A few days ago a friend made a kind and generous offer: if I wanted to write about Charleston, about my feelings about the shooting and about community tragedy in general, she would post it and promote it. I declined. I told her it seemed plenty of people were having their say and I had nothing to add. But I wasn’t being entirely truthful.
The real reason I turned her down was this: to write about Charleston I would have to write about December 14, 2012. I would have to write about Sandy Hook Elementary where my son, then in third grade, hid under a table in his classroom while down the hall his god-brother and many others he cared about were murdered by Adam Lanza. I couldn’t write about it then. Couldn’t write about it now.
However Roxane Gay’s New York Times piece, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” has unlocked something in me. I read it with deep interest—I like Ms. Gay’s work and I was thrilled to meet her briefly in April at the annual conference of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Her voice is powerful, bright, and clear like a clarion full-blown in tone and meaning. But her adamant stance against forgiveness struck a dissonant note so jarring it drove me to pick up my pen.
I’m not going to sit here and say Ms. Gay must forgive Dylann Roof. But because she writes, “I cannot fathom how they (the families of the Charleston victims) are capable of such eloquent mercy,” I am impelled to respond. I know many others are similarly flummoxed. I do want her and everyone else to understand this forgiveness and why it’s important.
I’ll begin here, with this part of Ms. Gay’s essay: “My lack of forgiveness serves as a reminder that there are some acts that are so terrible that we should recognize them as such. We should recognize them as beyond forgiving.”
No. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you don’t recognize the evil. On the contrary—forgiveness recognizes the evil and also the vital necessity that we must face evil full on. The recognition alerts us to work that must be done and we have to figure out what that work is, what personal gifts must be brought to bear to maintain the light so the darkness does not overcome us. But you can’t do all the work you need to do if you are tied up in an unforgiving state. Ms. Gay writes, “My unwillingness to forgive this man does not give him any kind of power,” but that’s exactly what it does.
Dylann Roof may be, as she says, “beneath my contempt,” but even to place him as such means he gets to stay within you. He gets to take up residence like a tiger stalking back and forth between your heart and mind. And with this trespasser so present, what does one do? You stand in the cage with your whip and chair at the ready, ever vigilant, waiting to do battle the moment the hate and anger begin to claw at your heart once more.
But here’s the thing: while you’re doing that, the rest of your life goes unlived. You don’t tend to your family and your gifts. You forget how to experience joy.
I think this is why forgiveness shows up in the Bible in the first place. When Jesus is asked how many times we should forgive he answers, “Not seven times but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Why?
Because God wanted to warn us against anything that would divide us from ourselves—from our families, our friends, and from knowing our own right minds. Even if you’re a person who doesn’t believe in God, let’s agree that these are all good and desirable things. We don’t wish to be separated. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We want to stay whole.
So forgiveness is not for Dylann Roof and it’s not to ease society or any white guilt for the racism so prevalent. The forgiveness is for you. You need it because a hole has been rent open in your life. It will take all your heart, all your energy, and all your focus to step through it and figure out what your life is now—the so-called “new normal.” Without forgiveness you stay frozen in the moment. Frozen means stuck, no movement, no life.
If I had stayed frozen in anger and grief I would have missed the signs of my son telling me exactly what he needed to grieve his god-brother. I would have been impatient with his requests. He asked for pictures of him and his friend together that he could attach to the clothing he would wear to the funeral. When he saw the tall glass candles with pictures of his friend decorating the tables and wanted one, I asked and made sure he could take one home. It sits by his bedside to this very day.
These actsmay seem small, but what would have happened if I had been too angry and unforgiving, too focused on Adam Lanza? I would have been impatient, too busy hopping from one hot spot to the next. I would have told my son, “You don’t need that. I don’t have time to print pictures. Put that candle down; it’s not yours.” What knot of frustration and anger would have formed in him then? How many times would I have betrayed him, failed him, before realizing the damage that could not be undone?
The weekend of the Sandy Hook shooting I taught my scheduled Sunday school class for the third graders at Trinity Episcopal Church. The room was packed with children, more than the usual number, as well as their parents who stayed with them. I sat on a tiny plastic chair, a Bible open across my lap, my son sitting next to me. A reporter later asked how I could do that, how could I teach a Sunday school class just two days after the tragedy? I told him I had to, because people needed it. The packed room was proof of that. I knew I had to be present, very present, in order to help, to focus on the lesson.
I explained how the previous week we had done a project, based on John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” in which we made posters imagining what we wanted the world to be like. Of course, being third graders, they wanted no homework and lots of candy. But they also wanted no killing.And they wanted people to be nice to each other. We hung the posters in the hallway. I told the reporter I taught Sunday school that day because the children needed to know the world they imagine is still possible. But I can’t authentically deliver that message if there is a barrier of unforgiveness keeping me from believing it myself.
By the way, about the media… Ms. Gay wrote, “The dominant media narrative vigorously embraced the notion of forgiveness, seeming to believe that if we forgive we have somehow found a way to make sense of the incomprehensible.” The media had it wrong. Forgiveness is not about having the Charleston shooting make sense. It’s about refusing to allow it to damage our lives more than it already has. When Nadine Collier made her statement about the loss of her mother, I heard a strong woman recognizing the path she must now walk. She released Dylann Roof to walk his own path so he would not continue to tread on hers.
I also don’t agree with Ms. Gay’s statement, “Black people forgive because we need to survive.” Forgiveness is too difficult. Why would we cross that bridge, tax our hearts, for the constricted, miniscule, poor result of “survival”? It is too little recompense for such arduous work.
Besides, as Andy Andrews observes in his book, The Traveler’s Gift, we aren’t meant to scratch at the ground like chickens trying to survive. We are meant to soar like eagles. We are meant to have life and to have it abundantly. And we are meant to have peace within ourselves. As Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
This is a tremendous gift. But a gift must be accepted and held. When we do not forgive, we forfeit this gift. We need to forgive so we can still have a vision of a better world. The shootings in Sandy Hook and now Charleston are grim reminders that we are far from it, but not forgiving will take us even further away. We would remain stuck. We would remain traumatized, whether we realize it or not. Unless we choose to be the light in the world, as Ms. Collier and others like her have done, we succumb to the darkness. When we don’t forgive, the victim count grows, and can grow exponentially. Adam Lanza took twenty-seven. Dylann Roof took nine. They don’t get to take any more. That’s why forgiveness matters.
Sophfronia Scottis author of the novels All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press) and Unforgivable Love (William Morrow) and the essay collection Love's Long Line (The Ohio State University Press/Mad Creek Books). Sophfronia holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing, fiction and creative nonfiction, from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Currently she is working on her next novel as well as a nonfiction book about her virtual mentorship with the monk Thomas Merton. Her website is www.Sophfronia.com.
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