Corrie ten Boom’s particular push-come-to-shove moment came in 1947, when after addressing a Munich audience on forgiveness, she was approached by a former Ravensbruck prison guard. With horror, she recognized the guard who’d taunted and mocked her naked sister, as she was forced into the showers. He had "found Jesus," and was, she wrote, “beaming and bowing. ‘How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein,’ he said…his hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people … the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me...I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not…I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give Your forgiveness. As I took his hand, the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand, a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.” Corrie spent the remaining thirty-five years of her life, putting that love into practice, establishing in the former Darmstadt concentration camp, a flower-filled, cheerfully painted place of renewal and rehabilitation for ex-prisoners and victims of war. Her 1971 book The Hiding Place and the 1975 film by the same name made her story known to a generation of readers and viewers.
Forgiveness on that level (like mercy) seems super-human and is often inspired by faith. Yet, it has been preached and practiced by pragmatic, not particularly religious people, like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. He also had something to forgive. Actively resisting his country’s unjust apartheid regime, he organized armed struggle against the government and was jailed. Mandela spent twenty-seven years as a prisoner, much of it in solitary confinement, and endured torture and abuse. Yet he also had time to reflect, and come to know his enemy. When he was released, four years later becoming South Africa’s first black president, his principles were generosity of spirit and reconciliation; his politics were those of forgiveness. “I do not forget,” he said, “but I forgive... Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”
"We must strive to be moved by a generosity of spirit that will enable us to outgrow the hatred and conflicts of the past," the new president emphasized. The 2009 movie “Invictus” memorialized Mandela's first year as president, when in 1995 he threw his vigorous support behind South Africa’s mainly white Afrikaner rugby team, formerly a symbol of the hated apartheid regime. He urged them on to victory in the World Cup—an event that ended up uniting 43 million of his countrymen, fostering reconciliation and forgiveness like no other.
Many contemporary psychologists emphasize forgiveness as a means of healing from a grave transgression – a coworker who has undermined you, a spouse who has betrayed you, a colleague who ensured your ouster, a “friend” who let his candid assessment of you poison a new relationship. Psychologists distinguish between forgiveness (desirable) and reconciliation (not always possible or desirable). The latter involves a restored relationship with the transgressor: the spouses, for example, are reconciled. Forgiveness, however, involves a psychological and emotional pivot that allows the person wronged to view the wrongdoer with compassion, kindness, and even to wish them well. Forgiveness, in other words, is a shift and a gift.
Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman define forgiveness as “an unconditional gift given to transgressors based on the belief in the innate value of all persons.” The person who practices forgiveness does not excuse the transgression, does not say “what you did is OK.” But he or she is able to let go of hurt, move beyond a desire for retribution, and toward an attitude first of forbearance and then of love.
That is very hard. Divine even. One thinks, of course, of the font of Corrie ten Boom’s deep faith: Jesus on the cross, forgiving his crucifiers: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those words, which millions of believers will remember in a special way this month, have inspired and challenged generations of Christians.
Nor are Christians alone in preaching forgiveness. Judaism teaches that God forgives people their sins, and commands them to forgive their transgressors. Islam refers to God as “Al-Ghafoor,” the Forgiving One, and encourages forgiveness in order to receive forgiveness from Allah. Buddhism and Hinduism enshrine the concepts of compassion and forbearance to encourage relinquishing one’s resentment towards the transgressor.
What difference does it make? All the difference in the world. We all know people who have endured the same horrible experience, but have reacted in very different ways: one with bitterness and contempt, another with kindness and determination; one with resentment, another with forbearance; one with toxic rage, another with forgiving love. Which serves us better? Which is more attractive? Which is more liberating - for ourselves, our children, and our future?
Corrie ten Boom made her choice. "Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free, only to find out the prisoner was me," she wrote. The greatest gift of forgiveness is for the giver. Corrie ten Boom was born and also died on April 15. It’s a good month to think about forgiveness.
Mary Beth Klee
Consider Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, whose trailblazing service in the Civil War earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” In the carnage of that conflict, she saw her countrymen needlessly dying on the battlefield, and she fought to bring mercy. She battled back many bureaucratic obstacles to minister as a nurse on the scene. She then went on to found the American Red Cross, the agency that serves victims of natural disasters and humanitarian crises.
