Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Thoughts on Forgiveness

I just finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and this post will discuss it in some depth, so if you haven't read it but want to without spoilers, feel free to do so now.

I've read quite a few POW books and quite a few World War II books, and it seemed like Unbroken would be the same kind of story...average joe (well, usually they are more than average - they had some sort of popularity before the war) who is thrust into atrocious circumstances and survives despite the odds.  For the first while, that's how it was.  Louie Zamperini was a world class runner who ended up crashing in the ocean.  After spending some 40 days on a raft going 2000 miles across the Pacific (see below), he
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was captured by the Japanese on Kwajalein Atoll and then sent to Ofuna camp (Kamakura area), followed by 2 tours (one at Omori - in Tokyo Bay, just north of Haneda airport and one at Naoetsu, on the Sea of Japan) under one of the most sadistic camp guards in the Japanese system - Mutsuhiro Watanabe, aka The Bird.  He was so bad that he ended up being a Class A war criminal, right up there with Tojo.  He was irrepressibly brutal to the POWs, beating them on a daily basis, debasing them, and doing everything he could to make life miserable.  Life in the camps wasn't exactly like staying in a Hilton, it wasn't even as good as life in the Hanoi Hilton.  After the defeat of the Japanese empire, Zamperini went home, but couldn't bring himself to forgive his captors.
This inability to forgive didn't help Louie get over the war.  Instead, night after night, he had nightmares where The Bird was trying to kill him and he was trying to kill The Bird.  As Hillenbrand said, Louie was the captive of The Bird even after he returned from the war.  This spilled over into his personal life, ruining relationships and driving him ever deeper into alcoholism.  Finally, as his wife was about to leave him, he found religion and forgave his captors.
How do we apply this to us?  The first thing that struck me was how the principle of forgiveness has been misunderstood.  We assume that it's for the other person - the one who has wronged us.  We get wrapped up in whether they deserve forgiveness or not.  Instead, it's not about them - it's about us.  We are required to forgive everybody because ultimately it hurts us if we don't.  The Bird went about his life and made millions, never knowing or caring whether Louie forgave him or not.  Louie couldn't move on until he had forgiven The Bird.
I know that there are people who have done horrific things to others in this life, should they be forgiven?  I think this is a bit of where the problem comes in.  If they do something to me, I should forgive them...whether they should be forgiven or not for their sins is up to God and God alone.  However, as long as we continue to harbor ill feelings towards them, we are in their power whether they know it or not.  As we decide to forgive and forget, we are set free from the prison of hatred and despair that keeps us bound to the past and can move on with our lives, free with the knowledge that God is just and that He will return good for good and evil for evil.  He is a perfect judge and will do what is best for everyone.  Stephen Covey says "it isn't the poisonous snake bite that does the harm.  It's chasing the snake that drives the venom to the heart," and that's what not forgiving someone does - it eats at us day by day until we finally stop and rest from our obsession and allow the cleansing power of the atonement into our lives, and with it, the peace that forgiveness and letting go can give us.
One of the big things that I've been learning is the power of letting go.  We can't control everything and if we try, I think it slowly drives us crazy.  Not in the institutional sense, but stress wise it pulls us tighter and tighter as we try to balance everything in our lives.  As we get pulled tighter, little things that may otherwise not be an issue can cause us to snap.  By letting go of some of these things, we can acknowledge the reality that we can't do everything ourselves and let grace take a role in our lives.  It's an eternal paradox that by giving up control of some things, we gain control of all things.