Relatives of those gunned down in Charleston, SC, earlier this week have offered forgiveness to the shooter, amidst a flurry of support as well as disbelief from people who do not think the shooter deserves forgiveness.
But forgiveness is not something you give another person because they deserve it -- it's a gift to yourself. It's been said that holding onto anger -- not forgiving someone -- is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
There have been plenty of studies which show that anger is detrimental to physical and mental health: holding onto anger may raise blood pressure, cause anxiety, depress the immune system, and detrimentally affect the heart.
Continuing to be angry at someone and waiting until THEY change something before we allow ourselves to feel better makes us a further victim of their actions, since by doing this, we allow them to define us.
So the way out of being continually victimized is to decide to take personal action toward our own healing, toward feeling better. If we want to leave victim consciousness behind, and move into our own empowerment, forgiveness is the path since it disconnects us from the power the perpetrator has over us.
Of course, we can forgive someone without condoning their behavior or relieving them of responsibility for their actions.
Things that incline me to forgive this shooter are ponderings such as:
Typically people do not do what the Charleston shooter did unless they are mentally unbalanced or in catastrophic emotional pain. Photos of him seem to support a suspicion that he was experiencing one or the other.
Were horrific things perpetrated upon him that finally pushed him over the edge?
Was he a product of a school system that does not teach critical thinking, so he was easily brainwashed?
What is the best way that we can honor those who lost their lives? Can we honor them and empower ourselves by turning this tragedy into a teachable/learnable moment, and thereby create a more positive future -- perhaps by developing strategies that can discover the underlying causes, and addressing them in effective ways?
What should we learn from this? Happy people do not act like this shooter. Should it be part of society's and/or government's role to promote happiness, as is done in Bhutan--which has a government agency devoted to developing the happiness of its citizens, and where violent crime is now very uncommon?
An "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" philosophy produces a blind, toothless nation, and is more likely to feed violence than it is to reduce it. The path forward toward a dynamically peaceful and reasonable society is through analyzing what causes these perpetrators to act in antisocial ways, and by removing the causes rather than only addressing these acts with punishment or incarceration.
A good example to learn from is Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. He had been continuously bullied and humiliated since kindergarten, and he finally snapped. I have often suspected that if he had attended elementary schools that had anti-bullying components in the curriculum, things would have been much different for him by the time he got to college. The proposed U.S. Department of Peace may have turned the tide for him, as it includes anti-bullying, mediation and conflict-resolution classroom activities in elementary school curricula.
My daughter was enrolled at Virginia Tech at the time of the shootings, and she said that the student body considered the shooter a victim as well, and had constructed 33 shrines overnight -- one for each of the 32 he killed, and one for Cho, understanding that he was a victim of a tormented soul.