About 25 years ago, I thoughtlessly made a petty, judgmental comment about an acquaintance. What I didn’t know but quickly realized is that this lovely man, John, was two feet away from me and heard every word. I responded in the dysfunctional human way: defensive, embarrassed, regretful. He responded in the deeply human compassionate way: he forgave me.
His simple act of forgiveness changed my life in a significant way. It freed me to drop my defensiveness, and provided a compassionate space in which I could reflect without shame on what I had done, internalize the lessons to be learned from my mindless, hurtful behavior, and resolve to do better in the future. Something in me shifted and healed because of his loving response.
I am noticing this gracious invitation to heal in the larger context of the news lately, a trend that fuels my hope for humanity. I wonder what seismic personal and social shifts might occur if we threw ourselves into compassion rather than judgment? Here is a sampling of seemingly disparate news stories and the golden thread of healing that runs through them.
• Back in 2006 but still fresh in our minds: the horrific shooting at an Amish School in Nickel Mines, PA, and the immediate response of the Amish community, reaching out to the family of the shooter, embracing them in their pain, offering comfort and forgiveness.
• The unimaginable slaying of 9 members of a Bible study group in Charlston, SC, followed less than 48 hours later by the startling presence of Felicia Sanders, Wanda Simmons, Nadine Collier and others who lost family members offering forgiveness to the alleged shooter, praying for mercy for him.
• The firing of Margie Winters, a highly regarded and effective teacher by a Catholic school near Philadelphia, because a few parents complained that she was married to her beloved…a woman, Andrea Vettori. The couples’ reaction? To ask for prayers and understanding for those responsible for the firing, noting that it was an anguished decision for all, and to ask those fuming with anger and judgment to connect to their heart’s hunger for mercy, tolerance, and justice.
Certainly the loss of a loved one to targeted violence, the loss of a job, and the loss of a reputation are not equivalent in consequence. But there is both a common continuum of fear and a uniformly healing response to it that unites all of these incidents. In the midst of anguish, outrage, and injury, people with seeming justification to vilify and demonize those responsible for their suffering are choosing another path, and taking us with them.
These are our teachers, including the ordinary person in your own experience who has been harmed or wronged, whether grievously or slightly, but who responds with love and compassion, not hatred and vengeance. Anger is a normal response to injustice; anger tempered by mercy and transformed by love becomes passion for justice, which is to say, right relationship. It’s what we see in the stories above. These fellow humans are evidence that we may be reaching a tipping point in our species’ evolution, the time when our default response to hatred and intolerance will be to do what prophets from Jesus to Gandhi to Martin Luther King have instructed us to do: embrace those standing in opposition to us, recognize that we are all inextricably part of each other and so offer understanding, forgiveness, and healing to these wounded parts of our collective Self. Stop excluding, stop calling people out. Call them in.
Our actions usually reflect a choice we have made between either love or fear, and fear makes us behave very badly. At its most extreme, fear causes the most seriously unbalanced of us to inflict violence and even death on others. In its least repugnant form, we indulge our fear in futile efforts to control people and events in our lives, or to make ourselves feel superior to others. Somewhere in the middle, fear makes us exclude others, insulate ourselves from those we see as outsiders or with whom we disagree. And if we have power, we create unjust systems and institutions, building walls and barriers to ensure our separation from those we deem unworthy: at our jobs, in our neighborhoods, in our churches.
Deep in our hearts, though, we all possess real power, we know another way… Love, the force more powerful. We humans have been instructed in this wisdom path of Unity by great souls throughout history; I am cautiously optimistic that it is seeping into our DNA and becoming part of our collective consciousness.
We enlarge our ability to respond with authentic power to whatever life hands us by practicing, attending to the day to day minutiae of our lives. So the next time we are tempted to add to the toxic social environment by posting that accusatory, judgmental outburst on Facebook, or explode in righteous indignation over a perceived injustice, let’s stop, reflect, listen to our own hearts, look deeply at our own fear and capacity to wound. And only then respond from that open-hearted place of compassion for ourselves and all of us transgressing humans.
All of us have hearts made for mercy and justice; all of us. Connecting to them is how the world is healed.