Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Forgiveness, Compassion and Generosity

Some thoughts for Armistice Day (or Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day).

How does one deal with a tragedy? Or a great injustice? Or persistent unfairness for years? How does one face violence, or conflict or hatred?

One of the most striking stories I've encountered this year is that of Terri Roberts and her Amish neighbors. Both The Washington Post and StoryCorps did excellent pieces about them. From The Post:

The simple, quiet rural life [Terri Roberts] knew shattered on Oct. 2, 2006, when her oldest son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear, unseasonably warm Monday morning. The 32-year-old husband and father of three young children ordered the boys and adults to leave, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.

Terri Roberts’s husband thought they’d have to move far away. He knew what people thought of parents of mass murderers. He believed they would be ostracized in their community, blamed for not knowing the evil their child was capable of.

But in the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Robertses’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on the shoulder of Terri Roberts’s husband and called him a friend.

The world watched in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.

Then, just four weeks after the shooting, the couple was invited to meet with all the families in a local fire hall. One mother held Roberts’s gaze as both women’s eyes blurred with tears, she said. They were all grieving; they were all struggling to make sense of the senseless.

Steven Nolt, a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College, said that for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. This “decisional forgiveness” opened a space for Roberts to offer her friendship, which normally in their situation would be uncomfortable, he said.

But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.

“The forgiveness is there; there’s no doubt they forgive,” Roberts said.


The relationship hasn't been one-sided; Terri Roberts began to spend time taking care of Rosanna, the most severely wounded survivor of her son's attack:

Several months later, Roberts had all the women back to her home for a tea — a gathering that’s now become an annual tradition. As she played again with Rosanna, she asked the girl’s mother if she might help care for her. In the intervening years, Roberts spent nearly every Thursday evening at the King family’s farm, bathing, reading and attending to Rosanna until her bedtime. After the first couple of visits, Roberts said, she would cry uncontrollably the entire drive home, overwhelmed by the reality that this little girl was severely handicapped because of her son.


This has been a rough path for all involved:

For [Rosanna's father, Christ] King, forgiveness has not come easy. Some parents have mourned the death of their daughters. Others have seen their daughters fully heal. His daughter survived, but he also lost her. Every day, he fights back his anger. Every day, he has to forgive again.

Sitting in a folding chair, with Rosanna’s hospital bed in view behind him, King speaks slowly, methodically, measuring each word. There are joy-filled moments with their daughter, like when she seems to perk up when he comes in from work. But then there are days when she has seizures or she’s up in the night and can’t be comforted.

“I’ve always said and continue to say we have a lot of hard work to be what the people brag about us to be,” he said.


Honestly, I'm not sure I'd be capable of that level of forgiveness – some people might call it emotional maturity or spiritual maturity or perhaps grace – but I admire the people who are capable, who work to achieve it and practice it.

I generally think that true forgiveness is impossible – or at least undeserved – unless the offending party regrets the offense. I also don't believe in enabling or excusing destructive, abusive behavior. I definitely don't believe true forgiveness can be commanded or cajoled, and that it's obnoxious to try. Some people prefer the framing, "Forgive but not forget," but it's really just a semantic difference from "not forgiving or condoning, but not stewing on things to a self-destructive degree, either." (Although in some cases such stewing may be perfectly understandable.)

I'm still in partial shock from this week's events. Donald Trump explicitly ran on bigotry and spite, was judged unqualified and temperamentally unfit for office by significant portions of the population, yet still was narrowly elected. There's plenty of analysis left to be done. But hate crimes over the past days reveal the escalation of a disturbing trend this year. I fear we're entering an era threatening the ascent of gleeful bullying, shameless hatred, cruel and reckless policies at home and belligerence abroad. It won't matter if people are wrong or even know they're wrong, because they'll have the power to enforce their will, and they're eager to use it. I hope I'm incorrect. I fear we already possess plenty of evidence (and too many people forget the Bush years and older history), but the coming months and years will provide plenty of opportunities for the Republican Party and conservatives to show their true character.

(Perhaps the worst won't happen – and we can hope for that – but if there's one thing our most recent election shows, it's that it's folly to count on a decent outcome and that things can always get worse.)

So how can one respond?

One way is with strength and resolve. In a political context, or maybe just a personal one, civil disobedience is nonviolent, but it is not passive. It is often confrontational – not aggressive, but steadfast. Conscientious dissent is crucial, especially against bullies.

Another way is with compassion and generosity. I can't pretend I'll reach the level of forgiveness Roberts and King have achieved in the story above. But I can make an increased effort to be kind to others, especially the most vulnerable, most especially those targeted and scapegoated by Trump and his supporters. People make worse decisions when they're scared. Every generous deed and act of connection helps ameliorate the effects of hatred and just might diminish the hatred itself a bit. (I'm also reminded of a story told by Arun Manilal Gandhi about his grandfather, Mahatma Gandhi, winning over with sheer kindness a white South African who had supported apartheid.)

I've seen some memes and personal offers of aid this week that give me hope. Several schools have posted some version of this:

Dear undocumented students, in this classroom, there are no walls.

Dear black students, in this classroom, your life matters.

Dear Mexican students, you are not rapists or drug dealers.

Dear female students, men cannot grab you.

Dear Muslim students, you are not terrorists.


I've also seen this one:

If you wear a hijab, I'll sit with you on the train.

If you're trans, I'll go to the bathroom with you.

If you're a person of color, I'll stand with you if the cops stop you.

If you're a person with disabilities, I'll hand you my megaphone.

If you're an immigrant, I'll help you find resources..

If you're a survivor, I'll believe you.

If you're a refugee, I'll make sure you're welcome.

If you're a veteran, I'll take up your fight.

If you're LGBTQ, I won't let anyone tell you you're broken.

If you're a woman, I'll make sure you get home ok.

If you're tired, me too.

If you need a hug, I've got an infinite supply.

If you need me, I'll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too.


These might seem a bit hokey, but not to someone in genuine need. Facing discouragement is often draining, and confronting actual hatred all the more so. It's easy to get burnt out as an activist, and finding a way to recuperate and support each other is important. Jared Bernstein has characterized conservatism as YOLO, "You're on your own," whereas liberalism is WITT, "We're in this together." This week, I've seen many people genuinely upset, or scared or grieving – and occasionally some nasty taunting in response – but also plenty of compassion, kindness and support. I'll be making my annual food bank donation soon, and I'm reflecting on what else to do in the months ahead. Developing a long-term political strategy is crucial, and specific, concrete activism is as well, but another key way to face down inhumanity and make America better is simply to be better to one another.

(I normally focus more on war on 11/11, but violence certainly isn't limited to war. My most relevant related posts are probably 2011's "They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" and 2009's "War and the Denial of Loss." )

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