The difficult but important work of forgiveness

A big part of the Canaan Forgiveness Project sessions are the interviews inmates conduct with each other. They ask each other questions about how they responded to people who did them wrong. Questions deal with the what, where, when, who and how; but also with feelings, responses and long-term fallout.

Today, P.C. agreed to be interviewed; D.H. was the interviewer. When he agreed two weeks ago to be interviewed today, P.C. said that he would not talk about his most painful hurt, something having to do with the death of someone he loved. That one, he has said, is unforgivable.

Instead, P.C. described a pool hall fight with a man he called a bully that eventually escalated into gunshots. Some days later it resumed with P.C. being threatened by the same man, this time holding a sawed off shotgun, which resulted in P.C. being arrested and prosecuted, while the man who threatened him suffered no consequences. P.C. said the cost of his defense, acquittal and the subsequent court costs and fines was thousands of dollars. He spoke of his anger and hatred toward the man. He also described the stress he endured over the ensuing eight years when even the sight of the man brought back  bitter memories and  fear that if they got too close, one of them would likely die.

Eventually, P.C. said, the dreaded moment arrived when the two of them found themselves alone and together with no easy way to escape. Instead of a violent confrontation, his enemy apologized and extended his hand. Here, it is worth quoting P.C. “I still do not know how it happened, for I had no good feelings toward this man. But suddenly my hand grabbed his hand.”

“Was it forgiveness?” another inmate asked. P.C. said that he does not think so. But, he added, there was a sense of peace. In fact, he felt so much better that he has since often wondered why he was willing to endure eight years of frequent torment every time he saw the man or something triggered the memory of what happened. “I would be playing with my kids,” he said, “and then see the guy driving by. And I would instantly lose all enthusiasm for being with my children. The anger would come back and I would become anything but a loving father.”

Another inmate asked, “Well, have you forgiven this guy?” P.C. said that he thought he had. I then asked P.C. if he had forgiven himself for his role in the initial act of violence that got him into trouble. P.C. was indignant and told me plainly that he resented the question. “None of it was my fault,” he insisted. “This other guy was the one who did me wrong.”

“But you responded to his aggression by fighting rather than talking him down or walking away.” P.C. defended his actions, insisting that he would have lost face with his friends if he had not met aggression with aggression. “Perhaps so,” I said, “but by participating in the escalation you ultimately ended up in court, spent thousands of dollars you did not have defending yourself, and then endured eight years of periodic torment every time you saw this guy and thought about him. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that you suffered a great deal because you chose not to walk away from a fight. That’s why I asked if you had forgiven yourself.”

P.C. looked at me for several long seconds before saying, “No one has ever helped me look at things the way you just did. I have a long way to go with this forgiveness stuff. It’s hard.”

Yes it is. But oh so important.


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