“Everything can be taken from a man [or woman] but one thing: the last of human freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” ~ Viktor Frankl
I met Jeri at a writers workshop where we were both students. She had an effervescent temperament, and I was drawn to her. Jeri had the look of a person who has had a hard life, but when she told me some of her history, I was astonished that she could have such a sunny disposition, given what she had been through. When she was in her early twenties, she got involved with a boyfriend who dealt drugs. She also did some experimentation with drugs herself and as is often the case, found herself in way over her head. One afternoon she and her boyfriend went to the home of a dealer to purchase drugs. The two men got into an altercation that resulted in her boyfriend shooting and killing the dealer. Jeri was convicted of 1st degree and sentenced to life in prison. Her boyfriend, the actual killer was found guilty of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 17 years, despite the fact that he was the one who actually pulled the trigger that fired the fatal shot.
Jeri: “I think I was still in shock when I received my life sentence. The whole situation seemed so unreal, so impossible. I still couldn’t believe that this was actually happening to me. After being found guilty and receiving my sentence, the reality of the situation began to sink in: I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison. And even while I heard myself say that, I couldn’t help but believe and hope that someone would realize that something here was very wrong, that I didn’t deserve this and that something would happen that would allow me to go back to the life that I had known. But after my incarceration as the days and weeks and months passed, it became increasingly more evident that no rescue was going to happen.”
“I gradually began to accept the fact that I had to chose between dwelling on how unfair and unjust this whole situation was, and trying to understand how I could best survive this ordeal without going completely insane. I looked around at the other women in the prison with me, and saw how hard, and cold and bitter, most of them had become. I vowed to myself that I would not let this experience destroy me as it had them. Yet I wasn’t sure just exactly how I would do that.
By what I can only call a miracle, I came to know and befriend another inmate who helped me to see there were alternatives to being consumed by hatred and self-pity. I’ll call her “Nancy”. Nancy had already served several years in prison, but there was something very different about her than the other women I met there. Unlike them, she smiled frequently. She always had a kind word for everyone. She was a loving person.
One day she told me that she was grateful for her prison experience because without it, she would either be dead or bitter and miserable. Nancy helped me to see that the power to determine the quality of my life was completely in my own hands, that I was the one who got to decide what kind of a person this experience would cause me to become. She helped me to see that the way I used my time, the way I interacted with others, the kind of thinking I engaged in, and the attitude that I had were the factors that would determine how my life in prison would be.
I used Nancy as a role model, and as I watched her interactions with other prisoners and correctional officers, I noticed that every interaction that she had contributed something positive to the people around her, whether it was an encouraging word, a hug, or a smile. She seemed to me to be an angel of mercy. And mercy is the quality that is most lacking in prison. I realized that I would have to become more merciful not only with those around me but with myself as well. I would have to forgive myself for the mistakes in my life that I had made that had led to my arrest, and at the same time take responsibility for all of those actions.”
Jeri became a model prisoner, helping many inmates during the years of her incarceration. Whenever she came up for parole, she got a strong recommendation from the parole board. She even had a letter from the judge who sentenced her, saying that the term was excessive and strongly supported her release. But the governor refused to allow her to be pardoned and in fact swore that he would never pardon anyone who had been convicted of murder. After the governor left office, the new governor honored the recommendation of the parole board and Jeri was finally released. She had been in prison for twenty-five years.
After listening speechlessly to her story, I asked Jeri how she had been able to sustain a positive attitude toward life after all that she had been through. She told me that she knew early on when she found herself behind bars, that she had a choice of the kind of attitude to take toward her situation. She could resist and fight it, be angry and unforgiving, or she could take a forgiving stance toward herself for getting into such a compromised position, and forgiving toward the boyfriend that actually pulled the trigger, and toward the penal system that dealt her such a stiff sentence. She knew that she didn’t want to do even more harm to herself, so she decided to forgive and to do as much good inside the prison as she possibly could.
Many of us, continue to carry thoughts and heavy feelings from incidents that occurred years ago. This unfinished business creates energy leaks, whether we are aware of it or not. Jeri realized that there was absolutely nothing she could do about the past. It was gone, over. She couldn’t make the past any better. All she could do was learn from it, in order to create a better present and future. Black belt grudge-holders sometimes marvel at how easily some people can let go of resentments. Frequently they don’t even see that we all always have a choice.
It is often not until we realize the terrible toll it takes to not forgive, that we can find the motivation to change this negative pattern. Even with a full-hearted commitment, it may still take many months or longer before relief from the burden of resentment comes. There is something deep and primitive in us that snaps into place when we feel hurt and wronged. It’s as if our mind doesn’t want us to let down our guard and be vulnerable ever again. But the pain of closing around the grudge may be even greater than the pain that we fear our vulnerability will bring.
Forgiveness happens in stages. It is a process, not an event, and it often takes longer than we think it should. We may have to forgive ourselves when we’re not as forgiving as we think we should be. It’s important to neither rush the process nor resist it, but rather to find the right balance between the two extremes.
Jeri was traveling light because she understood that carrying grudges from the past was non-productive, even self-destructive. It was, as the saying goes, like swallowing poison and expecting it to kill someone else.
As we spoke, she sometimes referred to hurt from the past, but spoke of those transgressions with a neutral tone, as learning experiences that were part of what formed her. Jeri did not excuse her own misconduct or that of others, but was unwilling to hold that heavy energy in her consciousness. The past was the past.
Most of us do not have a betrayal or wound that is as long-lasting, disruptive, and life-changing as Jeri’s. If she can practice forgiveness in such dire conditions, then surely, the rest of us can make the effort to forgive and to go on to live with a more open heart. More often than not, the place to begin is with ourselves.