As I discussed in the last chapter, one of my boundaries is defined by my faith. In the next two chapters I'm going to write about two key elements I've taken from my faith that I make central to our boys' value systems: forgiveness and gratitude. They are the values that most influence how we see and feel about the people around us, and the presence or absence of either are great predictors of how we will treat others.
Today I'll start with forgiveness.
I can't tell you about the power of forgiveness without taking you to Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Here, on the morning of October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts entered a one-room schoolhouse in this Amish community and took the young students and a teacher inside hostage. He sealed the doors shut, then lined up ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them in the head. Five of the girls died, the others suffered serious injuries. The immediate nightmare ended when Roberts shot and killed himself, but the horrific details of what had happened were just beginning to assail screaming parents and families waiting outside that bloody schoolroom.
How these families and members of the Amish community responded in the aftermath of the shooting surprised many people, though. Before the tragic day was over, many of them had reached out to comfort the widow and family of the killer, a man from their community whom many of them knew. Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, would describe the response best in an interview with CNN: "I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive, and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way, but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."
The widow of the shooter would later write an open letter thanking the Amish community for their response. She said, " Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you."
Donald Kraybill, an author and lecturer who has spent decades studying and writing about the Amish community, wrote in his book about this event, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, the Amish see forgiveness as a first step toward a more hopeful future. He noted that letting go of grudges is deeply rooted in the Amish culture. It has been taught.
The lives of those who lost children and had children permanently injured, as well as those of the family of Charles Roberts, would have headed in a different direction had this community reacted with vengeance instead of forgiveness.
A few years ago, a former boss, a man I'd worked for and with for over ten years, refused to recommend a potential new employer to hire me, which cost me a chance at the job. Only he knows why he ignored the many favorable reviews he'd given me over the years that day; my guess is it was some philosophical differences we had about our organization at the end of our time together. But it really doesn't matter, because my response to him eventually caused me greater harm than his actions.
I was angry. As angry as I can remember being in years. I felt like my former boss did me wrong, and I was determined to make him pay for it. I contacted attorneys. I emailed, phoned and sent letters all the way up the operational chain of command of my former organization, including the board of directors. I got angry with friends who still worked with this man and refused to hate him as much as I did. For days into weeks into a couple of months I snapped at my wife as if she had attacked my reputation. I became so obsessed with the job I potentially lost, furious that it had been stolen from me, that I grew unappreciative of the one I had.
It's embarrassing to write that paragraph when I consider that within hours the Amish community of Nickel Mines moved to forgive a man who left young girls lying with bullets in their heads on the floor of a one-room school house. And me, I couldn't whip the lasso of revenge fast or wide enough over nothing more than a perceived slight - mere words.
In the end, vengeance didn't change my original circumstances. I never got that job. What I did do, though, was risk relationships and inject hate into the world around me. I was determined to make a situation that looked ugly to me look even uglier to everyone else. In fairness, forgiveness didn't work a miracle on the Nickel Mines shooting, either. Little girls still never came home from school that day. But as Kraybill acknowledged in his book, the amish response of forgiveness transcended their tragedy. Through forgiveness, they were determined to take a situation that looked ugly, and miraculously make the world see love.
Forgiveness is powerful. It can prevent years of struggle and anger in a relationship, and with a single thought it can bring torment to peace. As a father, I am awed by the opportunity to shape the lenses through which our boys look at people they interact with, and in doing so, influence the meaning they'll draw from their relationships.
I also understand what a daunting task I'm up against raising forgiving children - especially as I've recounted a recent period in my life when my thirst for revenge was alive and well. I blame that on my human nature, which refuses to allow me to delight in someone getting one over on me. It constantly encourages me to get even, convinces me I'm the one who deserves to stay one up. The problem with human nature is it always involves conditions - treat me the way I want to be treated so I'm not forced to stoop to forgiveness.
Raising a child with a nature to love means teaching a child to rise above conditions. In the next part of this chapter, I'll discuss how the most powerful way a dad can begin to do that is through the forgiveness we extend our children. And believe me, there will be plenty of opportunities to do just that.