[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
Note: The horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2012) happened a few days after I finished this piece. I thought about writing a piece about the shooting, but realized that this piece about forgiving when faced with extreme situations could be fruitfully applied to that situation. Let us all, step by step, replace anger and fear with the healing balm of love and forgiveness, in Connecticut and throughout the world.
Those of you who read these “Course Meets World” pieces regularly know that I love good forgiveness stories. Here is yet another one: the remarkable story of a woman who forgave a drunk driver who killed her daughter. As a Course student, what I find especially striking about this particular story is how her forgiveness reached deeper and deeper levels as events progressed. Over time, she went from not wanting to forgive at all to truly joining with the man she had formerly condemned.
The story is told by Renee Napier in the British newspaper The Guardian. One Saturday morning in May – the day before Mother’s Day, of all days – Renee’s sister-in-law came to the door and grimly gave her news that every parent dreads to hear: her daughter Meagan was dead. She and her best friend Lisa, both twenty years old, were killed when their car was hit by a Jeep driven by a drunk driver, a twenty-four-year-old university student whose blood alcohol was two times over the legal limit. The news hit Renee like the proverbial ton of bricks: “I screamed, a terrible wail of grief, and my legs folded beneath me.”
The driver’s name was Eric. Fourteen months later, he was tried for two counts of manslaughter, and the court convicted him on both counts. This was a “huge relief” to Renee, for she was full of anger toward Eric. She was furious when he pled not guilty, and in her eyes he “seemed cold and unrepentant” throughout the trial. She not only wanted him convicted but hoped he would received the maximum possible sentence. She wanted him to pay dearly for what she had done. In her eyes, forgiveness was simply not an option: “I couldn’t truly contemplate the idea until I knew that he was truly sorry for what he had done.”
Well, it turned out that Eric was truly sorry for what he had done. He wrote to Renee after the trial and expressed his deepest remorse: His lawyers had advised him to be silent during the trial, but in his heart he grieved what had happened and thought about Meagan and Lisa every day. This remorse gave Renee the opening she needed to seriously contemplate the possibility of forgiving Eric. She was still reluctant to let him off the hook, but realized that she needed to forgive for the sake of her peace of mind if nothing else: “I wasn’t letting him off easily, or betraying Meagan. I was doing it for myself: I didn’t want to go through the rest of my life consumed by bitterness.”
Some time later came the sentencing hearing, and here Renee learned even more about Eric’s side of the story. As Eric’s mother shared that he had been suicidal after the accident, Renee’s heart opened and she began to see Eric in a new way, a way that enabled her to offer him in person the gift she had long been contemplating:
I realised he had been deeply affected by the deaths, too. He wasn’t a heartless sociopath. He was an intelligent young man from a loving family. He hadn’t planned to hurt anyone that night; he’d simply made a stupid, devastating decision. In a way, he’d lost his life, too. So, at the end of my statement, I turned to the man who’d killed my daughter. “Eric,” I said, “I forgive you.”
Eric’s face was filled with “shock and confusion” at this unexpected mercy, and as for Renee, “I felt the knot in my stomach unravel and my anger ebb away.” As Eric recovered from the shock, he said, “I would honestly give my life if I could bring them back.” So much of Renee’s anger was swept away in that moment. Some lingering resentment remained – she says that even then, she still wanted Eric to be punished – but as the judge handed down a stiff sentence of twenty-two years in a maximum security prison, Renee says, “I didn’t feel the peace I’d expected; just sadness that so many lives had been ruined.”
From that moment onward, a genuine relationship began to develop between Renee and Eric. They began a correspondence after he went to prison. Eventually, four years after the accident, Renee and her other daughters visited Eric in prison for the first time, where Eric thanked them all for their forgiveness. Later that same day, Renee and Lisa’s parents went to the court and convinced the judge to reduce Eric’s sentence by half. After that, she says, “I walked up to Eric in his shackles and red prison jumpsuit, and hugged him. He broke down in tears, sobbing on my shoulder.”
There is one more important element to this story: Renee and Eric’s decision to work together to help prevent what had happened to them from happening to others. When Eric first started writing Renee from prison, he told her that he would spend the rest of his life making amends for what he had done. Renee supported this resolution, not by demanding that he make amends to her but by encouraging him to bring some good out of what had happened. She said to him, “I want you to use your experience to help other people.” So, eventually, Eric was permitted brief furloughs from prison to join Renee in giving talks against drunk driving. This has been highly effective; nothing brings the message home better than a convicted drunk driver in chains and handcuffs standing beside the mother of one of his victims.
And with this, it seems, Renee’s process of forgiveness has come to some degree of completion. It is clear that not only has she let go of so much of her anger toward Eric, but she genuinely loves him and has joined with him in the common purpose of helping others avoid the pain they went through. As she concludes:
I’ve grown close to him and his family….In November  Eric is due to be released. I genuinely hope he rebuilds his life and finds happiness. I no longer see him as my daughter’s killer. I see him as my friend.
