I have been troubled for a long time about how the media and others in America immediately blame those who have transgressed at one point in their lives but appear otherwise to be good people. Take Paula Deen, whose career was trashed because she admitted in a deposition that, years earlier, she had used the N-word and condoned having African-American waiters sport white jackets and gloves. She may have been inept, stuck in a cultural time warp, but by all current accounts Deen was not a racist.
I have been equally perplexed at the treatment given Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accused of posting two pictures in his medical school yearbook of people adorned in black face and KKK-hooded gear. First Northam apologized, but then retracted, saying he was convinced that he was not in either picture. Northam’s public career had demonstrated that, regardless of his past, currently he was not a racist. Nonetheless, Democratic and Republican politicians across the country piled on for his resignation.
The clamor raised by repeatedly blaming people for prior transgressions for which they have since repented or been reformed causes Americans to feel anger, tension and unhappiness — a toxic stress that plagues our society. The blame game that doesn’t allow for redemption and forgiveness creates an environment where we continue to cast blame, impeding telling the truth and a more positive and results-oriented discourse.
Now, let me clarify. I’m not advocating for forgiveness on behalf of murderers, sexual predators or racists who have committed terrible acts and show no signs of remorse or redemption. I’m talking about ordinary people who have erred, perhaps because of culture, environment or foolish youth, but who have demonstrated that they have overcome the error of their ways or unwitting actions tied to their cultural upbringing.
You might ask, so what makes me an expert on forgiveness? Here’s my story.
In 1992, I had a prescription drug reaction that caused me to lose my short-term memory and other critical cognitive functions. I went to the doctor who had mis-prescribed the medicine, and he took me off the drug cold turkey. I then had a massive withdrawal reaction that shocked my immune system, causing me to get Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and be in bed for the next 11/2 years. My insurance sales career ceased, and I was confined to my bedroom "prison” staring at the ceiling 24/7.
I considered myself a victim, and for several months I envisioned how I would get back at the doctor who had ruined my life. I continued getting worse. Only after creating a therapy with a cognitive psychologist that I called "Love Therapy," placing 40 to 50 positive pictures in my mind each day, did I start to improve and ultimately recover. The negativity was dragging me down, inhibiting my moving forward to a great future life.
When I recovered, I made an appointment with my former doctor and forgave him, even though he was unrepentant. But, I felt a weight lift off of my body, and I was able to move forward with a new appreciation for life, leading me to co-found Project Love with my wife Susan. To date, Project Love has trained almost 600,000 students.
Last year, I invited Ricky Jackson, who is tied for the record (at 39 years) as America's longest innocent former incarcerated prisoner, to speak to 500 students at the Cleveland Metropolitan School’s Project Love-John Adams High School of Character, Values and Community. He spoke about the power of forgiveness and moving forward.
His story would be unbelievable if it weren't true. In 1975, a money order salesman was shot and killed in an armed robbery at a Cleveland convenience store. At around the same time of day, a Cleveland Public Schools bus was dropping off elementary students who were returning home. Prosecutors interviewed the students and a 12-year-old boy claimed to have seen the shooter, later identifying Jackson as the culprit.
Based on the boy's testimony, Jackson was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death row. His sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison without parole. He would have remained in prison except for some serendipitous circumstances that piqued the interest of the Ohio Innocence Project.
Thirty-eight years later, the young boy, then in his early 50's, was hospitalized with stomach ailments. When his pastor visited him, he fessed up to falsely accusing someone who had been sentenced to life in prison. The pastor convinced him to talk to prosecutors. He agreed and told them that he had been pressured by police to finger Jackson and his brother, both of whom happened to have been in the vicinity of the crime. He was told that if he didn't testify against Jackson, he would go to jail and police would arrest his parents. He was remorseful and asked Jackson for forgiveness.
The John Adams students asked Ricky how he could forgive someone who had caused him so much harm. Jackson said that he wanted to move forward to have a good life, and that forgiveness purged hate and negativity from his system. Otherwise, he said, the hate and resentment would have held him back.
Given my own experience and awareness of Jackson’s ordeal, I have wondered if America is held back because Americans by and large do not forgive. It seems that we toggle from one scandal to another, whether the Catholic Church, #MeToo or racism, without talking about the power and value of forgiveness. Not for the perpetrators, who deserve to be brought to justice, but largely for the victims themselves and to help the collective American psyche heal. By giving as much negative attention to those who err and repent as we do to those who commit heinous crimes, we create a society that is in a perpetual state of anger.
According to the Mayo Clinic, not forgiving “… can leave you with lasting feelings of anger and bitterness – even vengeance …. (But) by embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy.”
I don't have all the answers, but I would like to frame the dialogue this way. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren had been a racist, but he went on to forge the greatest civil rights decisions in our history. Hugo Black, one of the most prolific, admired and civil rights-oriented Supreme Court associate justices, had been a card-carrying member of the KKK. For both of them, their pasts did not define them or prevent them from moving forward to do great things. How would they fare in today’s environment?
Where does blame end and forgiveness, positive dialogue and constructive action begin? What is the role of forgiveness in America's dialogue and Americans' lives? Does continuous blame without possible redemption hold us back or move us forward? These are important questions we all must address.
In Catholicism, parishioners ask their priests to intercede to forgive them for their sins. In Judaism, most Jews observe Yom Kippur, the annual day of atonement, forgiveness, redemption and starting over. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who himself had been imprisoned and victimized by the prior apartheid regime, advocated for national reconciliation after he was elected president. He argued that, without that gesture, South Africa could not move forward.
Maybe America needs a national day of forgiveness, an annual reboot that allows Americans at least to assess when blame is justified and where forgiveness is warranted. Maybe if we forgave more and blamed less, we would be able to move forward to tackle and have dialogue around the many issues that hold us back.
Stuart Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation, which through its Project Love®, VIA® Workforce Training, Purple America® and Be Kind® Stick Together® character-education programs, has over 500,000 students participating in 1,500 schools in all 50 states.
Values-in-Action empowers students and adults to build communities of kindness, caring and respect through programs that teach, promote, and provide skills and tools that enable individuals to make positive values-based decisions every day. www.viafdn.org