John Lewis currently serves as the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. Prior to being a public servant, Mr. Lewis was a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement (he is commonly referred to as being one of the “Big Six” leaders in the Civil Rights era). In May 1961, while attempting to enter a waiting area of a bus station in South Carolina marked “Whites Only”, Lewis was beaten by a gang of Klansmen, robbed, and left in a pool of blood.
Despite having every justification for being angry and vengeful the then 25-year-old beckoned his followers to have compassion for his persecutors (Congressman Lewis declined to press charges then). As he explained to a crowd several decades later, “At that point the only power we had was the power to forgive.”
Life seldom brings complete clarity, but the one thing that I’m certain in is the power of forgiveness. Like Mr. Lewis and many others, the ability to transition from to a default mode of rage to a mindset of compassion and empathy, eventually, rewards the forgiver.
Forgiveness soothes the soul by injecting a jolt of clarity and peace into one’s mind by unburdening humans from the trauma of their prior mistakes or misfortunes. As writer Anne Lamont once declared, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having a different past.” When one forgives oneself, or another human, one no longer shadow boxes with a cognitive demon that has constantly pummeled him or her. One comes to peace that the past can’t be altered, but it can be understood.
When one buys into the power of forgiveness, one takes the first step towards regaining the mental fortitude, power, and pride that was unfairly stripped away. In an interview with David Letterman, Nobel Peace Prize winner Melala Yousef astutely stated, “Forgiveness is the best revenge.”
And, she’s right. Relinquishing one’s disdain for a person, group, or event is liberating. When one’s happiness and conscious are no longer at the mercy of another entity, one is cerebrally emboldened. Forgiveness disempowers the perpetrator and renders their evil deed as a fruitless endeavor devoid of any significance.
Moreover, the ability to have the courage to synthesize the injustice and cognitively disentangle oneself from thoughts of despair allows one to forge ahead in life on one’s own terms. The individual can now unshackle their consciousness from the deleterious thoughts that, subconsciously, have negatively affected other experiences or prevented one from creating bonds with others.
In his wonderful book, How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love, sentiment nerd and Harvard researcher, George Vaillant, argues forgiveness is one of the eight positive emotions that keep us connected with our deepest selves and with others. (Mr. Vailant cites love, hope, joy, compassion, faith, awe, and gratitude as the other key factors for connection)
When we forgive, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to learn a little bit more, and give others a sense that there is room in society to grow from mistakes. The recipes for creating sound connections are abundant and diverse, but none of them is palatable without the ingredients of knowledge, compassion, and consideration. And, none of those traits would be possible without a bit of forgiveness.
I, myself, admit struggling with the actual act of forgiving. It is not easy to shake the trepidation that extending an olive branch of mercy may invite further abuse. It’s hard to garner up the strength to confront my past. It’s difficult to accept, as many have stated, that forgiveness does not mean condoning an injustice/offense or overlooking the pain. It’s even more difficult to acknowledge my pain even exists.
But, I find solace that so many people whom I admire and deeply respect — -Malala Yousef, Nelson Mandela, victims of mass shooting at home, and victims of genocides abroad — -have found divine, mental, and practical salvation in forgiveness.
In 2009, a 70-year-old man and his son tracked down Congressman Lewis. The man was Elwin Wilson, the individual who, almost 40 years ago, brutally beat the now Georgia representative. When Mr. Wilson, and his kid, sat down with the civil rights leader, he expressed immense regret for his actions. Fighting back tears he said, “I’m so sorry about what happened back then.”
As Elwin’s son began to sob, Mr. Lewis replied, “It’s okay I forgive you.”