The Power of Forgiveness
Transcript of talk given on 4/15/07 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Pittsfield, MA

There is a saying: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die…”
and then there's this from Gandhi: “An eye for an eye and pretty soon the whole world is blind.”

Let me ask each of you a question. If you had it within your power to make this world a better place, would you?
I'll bet you wouldn't even hesitate-the answer would be yes.

What if I told you that in order to do this you have to be willing to forgive everyone?
Would you still say yes? I'm sure none of us would be hard-pressed to come up with a list of unforgivable acts that have taken place in the world.
I know for me, I was reminded of some of the most horrible acts in history when Jane & I went to hear Ken Burns speak about his upcoming series on WWII.
He showed us excerpts and if there was ever proof-positive of mans brutality, inhumanity, and unforgivable acts, what was shown in some of these pictures was it.

But as Ken Burns also reminded us that day, some of the
highest, most noble acts of humanity were also taking place in the middle of all this horror.
Still, I couldn't help but wonder as I looked at pictures of bodies piled up like cordwood, how do you forgive such things?
It's just too big to wrap your mind around, isn't it?

So let's bring things down to a more manageable level: let's think about ourselves for a minute.
As a matter of fact, why don't we think about forgiveness as it relates to the smallest parts of ourselves?

Consider this: A series of experiments were conducted at the Institute of Heart-Math in Boulder CO., to see if positive emotions-like love and forgiveness- had an effect on DNA. The DNA samples used were identical quantities of human placental DNA suspended in de-ionized water and held by a person(click here to go to Institute of HeartMath to read how test was performed*). What they found was that in the presence of love, compassion and forgiveness the DNA was observed to relax and stretch out, and in this state the immune response is enhanced.

Just the opposite thing happened to the DNA samples that were exposed to anger and hatred -
Those samples contracted and wound up tight, like a knot, suppressing the immune response.
Anyone who has seen the movie, “What the Bleep” will probably remember that Dr. Emoto performed a similar set of experiments using water, wherein the ice crystals formed from water that had been exposed to hate and anger were malformed, while the ice crystals from water exposed to love were beautiful and perfectly formed.
Both these examples suggest the powerful effects that positive or negative emotions can have on even the smallest parts of our being.

So, clearly, forgiveness is in our own best interest.
But that's easier said then done.
After all, there are just some things beyond forgiveness.
Let me suggest this to you: We don't have to forgive the act-just the actor.
I'd be lying to you if I told you that I've not struggled around the issue of forgiveness.
But I've also seen proof that: “…Where the wounds are, the gift lies.”

A few weeks ago I watched a show about the building of the bridge on the river Kwai and the Siam railway-again another example of the horrors during WWII. This project was built entirely by POW's and the slave labor of the natives. The show contained interviews with some of the former POW's.
These men were now old, but as they talked of this time in their lives you could see the anger and bitterness, the hatred in their eyes. And considering the stories many of them told, you could understand why.
I went to bed that night troubled by what I'd seen. This was one of those times when I wondered about forgiveness.
Had any of these men ever come to a place of forgiveness for the Japanese?

From my own experiences with Hospice I've seen how difficult the dying process can be when someone has “unfinished business”-especially anger. So I wondered about these men -what's happened to them since this film was made a few years ago? As I lay there trying to get to sleep these thoughts kept running around in my head. I asked how does a person forgive something like this? I asked myself if it happened to me, could I?

The words Jesus called out as he was dying “Forgive them father for they know not what they do...”
drifted into my mind. That helped.
“….they know not what they do…”

Now you might be thinking to yourself, “sure they did-they knew exactly what they were doing.”
But Jesus is speaking to a spiritual reality: what we do to others, we do to our self as well, because we are all a part of the same Thing.
the scars we inflict are also the scars we carry.

The following morning I decided that Forgiveness was going to be the subject of today's talk. I went online and googled Forgiveness.
What caught my eye immediately was a link to something called “The Forgiveness Project”, so I clicked on it.
The opening page had a collage of dozens of photos of people's faces and I randomly clicked on one.

Amazingly it turned out to be someone who'd been a POW in one of those camps in Siam-one of those men who'd been forced to build that railroad!
His name was Eric Lomax, and reading his words gave me an answer to the question I'd asked that night.
It told the story of his journey to forgiveness.

He said that after the war he couldn't get what happened to him out of his head. He says he had no self-worth and no trust in people. He hated the Japanese and he particularly hated the man who had been his interrogator and torturer, a man named Nagase Takashi.
Lomax said that his wife and family were often the targets, receiving the brunt of the anger he felt for this man.

Finally, after retiring, Lomax began researching what had happened in those camps during the war. He found out that Takashi had become a very successful businessman; that he'd been involved in all kinds of works of charity and had even built a Buddhist temple in the area of these prison camps.
This actually made Lomax even angrier. He couldn't believe that this man could really change that much. He imagined himself confronting Takashi-he would fantasize torturing Takashi-doing the exact same things that had been done to him back when he'd been a prisoner.

Lomax says the turning point came for him when he joined a support group at The Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture.
There he was able to get support and help and he began to unload the hatred he'd been carrying all those years. His life began to change.
His wife, seeing the change that this brought to him, wrote to Takashi.
Takashi wrote back- a deeply compassionate letter and when Lomax read it he said his “armor” began to loosen.
It was at this point that he began to consider what once would have been impossible- forgiveness.

The 2 men finally met in Thailand in 1998. Lomax had learned some Japanese, and he greeted Takashi, saying “Good morning Mr. Takashi, how are you?”
Takashi bowed deeply. And then he took Lomax's hand to shake it. He began to cry , saying over and over again “I am so sorry…so very, very sorry.”
Lomax said any remaining anger he might have still had vanished at that moment. The 2 men spent several days together, laughing and joking and sharing stories. They found they had many things in common. A friendship has grown form this meeting
and they continue to stay in touch and talk regularly. Today Lomax considers Takashi a dear friend.
Eric Lomax says that forgiveness is possible when someone is ready to accept forgiveness.