Or think about Barton’s contemporary, Henry Bergh, whose patrician upbringing freed him from the need to earn a living through his work. In his fifties, Bergh was so moved by the plight of cruelly treated animals (and most animals were cruelly treated in the mid-nineteenth century; read the eye-opening book and see how) that he urged new laws to prevent such abuse, filed more than twelve-thousand unpopular court cases, and founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to carry on his life’s work of “humane” treatment for animals. Bergh was an infamous showman (he might spring from a perch on a roof into a ring of fighting cocks or dogs to make his point), but he made mercy his lodestar and moved the needle.
Or look at another late nineteenth great: Jane Addams, who put her full energies and intellect into the formation of Hull House, a community center to assist and educate Chicago’s impoverished immigrant community. The classes she offered there (in domestic arts, the trades, and English) allowed many newly arrived immigrants to find solid footing in their new home, and provided a model nationwide.
Mercy differs from compassion and is harder. It is compassion extended to an enemy, a wrong-doer, those to whom we have no “obligation,” and those in our power. Our Core Virtues mercy poster features voracious cheetahs letting a trapped baby wildebeest live. It looks like the lady cheetahs are saying: “Where’s your mother, honey?” Mercy, in other words, is completely counter-intuitive.
Modern day heroes of mercy? Consider St. Louis-based Charles Clark and Morris Shenker. In 1959 Jesuit priest, Father Charles “Dismas” Clark sought a way to help ex-cons start a productive life that would prevent them from returning to jail. He knew that housing was a major difficulty for many newly released offenders: those who had no place to stay often returned to crime on the streets. With the assistance of Jewish criminal lawyer and financier, Morrie Shenker, he founded Dismas House in St. Louis, the first half-way house for ex-offenders. It offered not just shelter, but meals, vocational training and counseling for residents. It became the inspiration for the 1961 film The Hoodlum Priest, and today there are hundreds of Dismas Houses throughout the United States. (Dismas was the Good Thief in the story of the Crucifixion.)
Do we want children to show mercy? Of course. Children are often fruitfully charged with the task of feeding or cleaning up after the family/classroom pet or caring for a baby sister or brother. Such responsibilities promote concern for those less capable than themselves, and may prompt them to show mercy in their own way, for example, donating some of their hard-earned savings to a good cause. But in schools, we should not give children the impression that mercy might mean compassionately tolerating someone who abuses or hurts them. That’s not mercy. That’s criminal negligence.
How do we mere mortal grown-ups show mercy on a daily basis? Who’s in our power? Consider not just our spouses, co-workers, children and pets, but the telemarketer who phones at the dinner hour. Or the store clerk, who really had no part in the faulty item we purchased at an inflated price. Or the clueless driver ahead of me, still paused at the traffic light that turned green thirty seconds ago. How we react—is a measure of our mercy.
And it’s not easy. Mercy may fall upon the recipient as a “gentle rain from Heaven,” but the one who extends it must cultivate hard won-traits of self-control, openness to others, and as we see in the biographies featured this month, sometimes courage. It’s not about “always being nice” and “always giving” to those in need. It’s about actually meeting needs, and helping supposed enemies, wrongdoers, and “those in our power” to ultimately flourish.
What about those who demonstrate moral courage—who endure scorn, insult, imprisonment, and even loss of life in defense of an ideal or a principle? Are they, as Twain believed, fewer in number than the physically courageous? Maybe. But perhaps we simply don’t recognize those heroes at the time of their great principled actions.
As President, George Washington, strove mightily to keep the young United States out of European wars, and for that was guillotined in effigy three times daily on Philadelphia’s Market Street (1793) and was derided in the press as a “monocrat” and “old splinter-mouth.” When that “Black Republican” Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, stocks plummeted, enlistments in the Union Army dropped, and Lincoln himself was eventually assassinated. When Jane Addams opened her Chicago-based settlement home for immigrants, she was regarded with suspicion, and dubbed a socialist and anarchist. In 1872, when Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote in her hometown of Rochester, New York, she was arrested, put on trial, and accused of attempting to destroy the institution of marriage. When Martin Luther King Jr. led a non-violent revolution for civil rights, he was rewarded with imprisonment, an FBI investigation and ultimately an assassin’s bullet. When Nelson Mandela embarked on his campaign of resistance to apartheid, he too was arrested and spent twenty-seven years in prison before emerging as South Africa’s first black head of state. You get the picture.
