The epidemic of violence increases. Daily accounts of shooting deaths are commonplace.
I’d bet that person’s feeling they have a score to settle perpetrate almost all shootings and other violent deaths. An eye for an eye – the ancient ‘law of the claw’ – is alive and well today. Retaliation is the anodyne for the aggrieved. From July seventh through the tenth this year there were eighty-seven shooting deaths in America. There seems little passion for ending it.
Sixteen years ago I read an essay in The Georgia Review by a woman named Valerie Nelson-Grant. At the time I was profoundly moved by her story, so much so that I tucked her essay away and thought that someday I’d return to it. My instinct was prophetic. Now is the right time.
Her essay is an intimate look at those who have lost love ones to violence. I believe what she’s learned can help us begin to recover an extraordinary side of our human nature, perhaps of our divine nature, that our violent world continually obscures. Even if we are not strong enough to love our enemies, there’s budding evidence that we can forgive them.
Nelson-Grant is a grief counselor in Boulder, Colorado. She and a colleague facilitated a monthly group for those whose loved ones had been victims of a murder.
The essayist writes that one of her clients, named Carla, lost her mother to a murder. Carla told the group that the murderer was tried and convicted of murder in the first degree. He went to prison. I do not understand the legal circumstances, but for some reason a few years later, he was granted a retrial. Despite the murderer’s own testimony, corroborating DNA and fingerprints on the weapon, the state moved for a plea bargain. A retrial, if Carla could endure it, would put her through all the gory details again. A plea bargain would also mean that the killer would be out in ten years. While in prison he found her number and on two occasions he called her. She has nightmares.
Nelson-Grant has lived in the shadow that the pain of violence casts. There is always more than one player in human acts of violence: the perpetrator, the victim, the victim’s loved ones and the morally corrosive effects on society itself. Acts of violence are like the shrapnel following an explosion; every one around, and especially those closest, are scarred if not destroyed.
Caring has a price. It requires strength. Nelson-Grant writes, “Working with homicide grief is not like gardening, where your muscles grow strong . . . and thick callouses grow . . . instead the skin gets peeled back to raw every time.” Caring requires great strength. She knows she cannot carry the pain her clients bring to her and that she can only listen and care. Still, she says, she and her colleague often feel helpless.
Victims crave justice. Nelson-Grant likens the craving to a chemical deficiency in the body. The craving is visceral. Justice should be a matter of course. It’s not always offered and the price, economically and emotionally, can make justice inaccessible. More injustice. What then?
Forgiveness is complicated and often romanticized. Forgiving is not overcoming the injury, or dissociating oneself from the hurt, rationalizing the whole matter away or being lofty and wanting to be regarded as benevolent. It’s a gritty choice one makes to survive and to keep one’s dignity and integrity. Getting there is like wrestling with an angel and a devil at the same time.
Carla makes a critical decision. She understands that temperamentally she is not a fighter, that she is more like her mother who was “tender-hearted, a gracious old lady.” To fight the killer in a protracted court battle would be to keep her emotionally tied to the killer. In that way she would compromise her identity as her mother’s daughter, the woman who is gentle and kind. Another trial would not be expressing the love of her mother, but be about the punishment of the murderer. She chose the love of her mother.
As I read this account, I see how Carla had been denied the hope for justice. She came to terms with the fact that justice, as we know it, was not possible for her. She embraced her loss but in so doing, preserved her soul. Soul searching can be agonizing and demands all the strength anyone can muster. It’s a search that doesn’t suffer fools gladly and it’s filled with ambiguities. It requires strength. The search for one’s soul, however, always gives life and never takes it.
Forgiveness is most always the path less taken, but it is a more excellent way.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.