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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

To Forgive and Forget

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." -- Mahatma Gandhi
Every so often I am floored by the actions of someone else. By this I mean a story so attention getting and inspiring, I can’t help but derive a lesson from it. Usually it takes the form of a person who rises so far above themselves and the frail, flawed, nature of who we usually are as human beings, it sucks the air out of me and causes my eyes to tear with the glimpse of what we might be; both as individuals and as a species, if we could just be as Lincoln referred “our better angels” more of the time. Sometimes the person doing the punching is fictional; the author using my buy-in of the character to teach or extol. Only rarely do I get the pleasure of meeting the people who floor me, but I am always the better for the meeting.
This week I was reminded of an incredible story of forgiveness and how that story has and continues to change lives. The story is of Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar killed in 1993 while serving in South Africa. After Amy was pulled from her car, then beaten and stabbed to death, her parents found the capacity to forgive the four men convicted of Amy’s killing, not opposing the amnesty ruling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Later, the Biehl’s met, and subsequently developed a relationship with, two of the men who were involved in the killing of their daughter. Today both men work for the foundation Amy’s parents started in an effort to use art, economic development, music and sports to continue to work for peace in South Africa. In fact, in accordance with African culture and morays, the two men call the Biehl’s their parents, and during the writing of one article Mrs. Biehl actually went with one of the men to buy a car seat for the man’s young daughter. I am sure I do not have the strength to forgive the killers of one of my family members; my acknowledgement of my weakness only serves to raise my admiration of the Biehls.
In our daily lives, often we are offended by slights big and small; such as when someone cuts us off while driving, or is curt with us in the grocery store. Our inclination is to respond with rudeness for rudeness, insult for insult, temper for temper. Society tends to hold up the person with the biting, quick wit who bests such people in verbal combat and our media entertainment includes the heroism of those who use physical abuse to pay pain for pain.
This is bad enough, but this treatment extends to our marital and familial relationships as well. Because we live with these people, we can think about a stinging retort for the next time we are together. If this damage is not held in check then our loved ones look for a retort of their own and sometimes the capacity to forgive these injuries is larger than we can generate, resulting in permanent damage to these special relationships.
My aim is not to preach or point out the fact that we are all at times, all too human. My fervent hope is these extraordinary stories of forgiveness, love and tolerance will give us pause the next time someone, stranger or loved one, causes us pain; and in spite of ourselves we will find the strength to become, if only for that moment, our better angels.
Mark Altman is a speaker and leadership consultant with the Altman Leadership Center. He has graduate work in Marriage and Family Counseling and is the author of Leadership For All the Mountains You Climb. He can be reached at

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