In Buddhism, there is something known as “The Four Dignities” which represent the four ways that we react to gravity. The Four Dignities are walking, standing, sitting and lying down. That is to say that we can stand, or oppose gravity, lie down to succumb to it, sit to compromise or walk to move forward despite it. These are our four responses to the unmovable force we are all subjected to, that being gravity. According to Buddhists, these are our four responses to much of what we encounter in life, including something else that we all experience, that being suffering. When it comes to suffering, we can oppose it, succumb to it, compromise or walk forward.
We all experience pain. And if we are at a point in our lives when we can truly say that we have not suffered, then there’s good reason to expect that that is coming in the future. This, I think, we would all readily admit.
We all also cause pain to others. This might be harder to admit.
On February 9, 2007, Chris Williams had the idea to take his family out to get ice cream. So, he invited his three children and wife, who was expecting their fourth, out for a nice evening ride. On the way home, he recalls looking to his right and seeing the approaching car traveling at a high rate of speed coming directly towards them. The next memory he has is of looking around the inside of the car and knowing immediately that his wife was gone. He knew that one or possibly two of his children had been killed as well. He knew.
But Chris also vividly remembers wondering how the driver in the other car was doing. He knew that if that other driver had survived this crash, he was going to have to forgive him or her. He knew, in that moment of shock and grief and fear, that forgiveness of this magnitude was going to have to be his way forward.
In the other car was a high school student named Cameron. He was intoxicated and as he sat crumbled in the wreck, he also had an immediate thought. That thought was that his parents were going to be very angry at him for ruining their family car. Cameron believed he had driven headfirst into a New Jersey barrier. It wasn’t until the next day that he learned that he had killed three people. Four, including the unborn baby.
A single moment of tragedy, prompted by an innocent desire to go for a drive to get ice cream and an unfortunate decision to get behind the wheel of a car after too much drinking.
Yet Chris knew he had to forgive Cameron. Where does such forgiveness come from?
Forgiveness is, of course, a common theme in the Gospel, including today’s. Jesus talked about it. A lot. And on the surface, it has to be because we are all God’s children and for the sake of peace in the family, forgiveness is a good thing. Forgiveness means we have let bygones be bygones, we choose to lower the walls and to drop our guard, to let the offending party off the hook. To forgive and forget.
Wait, is that what it means?
I recently accidentally fell upon Katherine Schwarzenegger Pratt’s podcast and book entitled The Gift of Forgiveness. In both, Katherine chronicles the stories of those who have forgiven. These include Elizabeth Smart, Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan who was one of the Columbine shooters, and Chris Williams, who chose to forgive a drunken teenager who killed four members of his family. The stories are about how difficult, yet how necessary, forgiveness is. And this includes self-forgiveness, which often is the hardest path of all.
I am learning that we all need to forgive. But that does not mean forgetting. And it does not mean letting someone who hurt us off the hook. It does mean that we are letting ourselves off the hook in a way because we are freeing ourselves of the pain associated with a wrong. I am also learning that we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we need to seek forgiveness from others.
I like to think of life as a long hike. I often talk about this because I have been on some long hikes – it’s one of my favorite things to do – and I always learn so much while on one. About planning, about surprises, about challenge, about joy and beauty, and about the essential value of silence. Life is one, big, long hike to me.
In life, we originate from a creator God who has a vested interest in how well we do on that hike because he calls us all back to him during our trek, even during those times when we don’t hear or see him and forget that we are always accompanied and invited home.
Our life hike is a loop trail, if we’re fortunate.
Part of surrendering to God, to realizing that the point of all this is the hike itself and that we have been offered a standing invitation, is accepting the fact that we must sometimes become prepared along the way. That the pains we experience, the hurts we encounter, the suffering itself… may have a deeper purpose.
I have been thinking about this during my allotted one hour each week that I get to see my mother, who is 94 years old and living in a nursing home. Because of the pandemic, she has been basically trapped alone in a room with a very quiet roommate, a tv, an iPad and a telephone. She spends a great deal of time alone, in silence, and with her thoughts. It is so hard for her. She looks forward to her one hour weekly visits when she smiles and laughs and reminisces. Seeing us in person is so much better for her than video-chatting and phone conversations. At the end of the visit, watching them wheel her into the home and away from us, being pulling through the doorway backwards like she is being swallowed alive into the building while she waves to us… is heartbreaking.
While I was talking to her the other day, she said something interesting. She said: “This whole experience has made me ready. I don’t think I was before. I don’t want to die, but if I do, it’s ok.”
Now maybe this is me putting lipstick on a pig, trying to spin up a happy ending to this sad story, but I don’t believe so. I think my mom is ready. I think this experience, as terrible as it has been, has helped her along on her own hike.
And likewise, I think that forgiving others and asking for forgiveness ourselves during our lives helps us to be ready too. At the moment of our crossing over from this life to the next, I suspect we will have a chance to ask for forgiveness. To sincerely seek God’s forgiveness… not only because it will help us gain safe passage forward, but because we understand what forgiveness really means. We will feel it in our bones and we will be ready. Truly ready.
Chris Williams visited Cameron in the youth detention center where he served time for the involuntary killing of Chris’ family. He hugged Cameron and told him that he forgave him. And this changed Cameron’s life. Cameron decided that once he got out, he was going to make some changes. That he was going to become worthy of that forgiveness. Cameron readily admits it all these years later, now that he has a family himself and a good job helping others, that Chris Williams saved his life.
Saved his life by forgiving.
We experience pain and we cause it. We just do. And like the Buddhist’s Four Dignities, we can resist, we can be defeated, we can end up somewhere in the middle of both of those, or we can just… walk. We can keep on going forward.
Ask for forgiveness.
Because forgiveness is how we hike.