“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”
~ Lewis B. Smedes
I spent a little over two hours this afternoon in downtown Los Angeles behind bars, voluntarily. I went there to meet with a group of women who know very little about me and about whom I know even less.
What I do know is that they are in a detention center and they say, “Yes” every week to coming and sitting in a circle with me. We pray, we listen and we talk to one another. They never know what to expect from our time together and truthfully, neither do I.
The agreement I made with myself and with them is that we would meet for the next five weeks in a row and talk about forgiveness. Self-forgiveness. The faces in the group change from week to week as people are shuffled in and out of the facility. Some are awaiting sentencing, some will leave free, some will go to another facility and face more jail time – more waiting. So while they are waiting, we talk.
This week to introduce the topic of forgiveness in a broader sense I brought the documentary “Forgiving Dr. Mengele“.
The doc is the story of one woman, Eva Moses Kor who not only survived the Nazi death camps, but survived the medical experiments performed on herself and her sister by Dr. Josef Mengele, nicknamed “The Angel Of Death”. When she was freed she went to Israel, but the anger at what she had experienced kept her captive in her mind. Through the same stubborn survival mechanism that kept her alive in Auschwitz, she chose to free herself by forgiving those who had harmed her, infuriating her fellow survivors. It was a brave choice made by a brave woman and it’s a powerful movie to watch.
With time constraints we only watched the first half hour or so of the movie, but we were all riveted by what we saw. With this as an introduction, we walked into the open field of limitless possibilities.
We talked about the concept of self-forgiveness, the blockages of guilt and shame. We talked about the rewards and the tools of mindfulness, prayer and meditation and how to continually weed our thought garden. We came back to choice, one of my favorite subjects and something I need to remind myself of often. (We have the choice to decide how we want to feel, think, believe and act in every moment. No one has that choice, but us.)
There was much laughter as we recognized our own humanity in the words shared by others and reverence as we recognized each others strengths. At the end of our time together a woman who had been completely silent and avoiding eye contact since we first began the group burst into tears and shared about how she could not forgive herself for how she had treated her children. The rest of the group was completely still, listening to her with rapt attention. I looked around and watched as the eyes of some of the others filled with tears of self-recognition and empathy.
Our time together seemed too short, but as we closed the group the smiles and the laughter came back. As we were straightening up the chairs in the chapel where we have our weekly group, I noticed the arms of one of the women who has shown up ready to go every week. On her arms were scars of cuts in various stages of healing. She looked up at me and gave me the biggest and most beautiful smile. Instantly I understood. Yes. That’s what we’re addressing here. Others can hurt us, but long after they are gone we continue to punish ourselves.
In a world that coined the slogan, “Just Say No”, we say YES to moving past this. Whatever “this” is that we can not bear to forgive ourselves for. We look each other in the eye. We smile. We gather our tools, and we move forward. No longer emotional self-cutters, we walk as a group in agreement.
In each moment we have a choice. Today I choose to forgive myself and in doing so I set us all free to abide in greater love.
And so it is. Amen.