What a beautiful story! As I mentioned earlier, one thing I find especially striking about it is how Renee’s forgiveness went to deeper and deeper levels as her process ran its course. This is an important to note, I think, because it helps shed light on a question many people ask: When faced with extreme situations where someone has done something really terrible in worldly terms, how can I really forgive?
I see and hear about people struggling with this question every day here in Mexico where I live. Many people are faced with situations that in worldly terms are seemingly even worse that a drunk driver accidently killing a loved one: situations where criminals and law-enforcement officials alike quite intentionally kidnap, rape, torture, and kill for some self-serving purpose. Forgiveness seems so impossible in such extreme circumstances. My sense is that people are deeply yearning for the peace of mind that only forgiveness can bring, but are struggling with the sheer enormity of it. They want to forgive, especially since most of them are Catholic and realize that this is what their faith calls them to do, but how can they do so in the face of such horror?
And when we look at how radical and absolute Course-based forgiveness is, the task of forgiveness seems even more daunting. In the Course, forgiveness isn’t just refraining from retaliating against the other person. It isn’t just letting go of your painful emotions for the sake of your own peace. It isn’t just having mercy on a remorseful person because you realize he’s only a fallible human being who made an awful mistake. It isn’t just something you do because your faith calls for it, or because you want to take the moral high road for the sake of being “good.”
Rather, in the Course’s view, true forgiveness requires a whole new perception of the situation: a perception in which you see that the terrible thing the other person seemed to do never really happened in the ultimate sense, that therefore everyone involved is completely unharmed in truth, and that therefore the “perpetrator” (whether he shows remorse or not) is wholly innocent of committing a real crime. In true forgiveness, you show the other person not only that he is not guilty, but that he is your ancient friend whom you love with a brother’s love. In fact, he is “more than friend to you” (W-pI.121.12:3): He is your savior from the darkness of the human condition, a being so beautiful and holy that “you could scarce refrain from kneeling at his feet” (W-pI.161.9:5). Anything short of this, the Course tells us, isn’t really forgiveness at all.
How could anyone achieve this lofty ideal in real life? I think the answer begins with the recognition that alongside this all-or-nothing stance in the Course is the recognition that the journey to the Course’s radical goals is usually a gradual one. For instance, in the Manual the Course claims that true faithfulness to God requires us to “reverse the thinking of the world entirely” (M-4.IX.1:6) and that “nothing but that really deserves the name” (M-4.IX.1:8). But in that same section, Jesus makes it clear that reaching this goal involves a gradual journey in which any step in the right direction is a positive step forward: “Yet each degree [of faithfulness], however small, is worth achieving” (M-4.IX.1:9).
I think the same is true of forgiveness: long before we achieve the total forgiveness the Course is calling for, we will go through stages of “forgiveness kindly meant but not completely understood as yet” (S-3.II.1:2). Most of the time, we will go through a process in which we let go of our anger and lust for revenge one chunk at a time, in which we take two steps forward and one step back, in which we gradually open our hearts to greater and greater levels of forgiveness. With the help of God, other people, and our spiritual path – the Course, for some of us – we will forgive “poco a poco” as my Mexican friends say. Little by little, step by step, bit by bit, we will reach our destination. And along the way, each degree, however small, is worth achieving.
What inspires me about Renee’s story is her determined and courageous journey through many degrees of forgiveness. Devastated by the death of her daughter, at first she couldn’t contemplate forgiving Eric at all. But when he showed remorse, the window of her heart was opened wide enough to forgive him for the sake of her own peace of mind. Then, as she got to know him better, she became willing to forgive him for his sake as well – she wanted him to have another chance at life. And this culminated in a decision to join with him in the common purpose of helping others avoid the painful situation they had endured together – they began what appears to be a holy relationship. As Renee looked upon Eric with new eyes, he had been transformed from her daughter’s killer to her friend.
I think there is hope in this for all of us who struggle to forgive. Yes, most of what the world calls forgiveness falls far short of what the Course would call true forgiveness. In fact, strictly speaking, there are not really “degrees” of forgiveness at all; what I’ve been calling “degrees” are really steps in the direction of forgiveness, which by definition must be total. Yet each step in the right direction is a genuine accomplishment, something to celebrate. We have taken one step closer to the real thing.
Therefore, when we are faced with painful situations in which it seems impossible to forgive, we need not worry if we are not yet tempted to kneel at the other person’s feet. All we need to do is move forward one step at a time, one moment at a time. If we can do that, especially with the help of our beloved Course, we will bring the day nearer when we will see everyone not as a “murderer” in whatever form, but as “more than friend” to us, as our savior.
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