attend an event for people affected by murder and manslaughter paid for by the probation service. By this time, I was already on my way to forgiving the person responsible, and the people I met at this event taught me I was going in the right direction. Mothers who had lost children in devastating circumstances spoke out about their grief, pain and trauma. One mother in particular, gnarled by disability, walking with sticks, consumed with anger and loaded with as much prescription medication possible to swallow, spoke about the rape and murder of her daughter 45 years ago. Traumatic and devastating as this is, her life had gone the moment her daughter did and even worse…….the next 45 years had been consumed by trying to keep the murderer behind bars. From that moment on, I knew forgiveness was my way forward and so eight years on with the support of a mediation service, I met with his killer. These meetings are done carefully in a prison setting, with lots of planning beforehand & lots of people around during the meeting including prison officers. On that day I entered the room first, took my seat and prepared myself waiting for him to arrive with a prison officer. Waiting for the man who slaughtered my partner eight years ago to explain himself and offer at least one partially acceptable reason why. In the same breath, I was ready to tell him I’d forgiven him, that we both needed to move on if we were ever going to have a life free from this pain and heartache. That myself and him were not much different from each other, and we were bonded together by the same cause – him as a killer & me as the leftovers from that kill – oh I was so ready for this! Then the door opened and in walked a stooped, small frail old looking man who in reality was just 52years old and it was pretty much over from that point, finished. My mouth opened involuntarily, and words came out that I never imagined would ever fall from my lips. My first words as he entered the room – “How are you ‘John’ I hope you’re ok” from the moment he entered, I really had no idea why I went there, and although a few of my questions were answered, that was no longer my main concern. My only concern at that moment was letting him know I’d forgiven him. The meeting lasted 90mins with a 20 min break in between to drink tea, and gather our thoughts. It was during that break, I was brought to my knees when he reached out and handed me a cup of tea. As I took the cup gracefully from his hand, I realised we shared more than I first anticipated, something far bigger than just predator & prey – we shared humanity. Hard as it is to believe, as humans we all have the potential to hurt others because we are human. You might disagree, but none of us are bigger higher or better. In the same context, we all have the potential to grow and flourish given the right circumstances. We have the potential for change no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
As our meeting ended, I stood up and moved towards him much to the surprise of the prison officers who moved forward too – but before they could do anything I had embraced him with true forgiveness and love in my heart and then he left. Recently, I received news about his death which saddened me, but as Buddhism teaches …..Our enemy is often our greatest teacher.
For me personally, finding forgiveness was the one true factor that saved me from a lifetime of antidepressants, therapy and mental anguish.
What are your experiences of forgiveness?