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Forgiving Ourselves

These selected cases that are related to forgiveness are taken from ‘Why Forgive?’  By Johann  Christoph Arnold. These cases are about forgiving us.  The book as a whole is extraordinarily stimulating. So it is hoped that this extract will be also stimulating for the readers of this column. But it would be more fruitful if one reads the entire book.
When we assure a person who has hurt us that we no longer hold anything against him, all he has to do is accept our kindness – at least that is what we might hope. But that is often more easily said than done. For many people, the problem of guilt cannot be solved with another’s forgiveness or by any external means at all. For them, peace of mind comes only when they are able to forgive themselves.
I  first met Delf Fransham in 1953. That was the year he moved from the United States to the remote South American village where I grew up and began to teach at the local school. There were eleven of us in his class, all boys, and all ruffians, and a few days into his first term we decided to put him to the test.

One typical Paraguayan morning (humid and around 110 degrees), we offered to take him on a hike. Officially, we wanted to show him the sights. Privately, we wanted to see what he was made of. After leading him at least ten kilometers through jungle, prairie, and swampland, we finally turned back.

hortly after we arrived home he collapsed with heat stroke. Delf was in bed for days, but we hardly gave it a thought. We had achieved exactly what we wanted – proved him a sissy. But we were in for a small surprise.
The day he came back to school he said, “Boys, let’s try that hike again.” We couldn’t believe it! We covered the same route again and, sure enough, this time he did not succumb to the heat. Delf won our respect and our hearts that day, and we trusted him from then on. (There was something else to it, too: a talented athlete, he taught us soccer and loved to play with us.)
Decades later, and only by chance, I found out why Delf had poured so much love and energy into reaching his students. He had lost a child of his own. Nicholas was born when the Franshams were still living in the United States, and one day as Delf was backing a truckload of firewood into their driveway, two-year-old Nicholas, who was playing outdoors, ran to meet his father. Delf did not see him until it was too late, and ran over him.
Katie, Delf ’s wife, was busy inside the house when he carried in their little boy, limp in his arms. She remembers: I was beside myself – absolutely frantic – but Delf steadied me. We took Nicholas to our doctor, who was also the coroner, and explained what had happened…

There was never any question about forgiving my husband, as I knew I was just as much to blame. Likewise he did not blame me, only himself. We stood in our sorrow together.
Delf, however, could not forgive him, and the accident haunted him for years. From then on, he went out of his way to make time for children – time he could not spend with the son he had killed.
Looking back, I remember how his eyes often glistened with tears, and wonder what it was that made them come. Was it that he saw his son in us? Was he imagining the boy his toddler would never become? Whatever the reason, it seems that Delf’s determination to show love to others was his way of making up for the anguish he had caused himself and his family by unintentionally taking a life. I am convinced that it saved him from brooding, and from nursing his feelings of guilt. Through loving others he was able to forgive himself and regain a sense of wholeness and peace.

John Plummer lives the quiet life of a Methodist pastor in a sleepy Virginia town these days, but things weren’t always so. A helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, he helped organize a napalm raid on the village of Trang Bang in 1972 – a bombing immortalized by the prize-winning photograph of one of its victims, Phan Thi Kim Phuc.

For the next twenty-four years, John was haunted by the photograph an image that for many people captured the essence of the war: a naked and burned nine-year-old running toward the camera, with plumes of black smoke billowing in the sky behind her. For twenty-four years John’s conscience tormented him.  He badly wanted to find the girl to tell her that he was sorry – but he could not. Turning in on himself, he grew more and more depressed (the collapse of two marriages didn’t help), and he began to drink.

Then, in an almost unbelievable coincidence, John met Kim during an event at the Vietnam War Memorial on Veterans Day, 1996. Kim had come to Washington, D.C., to lay a wreath for peace; John had come with a group of former pilots unable to come to terms with their shared past, but determined to stick together anyway.

In a speech to the crowd, Kim introduced herself as the girl in the famous photograph.  She still suffered immensely from her burns, she said, but she was not bitter, and she wanted people to know that others had suffered even more than she had: “Behind that picture of me, thousands and thousands of people…died.  They lost parts of their bodies. Their whole lives were destroyed, and nobody took their picture.”

Kim went on to say that although she could not change the past, she had forgiven the men who had bombed her village, and that she felt a calling to promote peace as a former pilot in Vietnam and said that he felt responsible for the bombing of her village twenty-four years before. He says: Kim saw my grief, my pain, my sorrow…She held out her arms to me and embraced me. All I could say was “I’m sorry; I’m sorry” – over and over again. And at the same time she was saying, “It’s all right, I forgive you.” John says that it was vital for him to meet face to face with Kim, and to tell her that he had agonized for years over her injuries. Without having had the chance to get that off his chest, he is not sure he could have ever forgiven himself. As it turned out, of course, he got even more than he hoped for: Kim forgave him.

Reflecting on the way the incident changed his life, John maintains that forgiveness is “neither earned nor even deserved, but a gift.” It is also a mystery. He still can’t quite grasp how a short conversation could wipe away a twenty-four-year nightmare.

Pat, another Vietnam veteran, is a gentle, quiet man who loves children and horses. In the seven years since I first met him, however, I have become aware that he has a darker side – one that centers on his inability to forgive himself:

Death is on my mind a lot. The deaths I have caused – and wanting my own death – are with me every day. I joke around a lot with the people I work with. I have to, to hide the pain and to keep my mind from thinking. I need to laugh. Laughing keeps the blues away. But I cannot love. Part of my soul is missing, and it seems I won’t ever get it back. I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for all of my wrongs. I live day to day, but I am tired all the time – tired. Will it ever end? I don’t see how. It’s been with me over twenty-five years now.

People like Pat are often urged to receive formal counseling, to join a support group, or to attend group therapy meetings so as to compare notes with others who have had similar experiences. He has done all of this, and still not found peace. Perhaps, like John, he wishes he could meet the families of those he killed – an unlikely opportunity – or bring the victims themselves back to life so he could ask their forgiveness – an obviously impossible one. So what should he do?

A conversation Robert Coles once had with the psychoanalyst Anna Freud may hint at an answer. Discussing an elderly client with a long and troubled psychological history, Freud suddenly concluded:
You know, before we say good- bye to this lady, we should wonder among ourselves not only what to think – we do that all the time! – But what in the world we would want for her. Oh, I don’t mean psychotherapy; she’s had lots of that. It would take more years, I suspect, of  psychoanalysis  than the good Lord has given her…No, she’s had her fill of “us,” even if she doesn’t know it…This poor old lady doesn’t need us at all… What she needs…is forgiveness. She needs to make peace with her soul, not talk about her mind. There must be a God, somewhere, to help her, to hear her, to heal her…and we certainly aren’t the ones who will be of assistance to her in that regard!

Freud’s point is a valid one, even for a person who claims to have no belief in God. At some level, all of us must come to terms with the parts of ourselves that we wish we could erase. All of us yearn for the freedom to live without guilt. At some level, every one of us longs for forgiveness.

Yet when all is said and done, we cannot acquire it. Sometimes the person we have wronged is unable or unwilling to forgive us. Sometimes we are unable or unwilling to forgive ourselves. Even the best psychoanalysis, the most earnest confession of guilt, may not be enough to assure us of lasting relief or healing.

But the power of forgiveness still exists, and as John Plummer found out, it can work wonders even when we are sure that we have neither earned nor deserved it. It comes to us as a gift, often when we feel least worthy of receiving it. Finally, like any gift, it can be accepted or rejected. What we do with it is up to us.

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