What do we gain if we hang on to anger? That is a question I am asked frequently when I speak in Victim Impact and other venues. Why do I withhold ‘forgiveness’ rather than offer it freely, without limitations or a requirement for acts / signs of true remorse. Why do I believe forgiveness is a gift to the repentant, rather than a gift to ourselves. These are questions I have been pondering lately with a different frame of mind than in the past.
Last year was a year of turmoil and upheaval, not just for me personally but for the nation. Oddly, though what happened in the nation is very different from my own experiences, I can’t help but draw parallels and then my heart cracks. Even while I feel paralyzed and unqualified to speak, I am and have been drawn, sometimes simply as a witness to the terrible and other times to lend my voice, to demand change and justice. Even when my voice is unwelcome in the cacophony that has greater right, greater knowledge, greater principle still I felt the need to try to make sense and add my voice.
No, it isn’t about me or about me being heard, it is simply to raise a voice to demand change in what is so horribly wrong, what is intolerably unjust. It is a voice raised not because it has weight, but instead because silence is no longer an option. What does any one of us bring as our voices are raised, our pens put to paper, our feet to concrete but the entirety of our life experiences, no it isn’t about me. It is simply one more voice demanding change.
My worldview is based solely upon my personal experiences, what has formed me as a human being and a woman, this is all I have, it is all any of us have from which we can view the world around us and form opinions. Our experiences, they are what each of us carry into the world to form judgment, to balance compassion, to create empathy, to allow love to flow freely or to dam it behind walls of fear and mistrust. What we learn at the knee of our parents, in our homes, our schools and sometimes more importantly through our adult experience; this is all we have to form us as complete adults. My life experience is the only thing I have from which I am able to measure ‘right vs. wrong’ and ‘good vs. evil’, my perspective may be from a different place but it is all I have, the only prism I can see through.
It is impossible for any one of us to compare our individual experiences to another person and say with certainly, ‘I understand, I know how you feel’. We don’t, we never will. We might have compassion for what they are feeling, empathy for what they are experiencing; we do not know what or how they are feeling. We cannot know, we are not them and thus it is impossible for us to know. When you layer on all the differences including personal experiences, culture, education, generation and yes, even religion and race it becomes nearly impossible for us to put ourselves in the place of another. At best we can be compassionate in the face of terrible loss and to show solidarity in the face of gross injustice.
Why is it so important, that any of us speak out, that we evaluate our premise and speak from our hearts whether we have the ability to walk in the shoes of those wronged, we nonetheless must have empathy and compassion, if we don’t have these, we are not fully human. What has brought me to this brooding walk through a philosophical position on forgiveness (I will get back there), compassion and empathy? December was a month of heated discussions, unfocused wretchedness and soul searching.
“Not about you”, “You lived”, and “You are still White” were all said, they are also all true.
Just prior to the discussion that generated those statements I received a letter from the State of Texas Board of Parole, one of the three men who shot me, leaving me for dead because they, ‘Wanted to kill White People’, is again up for parole. He has been back in prison for just over two years having been paroled once before. That letter is sitting on my dining room table; it stares up at me every morning with my first cup of coffee, sometimes I run my fingers over the words. On 7-Feb -2015 it will be twenty-three (23) years since that near fatal night. The night three young men changed my life and their own forever, simply because they hated the color of my skin. They didn’t hate me, they didn’t know me; they simply hated what I stood for, what I represented.
For twenty-three years, I have lived with the consequences of their actions, so have they. Last month my seizures started escalating again; my epilepsy is one of the gifts that keep giving from the shooting, one of the consequences. Now that I live alone my seizures scare the hell out of me. Yet I stare at that letter and I wonder, do I really need to respond, do I truly need to demand my pound of flesh in the remorse that will never be forthcoming from someone who had all the reasons in the world to ‘hate white people’.
I got the first letter eighteen years ago, I responded with a demand they hold him to serve a greater part of his thirty-year sentence. I questioned how they could consider parole where there was not a shred of remorse for his actions against any of his victims. Then, I cried for days. For the next eighteen years, every single time I received one of these letters I responded the same way and I cried for days after, like clockwork every two years. I didn’t cry when he was paroled, I cried though when he was returned to prison.
I do not forgive him or his partners, I think I might have too many reminders. I watch the grace of those who have lost their loved ones to violence, I wonder is it that I do not have grace or that I am simply vindictive and mean spirited. I do not know the answer, I know I am not angry at them but I am angry at the system, the society that created them. I am angry at all of us, who let them fall through the cracks, who didn’t save them and all the other young men just like them who lost hope before they had a chance to live.
So yes, I lived and no it isn’t about me; I hope though I can find a way to lift my voice, put pen to paper and make it matter, make it count. I hope I have enough compassion to fill in the cracks, that I live long enough to see a change and that in some small way I can be part of that change.