But what about when that's not the case? Well, there's the story of Bud Welch who lost his daughter Julie in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. After it had happened he was so filled with hate for the men who'd done it that practically all he could think about was how he wanted them to die-even thought of killing them himself. Everyday he would walk to that bombsite and just stand there, feeding his hatred. He became a daily drinker.
One day, after months of doing this, something shifted. In January of 1996, as he stood at the bombsite, nursing a horrible hangover, a thought jumped into his mind: “What I'm doing isn't working”. It was as if a light had come on.

He began to re-think things. He realized that it had been anger, revenge, and hatred, that had killed his daughter and all those other people-after all, the bombers were avenging what had happened in Waco, TX in 1993. Then one night he saw Timothy McVeigh's father on TV being hounded by some reporters. Bud saw the pain on Bill McVeigh's face and he recognized it. He contacted Bill McVeigh and met with both McVeigh and his daughter, Jennifer at the McVeigh's house.
One of the things Bill McVeigh asked Bud during the course of their conversation was whether or not Bud had been able to cry-to really let go and cry. Bud said that he had - many times. Bill said that he wished he could, that maybe he'd feel better. But the tears just wouldn't come.

Afterward as the 3 of them sat around the kitchen table, a period of silence set in-it was that uncomfortable kind of silence when it feels like you should say something but have run out of words. Bud looked up at a picture on the wall. It was Timothy McVeigh's high school graduation picture. Before he realized it, he heard himself say out loud, “God, what a good looking kid…” Bill McVeigh looked up at the picture and smiled, and then Bud saw it- a single tear rolling down Bud's cheek.
A little while later, as he got ready to leave he went to shake Jennifer's hand, but she put her arms around him and hugged him. And she began to cry. So did Bud. They stood there, holding each other and crying. Bud says that he realized that they were all victims of this act of violence- including Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. Bud Welch became an advocate for the repeal of the death penalty and he tried to save Timothy McVeigh's life.
He's still advocating for death row prisoners.

Both these stories are extraordinary. And as I looked around at this website I found many, many more. And this gives me reason to hope.

But chances are most of us will not have such challenging things-such terrible things-to forgive.
But none of us escapes injury in life, either. To compare our pain to others doesn't necessarily serve us well.
Try telling someone who has a splinter under their fingernail that it's no big deal.
Pain is pain.

Again, forgiveness doesn't mean we have to forgive what was done-just who did it.
It's true-there are people who do terrible things-awful things.
There are people who have no remorse about the things they've done.
This doesn't matter. Forgive them anyway.

I didn't say excuse. I didn't say pretend it didn't happen. Just forgive.
This is not easy stuff! It may be some of the hardest work you'll ever do.
Do it anyway. For your sake- for the world's sake.

You don't have to invite these people to come and live with you!
But here's the thing: until you forgive them, they already do -everyday!

Forgiveness does not mean someone is relieved of the consequences of their actions. Each of us is responsible for what we do.
Forgiveness does not mean a criminal goes free, only that you do!
Whether the person who has done the harm is able to accept responsibility and ask for forgiveness is not up to us!
What is up to us is the decision to forgive.

But it must start with us, and be for ourselves first. Once that is done all things become possible!
Forgiveness means we stop hoping for a better past.

Central to the teachings of Jesus is forgiveness. When asked how often someone should be willing to forgive Jesus answered the question saying 7 times 70 …..and even more. As often as necessary.

The mess we're seeing unfold in the world is just a continuation of the same old story- an eye for an eye.
And we're slowly going blind! Why is self-forgiveness so important? Because “We love to hate in the world what we hate to love in our self.”
Our ego, in the name of “self” defense, projects- just like a movie camera - all the things that we most dislike about our self-all the unhealed junk-it projects this out on to the world and onto other people, and that's where we see it-in others. And sometimes we do the very things that most disturb us about them.

Forgiveness can stop this cycle. Forgiving ourselves is also about accepting ourselves…and it's the beginning of true compassion-for ourselves and for others.
Because you cannot give what you do not have.

Often forgiving ourselves is actually harder than forgiving others. Why?
Because we know every lousy thing we've ever done- or ever wanted to do-all the things we never did but should have done. We know it all! All the “less” then noble acts and desires we've ever had. Whether we're conscious of them or not, we still carry them here in our hearts! And they weigh us down!

Forgiveness is a process.
It requires continual practice.
It is hard.
And sometimes, even though you thought you were through with it, you discover there is still more work to be done.

It is part of the spiritual path. As a matter of fact, in my opinion, IT IS THE PATH.
There can be no spiritual growth without it. You will simply hit a wall. You can read all the self-help and spiritual books in the world, listen to all the gurus, meditate and pray-do yoga -none of these will move you an inch without forgiveness!

Forgiveness allows us to love our self-all of us! Warts and all. Mistakes and all!
With forgiveness the un-loveable can become healed, and through that healing, loved.

”…Forgive them for they know not what they do”.

With forgiveness we begin to become conscious of what it is that we do “do”- and with that consciousness we get to change!
Forgiveness opens the door to love and compassion. And with love, compassion and forgiveness all things-even miracles like world peace-become possible.

Just remember what love, compassion, and forgiveness did for the DNA!!!!
Then imagine millions of us practicing it.

Margaret Mead said, “never underestimate the power of a few dedicated people to change the world…as a matter of fact, it's the only thing that ever has.”
Become one of those dedicated people. Dedicate yourself to forgiveness and see what a wonderful world it can be!