Some 21 months ago, my mother was the victim of an armed robbery. Barely a month into our MAPP year, two unassuming gunmen posed as University students looking for housing and manipulated their way into the office that my parents have presided over for nearly 4 decades. They pulled out guns and blunt-force objects from beneath their jackets, bound my mother’s hands and feet with duct tape, and demanded to know “where the money was.”
My parents had for years kept a reserve of cash in the office for contractors who generally lived hand-to-mouth and needed advances not just to start jobs, but immediate cash payments upon completion of a task. My trusting parents used something of an honor code in their place of work, leaving these funds in each worker’s folder for them to access when they came to the office. There had been petty thefts and burglaries over the years, but the system worked better than not, and despite my mother’s wariness and occasional protests, my father’s compassion for his workers won out, and the system continued.Alas, a day would come when their trust would be abused in the most grotesque way. As the first armed assailant, the shorter and stockier of the two, ripped more duct tape from the roll to wrap around my mother’s head and mouth, she inquired in her mild and steady voice, “Why are you doing this, son? What do you want?” The perpetrator responded to her maternal sobriquet with an epithet. “Shut up bitch!” he shouted, and struck my gentle mother in the face with the long blunt weapon he wielded.
The FBI agent handling the case still smiles when he hears how my mother called the lead perpetrator “son,” as only a mild and compassionate mother could. By now, after several phone conversations and face-to-face meetings with my mother, countless hours spent studying the details of the case, and years of face-to-face encounters with the most unsavory specimens of our humanity, he has a finely tuned radar for good and evil. His smile, a delicate Duchenne fusion of admiration and bewildered awe, conveys his recognition of my mother as the very best of humanity in the face of the very worst.
What the Story TeachesRevisiting this experience tempts me to tears every time, not just because it is my beloved mother I must envision in this distressing scenario, but also because of the utter perversity of one human being responding so violently to the diametrically opposed compassion of another.
For my mother, revisiting this trauma reminds her (in her words) “to hold them in the light.” Translation: forgive their transgressions and seek not their demise, but their upliftment. From whence does this transcendence come? How is my mother able not just to allay her anger and to practice forgiveness, but actually to desire the elevation of her aggressors?
My mother came upon one piece of writing in particular in the aftermath of her trauma that she reverted to time and again to help her navigate the path of healing. Let it be known, she should have earned an honorary MAPP degree for her unquenchable thirst for all of our reading materials. She drank up every book I brought home, and still desired more. My one-time college professor mother and self-professed literary fiend just couldn’t get enough (while I perhaps had more than I could chew), and it was while poring over one of her favorites, Sonia Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness, that she came upon an excerpt on forgiveness.
Learning to Forgive
In this section, entitled “Learning to Forgive,” Lyubomirsky emphasizes that forgiveness is “something that you do for yourself and not for the person that has wronged you.” I marvel at the counter-intuitive nature of this statement; don’t we generally think of forgiveness as an altruistic act?
It was in watching my mother navigate this ordeal that I understood that the true benefit of forgiveness lies in the more selfish act of allowing it into our lives. During these difficult months, my mother faced a potential punishment that was even weightier than any the perpetrators might receive. She risked life imprisonment from her own anger, her own “unforgiveness,” as Worthington and Scherer label the stress reaction that most victims of an interpersonal transgression experience immediately following the transgression.Lyubomirsky relays a story to underscore this point: former President Bill Clinton asked Nelson Mandela how he was able to bring himself to forgive his jailers, and Mandela responded, “When I walked out of the gate I knew that if I continued to hate these people I was still in prison.” Forgiveness seems to be a necessity, not a choice, if one is to move forward in life free, weightless, resilient. Indeed, Worthington and Scherer find that “Forgiveness can be used as an emotion-focused coping strategy to reduce a stressful reaction to a transgression.”
Other studies indicate the same, a positive correlation between forgiveness and resilience. Doctoral researcher Broyles finds a statistically significant, though low, correlation between forgiveness and resilience.So what might we do to bolster the relationship between forgiveness and resilience? How might we maximize the utility of forgiveness as a tool toward springing back to flourishing after an adverse event?
Stephen Post talks at length about reaching out to help others as a solid avenue toward flourishing, and I can just imagine the benefits to victims who seek to forgive not just to enhance their own flourishing, but also to embrace the elevation of their own aggressors. But that’s a study for another day (readers: please feel free to be inspired and conduct a study on this! Study participants 1 and 2: My mother and Nelson Mandela).
As the trial date approaches and my mother prepares to face her aggressors once more, she is a paragon of forgiveness and the consequent resilience. No doubt she’ll have a copy of The How of Happiness on-hand to steady her course should she feel her anger rise up or her resolve weaken.
Editor’s Note: Paki’s article appears in the chapter on Forgiveness in the book, Character Strengths Matter.
Broyles, L.C. (2005). Resilience: Its relationship to forgiveness in older adults. Doctoral Dissertation. Retrieved from gradworks.umi.com. (3177245).
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Post, S. and Neimark, J. (2007). Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. New York: Broadway Books.
Worthington, E. and Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: Theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology & Health, 19, 385-405.