What does it take to forgive?

James Patrick Carraghan

James Patrick Carraghan is an award-winning activist, writer, librarian and student at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania. He spends his free time gardening, hording books and flirting. You can follow him on tumblr at http://thelibrarynevercloses.tumblr.com/

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I began questioning myself in the hours after I heard of the tragedy in Orlando and the pre-empted tragedy in Los Angeles. By the second day, when it became clear that those I was closest to had been accounted for, I felt myself surrounded by unease.

I wondered if I had become one of those people who was only spiritual in a time of crisis. When life goes to pieces, we go running to a higher power who will make us feel comfortable, if not heal us. Who said that prayer is the last refuge of the scoundrel? For many of us, prayer is what becomes of the broken-hearted.

If there is one thing which I cannot doubt ever again in my mind, it is that there is no other word for it – misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, racism and theocracy are forms of terrorism. It is terrorism suffered on a daily basis for those who must fear their safety each time they open their eyes and get out of bed; and fear for their safety each time they put their head on their pillow, on a park bench, or on a block padded by shopping bags.

The novelist Martin Amis once said (paraphrasing another writer whose name I cannot recall) that the sound of the wolf is horror; the sight of the wolf is terror.

We have seen the wolf in the last few days.

I am not ready to write at length about this – but I suspect soon that I will have no choice. I know that to run away from this will mean only a greater sadness once I finally do revisit it. I must know sooner or later. Yet I have no desire to know the names of the killers. And though I suppose I should, I do not wish them dead. Nor do I have the ability or desire to forgive them for their actions.

Who is capable of genuine forgiveness which transcends not only the wrongs of the past but also the wrongs that will inevitably come in the future? We are asked to forgive and are offered rewards for doing so; yet I find the best incentive to be what has been called the Golden Rule – a rule which I fall short of over and over. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The greatest reward for extending mercy and forgiveness is the hope that it will also be extended to you when you need it.

We create thought experiments in our heads all the time:
If I had been there
What I would’ve done
I should’ve
I would’ve
I could’ve got the gun out of his hands before it went off
If only

What is the purpose of these fantasies? Do we make ourselves feel better by building up heroics in our minds, turning ourselves into action heroes, or do we make ourselves angry and sick over possibilities, and in doing so, minimize the actions of those who helped contain the tragedy – helped treat the wounded, comfort the dying; identify the ones who shot.

The last year has taught me that bravery comes in many forms and is different for each of us. For some, going to work is the start of a new battle each day, with no glory for either sparring partner. For others, they take to the street and place their very souls on the pavement and feel the coldness of an intersection in February, and hope that the disruption they cause will make the master narrative stop and acknowledge that, yes, Black Lives Matter.

I asked, What does it mean to pray? To meditate? To protest?

What does it mean to suggest that all of these things can be one and the same, and move towards the same goals?

There are tragedies which are too large for any one person to forgive. And even if I could, would I really mean it? I knew none of the people who were shot by Dylann Roof in a church one year ago, yet I feel that it is not possible for him to be forgiven for what he has done – it is repulsive to all human kind. In that case, it is the duty of white allies like me to reach out – not only for those affected there but also for anyone affected by systematic racism in its violent and non-violent forms.

We are in mourning. We are stunned even though we know that humans are capable of so much worse. It is the fact that we are also capable of so much better that gives me the little hope I have.

We can start among ourselves. If we are to have a community worth a damn – a community worth defending – we must base our community on the most radical of doctrines: Love. Love for one’s self, love for one’s neighbour, love for one’s friend, and love for one’s enemy. We must be willing to try to forgive each other and extend that forgiveness.

I cry with joy sometimes when I realize how lucky I am that so many of my friends are still here. I want to extend that love which I feel for them to all of those who have been victimised by prejudice and do what little I can to fix these wrongs.

We do not need to be (nor can we be) perfect. But we can make an effort. We can live by the values our movement has always claimed to embrace. We can end our learned prejudices and acknowledge that these acts lead only to violence for all parties involved.

I do not know if anyone can truly earn forgiveness, or if anyone can honestly forgive and let go of a pain which feels like an open wound, freshly picked. But we can remember our wounds and the pains inflicted on us, and we can try – with honesty – to avoid inflicting those same wounds on other people.

We may hear the wolf and fear it.

We may see the wolf and be terrorised by it.

But we do not have to give in to the wolf’s desire for flesh and sacrifice; nor do we have to become wolves ourselves.

This is how we learn not to move on, but to move forward. This is our first step towards a gathering place of forgiveness.

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