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“I don’t know if I can forgive them?” I told my counselor, as I told him the latest attempt for reconciliation that had been handed to me in an ongoing family feud.
My counselor knew the detailed pain I had suffered in my relationship with my parents. Years of verbal abuse, a feeling of isolation due to such tension—I had come to believe my parents didn’t love me. I had come to find my way without their support.
Prior to this meeting, my counselor and I had spent quite a few meetings discussing my parents’ backgrounds and how their own childhood pain was manifesting in their parenting. And importantly we discussed how I could cope and protect myself. Now, they wanted to draw closer, to reconcile our differences, and to build a healthier relationship. I felt threatened, and I was sure my counselor would advise me to stay in protection mode.
My counselor listened to me, and then he said “I think you need to read the book Amish Grace.” As he explained the book, I was stunned this was his advice for me.
The book begins by telling the story of the tragic shooting at West Nickel Mines school—an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. On October 2, 2006, the Amish community’s milk-deliveryman entered a schoolhouse holding class. With a semi-automatic pistol in hand, the gunman took ten hostages—all young girls. He bound the girls with zip ties and brutally shot them all execution style, before taking his own life. Five of the girls died and five of the girls survived.
The tragedy stunned the nation, but what captivated the nation more was the Amish community’s reaction to the tragedy. The very same day of the shooting—only hours after it occurred—members of the Amish community were comforting the shooter’s widow, telling her that they held no ill-will against her and her now deceased husband. They offered her gifts and comfort. Nearly half of the attendees at the funeral for the shooter were members of the Amish community. One grandfather of murdered girl visited the shooter’s father and held him as he cried for nearly an hour.
How could family of little girls killed in a totally brutal and grotesque manner, forgive the man who did it?! How did they have the strength to offer support to his family?!
As it turns out, this type of reaction is typical in the Amish community. Amish Grace explains the absolute importance of forgiveness in the Amish community, and tells numerous stories of tragedy in the Amish community—buggies being hit by reckless drivers, killing the families traveling in the buggies; other smaller scale shootings, etc.—and the immediate gestures of forgiveness offered by the individuals involved in these incidents. Forgiveness is truly a part of the Amish way of life.
To understand this radical forgiveness, the authors explored the meaning of forgiveness itself. Researcher Everett L. Worthington has identified two types of forgiveness, Amish Grace explains—decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness.
Decisional forgiveness is a personal commitment to control negative behavior, even if negative emotions continue. “Decisional forgiveness,” writes Worthington, “promises not to act in revenge or avoidance, but it doesn’t necessarily make a person feel less unforgiving. [snip]
Emotional forgiveness, on the other hand, happens when negative emotions—resentment, hostility, and even hatred—are replaced by positive feelings. Thus, forgiveness is both a short-term act and a long-term process, but as Worthington points out, the two are connected. The initial decision to forgive may spark the emotional change. A decision to forgive does not mean a victim has erased bitter emotions, but it does mean that emotional transformation is more likely to follow.
In the aftermath of the West Nickel Mines school shooting, the Amish community showed decisional forgiveness. They chose to act in kindness to the shooter’s family. Members of the Amish community told the media and other outsiders that those acts of forgiveness were sincere. Yet, they didn’t abolish natural human tendencies of anger, resentment, and bitterness that members of the Amish community were feeling. And forgiveness remained an ongoing process in the community. The book explains:
An Amish man, interviewed less than forty-eight hours after his granddaughters had been shot, was asked if he had forgiven. “In my heart, yes,” was his simple reply. With these four words, a grieving Amish grandfather expressed his commitment to do something that God expected him to do, a commitment embedded in the history and spirituality of the Amish church. Still, as Gid—an Amish minister and farmer— told us, this commitment to forgive was only the first step. “I’m concerned these families will struggle with the forgiveness issues for a long time. They will have to forgive again and again and again, and accept [the loss] again and again.”
Gid was actually struggling with resentment himself, which surfaced because his twelve year old son had recently dreamed of an armed intruder entering their home. The boy’s nightmare “really torqued me up again about the Nickel Mines shooting.” wife concurred: “Regardless of how many times you forgive, forgiveness must be practiced again and again.”
The understanding that forgiveness is a process was helpful for me, and I now understood that what my counselor was encouraging me to do was decide to forgive, with the hope that my actions would help diminish negative feelings—bringing about a positive emotional change. With the encouragement of my counselor and the persistence of my parents, I worked toward forgiveness and reconciliation. It was a process; it is still a process. But I stayed focused on why forgiveness is so important. As Amish Grace explains:
Psychologists who study forgiveness find that, generally speaking, people who forgive lead happier and healthier lives than those who don’t. The Amish people we interviewed agreed, citing their own experience of forgiving others. Some said they were “controlled” by their offender until they were able to forgive; others said the “acid of hate” destroys the unforgiving person until the hate is released[…T]he Amish we interviewed confirmed what psychologists tell us: forgiveness heals the person who offers it, freeing that person to move on in life with a greater sense of vitality and wholeness.
Forgiveness takes time. Old habits die hard, and in my case, it took years of conversation (and some fights) with my parents and more counseling. I slowly started to open up to my parents. It wasn’t easy. There were weeks when I was open, and weeks when I shut back down. But in all the struggle, I kept thinking about the peace of the Amish people, and my own desire to be happy and free.
But I’m grateful to say that today the feelings of pain between my parents’ and me are a distant memory. Of course, I was shaped by that pain—made stronger, a little reluctant to trust, and a little too sensitive to criticism. But the process of forgiveness also shaped me. That too made me stronger, more forgiving, more compassionate to those who struggle (even those who are bitter and mean because of their suffering), and more certain of my ability to work through problems with others, including my spouse.
Forgiveness isn’t always just for the other person. Forgiveness is for us, too. When we forgive—truly forgive—we say to ourselves, “I choose not to let pain and hurt control me; instead, I choose to be happy and peaceful.”
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