This week school clerk Antoinette Tuff was hailed a hero for having prevented a tragic mass shooting massacre at a Georgia elementary school, by calmly talking the gunman out of it all.
The recording of her phone conversation with the emergency services, as she liaised between the young man and the police, is a lesson in humanity and compassion the world will never forget. For a full hour, Antoinette reasons with the 20-year-old mentally unstable would-be gunman, sharing her own life struggles with him and reassuring him. When he finally lays his weapons down, she tells him she loves him and is proud of him.
The art of forgiveness
Forgiveness and compassion go hand in hand, of course, and have always been big topics for me. Although I strive to become a compassionate, non-judgemental person, I must admit there are people whom, to this day, I struggle to forgive because they did hurtful things to me, which I feel were unjustified or betrayed my trust in them.
Let’s leave the topic of forgiveness for victims of crime and war to another day. In this blog, I am referring to resentment caused by day-to-day break-ups, disagreements, abandonment, deceit, misunderstandings, unmet expectations… I am sure everyone has their own secret “hate list”: former lovers, would-be lovers, parents, bosses, teachers, colleagues, friends.
I obviously do not like what was done to me, but what I hate the most is the bitterness I end up holding on to, every time, as a result. Because it keeps on hurting me long after the perpetrator has exited the scene.
On the same day the Georgia school events were rolling out, I was lying on my sofa at home, reading the last few chapters of Brené Brown‘s Daring Greatly on the power of vulnerability, when I came across a quote on compassion that struck me like a bolt of lightening.
The quote was by Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist nun:
“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognise our shared humanity.”
I read and re-read this a dozen times. There was an a-ha moment, as my consciousness suddenly realised what the problem was with my approach to forgiving, and why it did not work.
I had not been able to fully forgive and let go because I was trying to practise forgiveness from a higher moral ground. In other words, I was (mentally) telling the people who had caused me pain that I forgave them despite them being wrong and me being right. It was a top-down approach. It was coming from a defensive, passive-aggressive position, where I was basically asserting I was so blameless and morally superior I would never have been capable of such heinous, evil act as theirs. Which, of course, is a blimming lie.
Whatever efforts I had made to forgive and mend fences had only been creating further separation because deep inside I was still simmering, feeling I had been wronged, infusing words and behaviour with vibes charged primarily with anger and negativity.
Bad energy repels.
Antoinette’s words had an effect on the armed young man who had come with the intention of killing innocent schoolchildren, because she basically told him, “I am the same as you. Life is tough, I understand you wanting to do something crazy like this but, look, I’ve gone through shit myself and I’m still here. You can do it too; you can overcome, you don’t need to do this to yourself.”
She disarmed him with the power of her compassion, as an absolute equal; she did not patronise, and she did not fight gun with gun.
As I quietly meditated on Chödrön’s words, an enormous wave of love and compassion came flooding into me. On a gut level, I finally understood what I had been doing wrong all along.
I understood that genuine compassion has the power to move mountains, but it only works if it comes from a place of love and complete non-anger. Compassion is not about feeling sorry for another person; it is about ‘knowing’ there is no separation between them and you, it is recognising their pain in your pain, and realising there is actually nothing to forgive…
Since then, little wonders have started happening on a daily basis, such as people spontaneously showing empathy and kindness towards me, volunteering to help when I hadn’t even asked. This may sound corny, but it is all true. Some doors that were previously shut, unexpectedly opened up again. Walls shifted inside me and inside others.
Hang on. I haven’t suddenly become a saint; far from it. I still get angry, I still rant and swear, and have unkind thoughts when people have annoyed me. But I have been gratefully liberated from the weight of years of accumulated anger and hurt; I even like myself a little more for it.
I feel I am now ready for the gunman challenge. I shall disarm you, gunman; I will make you surrender, but surrender you will with a smile… for my love and compassion are greater, far greater than your puny weapons of fear.