We admire all of those individuals for their moral courage in retrospect. Time has sharpened our lens. We admire them for their willingness to buck the status quo, endure contempt, and risk their lives, for the greater good of peace, civil rights, human dignity, and/or justice. But nobility is not necessarily evident at the time. There are no Olympics of moral courage with clear winners and losers. There are only those who dig deep within themselves and summon the courage to make unpopular choices in defense of the good and for the common good. Frequently at a high cost, often involving loss of stature and danger to themselves.
Men and women of moral courage, unsung heroes, are still in our midst and frequently derided for their obstinacy. In 1996, seven Trappist monks were captured and beheaded by Islamic extremists in Algeria’s civil war. Many could not understand why the little monastic community hadn’t abandoned their home months before. For decades, the French monks had lived peacefully with the Muslim-majority population, pursuing a ministry of medical assistance and solidarity with the local population. But as the forces of terror grew, so did the danger. They were foreigners, outsiders, and Christians. They had been warned. They should get out, the Algerian government insisted. Their decision to stay, serve the community, and witness to the power of faith and love was an act of extraordinary moral courage, chronicled by the 2010 film, Of Gods and Men. (Read more on this story here.)
“If there is anything that links the human to the divine,” Abraham Lincoln wrote, “it is the courage to stand by a principle when everybody else rejects it.” Or as another wartime American hero, Admiral Chester Nimitz noted, “God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless.”
Gratitude, psychologists tell us, is good for us. In the last twenty years, study after study has confirmed that people “who live a life of pervasive thankfulness” (those inclined to count their blessings and see life as a gift, according to Dr. Robert Emmons) reap undeniable mental health benefits. They have a lower incidence of depression, higher satisfaction with life, higher levels of happiness and well-being. The Grateful Living also have better immune systems, physical health, and longer life expectancy. Psychologist Robert Emmon’s pathbreaking work on this topic explores not just that theme, but also the fortuitous effects of gratitude on community. Grateful people, he finds, are more likely to be altruistic, service-oriented people, who cheerfully give back to the community because they see themselves as fortunate and their lives (regardless of material condition) as abundant. Gratitude truly is, as Cicero observed, the parent of all virtues.
So, it turns out that our national tradition of reserving the fourth Thursday of every November for Thanksgiving is a cutting-edge idea. This year’s annual feast of gratitude comes at a time when many in our land are not feeling particularly thankful. We seem to be focused on the slimy road we’re walking and the boulders that may trip us up. And there are boulders. We’re not at a summit, where we can look back, see the big picture, and pronounce it good.
But that inability—to see the abundance and beauty, and not just the muck at our feet—is partly of our own making. One thing that makes human beings different from other mammals is historical memory. We have the ability not simply to recall the past, but to make sense of it, gauging where we are relative to where we have been. In this modern era, we don’t do that often enough; we tend to focus on the short-term issues. But if we do a big picture look-back, we human beings have come a long way, baby, in a short period of time.
What do we have to be grateful for this November 2018?
It’s true that these indices of global prosperity, health, and education, are “just” material realities, rather than indicators of political or moral development. But these are objective, hard-won triumphs, and we have a lot to be thankful for. The world is (in very many ways) in a much better place now than it was as late as 1990. And the United States- a nation of problem-solvers, innovators, and trail-blazers in technology and medicine-has had a lot to do with that.
So, this Thanksgiving, while we walk the rocky road ahead of us and pray for a better foothold, let’s stop for a minute, remember that we have been in darker places, and count our blessings. Buen Camino!
Mary Beth Klee
Highlighting our September virtue of Respect, a dramatic reading of Peppe The Lamplighter.
Human history does not always prove the efficacy of human striving. We sail in strong currents, and sometimes our vessels (large and small) are swamped by rogue waves. One thinks of the Plague, the Holocaust, or 9-11. But we are not without ballast and rudders. We struggle to right ourselves, and we move forward. This month the Core Virtues program celebrates men and women who were bold enough to brave monster waves and high winds, take the hits, and pilot us to better ports. These are lives to learn from.