Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Unforgiven

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word forgiveness as “to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt.” Just let that percolate for a minute.

Last Tuesday evening, I plugged the address of a downtown Dallas parole building into my navigation system, still relearning my way around a town that has changed and grown in the eighteen years I’ve been gone. This part of South Downtown Dallas has always been around, but until last week, I’ve never had much cause to be in the area, nowadays a hodgepodge mix of dicey streets and artists lofts. In short order, I would be sitting down at a long table in front of somewhere between 40 and 50 convicted offenders, now out on parole and required, because of the high degree of their crimes to participate in what is called a “victim’s impact panel.” A chance for them to listen and talk to some of us who’ve been on the receiving end of crime, and hopefully learn a little something.

I honestly wasn’t nervous. I’ve spoken many times before about my sister’s murder at the hands of a nineteen-year-old girl. I’ve spoken to large crowds from a microphone on a podium, on panels and in small intimate circles. I’ve talked to other bereaved siblings, to politicians and celebrities. And to defensive, heartbroken bereaved parents who don’t understand why their surviving children won’t speak to them. I’ve got this, I thought to myself as I swung into a parking lot slowly filling up with parolees. No problem. Even the size of the security guard who was as almost as wide as he was tall, taking up the majority of the height and breadth of the hallway, didn’t set me on edge as I walked with him and the panel facilitator to a waiting room where we would stay until the everyone had arrived and was seated. Together with two other women and the moderator, I filed into the room and took my seat. These women next to me would tell heart-wrenching stories of violence and abuse, time spent in hiding and pleas to the parole board to keep a husband hell-bent on murder safely tucked away in prison.

“You are here tonight because you have to be here. It’s a condition of your parole,” the moderator began as the audience rustled and adjusted, some leaning forward and listening, others sizing us up and some clearly wanting to be just about anyplace else.

“I’m here because I have to be here too, it’s my job. And he has to be here, because it’s his job,” she continued, pointing to the security guard. “The only people who don’t have to be here tonight are these three women, who have given up their free time to come and talk to you. Remember that.”

I listened quietly along with the audience as each of the other women spoke. And then it was my turn. As I looked out at a sea of faces and wondered what each of them had done to another person to end up in that room listening to me, my voice began to stick in my throat. My words came out slowly and I was surprised by the effort it took to form the shapes that make the sounds and then push them out of my mouth on a current of warm air. I chose my words carefully, laying out my story. All the while, trying to be mindful of this particular audience. What I could say, what should I say to a group of offenders, many of them with multiple stints in prison and all of them currently walking free. Don’t be too specific, I reminded myself over and over again. No last names, no exact dates, no detailed locations. But really make them think. They had heeded the moderator’s opening words though and were quiet and respectful. I was lucky that night. I had been warned that isn’t always the case. That next time they might be rowdy. Offensive. Thoughtless. They might act like criminals. It was during the question and answer session that things really got interesting. As the moderator opened the floor, the hands started to come up.

“Have you forgiven the person that did this to you?”

“If you can’t or won’t forgive them, then how do you live with that in your heart?”

“Forgiveness is a blessing and it’s what you are supposed to do, don’t you agree? Cause forgiveness is a gift.”

It became clear to me that these offenders were seeking a very specific response from us. Something along the lines of “Yes,” and “Of course I forgive him. Her. Them.” It was intriguing, to suddenly be put on the defensive by a room full of parolees. Tables turned. On the issue of forgiveness. It was obvious what they were looking for. If they could hear that we had forgiven the men and women who had hurt us, then each person in the room could infer that their victims had forgiven them too. They could be let off the proverbial hook. And I wasn’t okay with that.

I drove home and looked up the definition. Those words “to grant free pardon and give up all claim” leapt out at me. Free pardon. All claim. Serious business, this forgiveness. Is it really a gift? Forty some odd criminals would like me to think so. Do I just hand it over, like a pretty package at a birthday party? Hand over free pardon and give up all claim so we all can feel better and move on? That girl took my only sister away from me for good. My first thought? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. My second thought? Not a snowball’s chance in hell. There might be some people in the world who are that magnanimous, but I am not one of them. And I’m okay with that.

It suddenly occurred to me that this was the second time in a week that the issue of forgiveness had come up and I looked back at a recent email from someone who’d committed some significant wrongdoings against at me one time. In it, an expression of hope that perhaps my forgiveness might be offered someday. My first thought? Doubtful. My second thought? Okay, possible in theory, but what have you done to earn the right to ask? Which begs another question. Is forgiveness less like $10 you get from your aunt on your birthday and more like $10 you get from your parents for cleaning the kitchen and taking out the trash? Maybe. But if you can earn forgiveness, does it becomes an absolute, something you can lay claim to if you complete some prescribed set of tasks? A chance to buy or work your way to absolution?

So as not to knock myself out of the equation, and lest you think I’m coming at this from a holier than thou approach, I thought about times when I was seeking forgiveness. Because I screw up too. And I’ve learned over the years from my own mistakes that a genuine apology can go along way when you’ve committed a minor transgression. And those unrequested words might be all it takes to garner true forgiveness in some cases, like drinking the last of the milk, but most of the time a little extra effort is in order. A replacement for a broken item that you’ve borrowed or lost, dinner and movie to make up for a forgotten plan, flowers and a kind card to show that hurtful words were spoken out of turn. I’ve tried pretty hard to live a life where I can usually clear something up with a genuine apology and possibly the help of a cookie bouquet. And would I forgive someone in those cases? Grant them free pardon? Give up all claim? My first and only thought? You betcha. Which makes me think forgiveness is really most like the $10 your dad suddenly hands you to spend at the store when you’ve done a little extra around the house that wasn’t asked of you. Maybe you asked for it, or maybe you didn’t, but he saw the extra effort you made, not because you had to, but because you wanted to.

I’m not sure I have a solid conclusion to offer, because for me, this seems to be a question that mostly begs more questions. And on the great sliding scale of forgiveness, sometimes it comes easy, sometimes really have to work for it and sometimes, to be quite frank, I just can’t even figure how it’s a viable option or why the matter should even be coming up. And when you’ve done wrong by someone, there’s no guarantee that you can make it right. That’s the kicker. No one can tell you how to ask for forgiveness, to earn it, or if you’re ever gonna get it. Because what it takes for someone to grant “free pardon” is different for every person and every situation. Plus doing something to make amends without being asked is kind of the point.

I sat on a second panel last night in the same parole office and one of the offenders wrote in her evaluation that if she had the chance, she would tell her victim she was truly sorry. She also wrote that she didn’t think her victim should forgive her for what she had done. I don’t know what she did, but I can safely assume it’s not something that could be rectified with the extra-large cookie bouquet. But I applaud her honesty and her willingness to own up to the choices she made and the consequences of her actions. Which is probably the best first step anyone can make down a road that might or might not lead where you want it to go.