On Forgiveness

A bitter heart devours its owner. — African Proverb

What would you do if you drop a loved one off at school or work and you can’t pick them up at the end of the day because for whatever reason some person (but really, let’s be honest, some guy) had had enough and couldn’t keep his demons down anymore and killed them?

This scenario plays out all to often.

Since 2006 there have been over thirty school and other mass shootings worldwide. The two deadliest in U.S. history – the 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic and the 2012 shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school – claimed over fifty lives. 

But what happens once the bodies are buried, the media disappear and all you are left with are photos and objects reminding you of your love?

If you are the Amish from Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania you focus on healing your community through forgiveness. On October 2, 2006 Charles Roberts walked into the one-room schoolhouse in their town. He brought guns, knives, wire, plastic ties and six hundred rounds of ammunition. The boys were ordered out. The girls were tied-up to one another. He opened fire not long after taking the girls hostage. Roberts shot ten girls that morning – killing five and paralyzing one – before taking his own life.

Rather than condemn Roberts, they took food to his widow, Marie, and her three children. They established a Roberts Family Fund. They understood that the Roberts Family were also victims and wrapped them in compassionate care. This startling departure from the expected response of condemnation and vengeful retribution elicited bewildered commentary from incredulous reporters and pundits.

This action is the inspiration behind Jessica Dickey’s one-woman show, The Amish Project, a work I am currently rehearsing with the fantastic Amy Keating for the Canadian premiere in Kitchener, Ontario on the 24th of September. Dickey never lets the audience believe that forgiveness is easy nor does she teach people how to forgive.  Instead, her play initiates dialogue about what it means to live a compassionate life without the need for retribution.  It makes us wonder and contemplate what life would be like if we changed our behaviour – replaced revenge with empathy – let go of anger rather than let it fester.

Instead of delving deeply into the killer’s dark side, Dickey creates a separate narrative arc featuring a chain of the little nasty things people do to one another when they feel powerless.  None of these are as gruesome as shooting a room full of girls, but they are violent verbal examples of how we attempt to aggrandize ourselves through retribution, to give ourselves power when we have none.

Finding forgiveness is not about denying feelings.  It’s about focusing on the appropriate feelings.  It’s about making yourself available to feel truly devastated by loss – to embrace feelings of weakness, as we are not able to control everything.  Learning how to live a compassionate life devoid of vengeful feelings requires releasing the need to be in control. Forgiveness is about release. Being forgiven can be just as powerful a release. But to be forgiven one must take ownership and responsibility when one’s actions have lead to calamity.

While in university I was the benefactor of forgiveness. My best friend at the time and I had a falling out. It involved a girl, a samurai code and plenty of cigarettes. After months of silence I performed a piece, the program notes for which contained a codified note only he would understand. Mine was a deep apology filled with memories and a vision of reconciliation. After the performance he smiled, said ‘thank you’ and has been there ever since. We can go months without contact but I would carry him on my back if I needed to. He would say he would like to but that I would crush him!   

The point is that we all have these stories. Whether we have been granted or denied forgiveness we have all been in a position to need it. We have all had the opportunity to offer it, to embrace a fellow human being and tell them it’s okay, we can move through this moment. It doesn’t require a shooting or an affair. In fact it is the small petty violence we inflict on a daily basis that sets the stage, creates an environment where hate spreads like wildfire and before you know it police arrest you if you walk too close to them and bombs rip apart schools while people look on, laughing and eating popcorn.

I believe in the power to forgive.  I have the desire to live a compassionate life.  I have a rudimentary understanding of how to do these things.  This play is an opening; an invocation to be a better person.  

I want to hear your stories. I want us to gain inspiration from each other. Starting Monday September 15, 2014 we will launch 21 Days of Forgiveness. It will be a call of compassion. I ask strangers, friends, family to send me their stories of being or not being forgiven and of forgiving or denying someone forgiveness. You may remain anonymous if you prefer. Some days I will post inspiring stories I have come across. You may post your story here or email info@greenlight-arts.com. Know that if you are one of the first twenty-one people to send your story it will be posted and you will receive a ticket to The Amish Project.

Each day life challenges us not to be consumed by thoughts and acts of vengeance, choosing instead to search for a meaning to live. Let’s go on together, shall we?

The Amish Project runs Sept 24-Oct 5, 2014
Studio 180 @ Hagey Hall, University of Waterloo