Anger and Forgiveness
Have you ever been angry with someone? Perhaps you were angry with a loved one, a friend or former friend, a co-worker, your boss…and the list goes on and on. Of course, at some time or another, we all find ourselves angry with someone or something. Most of the time, the anger fades away, but occasionally we hold on to our anger. And that anger can linger for years and, in some cases, a lifetime.
Recently, I was having lunch with my friend Tobias (not his real name), and he was telling me how angry he was with his ex-wife. Tobias did not know that his ex developed a gambling problem and, without his knowledge, had tapped into the 529 programs set aside to pay for their children’s college. Years of savings and earned interest…just gone! Tobias was in disbelief when he discovered the funds were missing. He and Elizabeth had been divorced for over six years and, for all practical purposes, they got along as well as any divorced couple; moreover, they were successfully co-parenting their teenage sons. Now, he was faced with the prospect of figuring out how to finance his kids’ college education. I could just about see steam coming out of Tobias’ ears, could sense his blood pressure raising, and feared he would have a meltdown right there at the table.
I have no way of knowing the depth of the anger Tobias felt from Elizbeth’s betrayal of him and of his sons. Fortunately, Tobias is a very successful physician and I am confident he will be able to fund college for his boys. He seemed resolved that his boys should not know what truly happened. Clearly, this is good news for the boys, but what about Tobias? His anger was eating him alive, from the inside out. He was losing sleep, stopped working out, and was consumed with anger; forgiveness was not in his vocabulary. At the table, after some discussion, I told him a story about Ray Anthony Hinton, a black man living in Alabama in 1985, who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent 30 years on death row before his conviction was overturned. I won’t share here the sad details of how this innocent man, who was at work when the murder was committed (his boss testified so at trial), was convicted but you can google the facts behind the story. When Mr. Hinton was released from prison, he was asked in an interview if he could ever forgive the people who convicted him. Here is part of his response:
I had been on death row for a crime I didn’t commit for nearly 30 years.
I now live in my mom’s house, the house I grew up in. People ask me how I can stay in Alabama. Why wouldn’t I leave? Alabama is my home. I love Alabama – the hot days in the summer and the thunderstorms in winter. I love the smell of the air and the green of the woods. Alabama has always been God’s country to me, and it always will be.
I love Alabama, but I don’t love the state of Alabama. Since my release, not one prosecutor, or state attorney general, or anyone having anything to do with my conviction has apologized. I doubt they ever will.
I forgive them. I made a choice after the first difficult few weeks of freedom, when everything was new and strange and the world didn’t seem to make sense to me. I chose to forgive. I chose to stay vigilant to any signs of anger or hate in my heart.
They took 30 years of my life. If I couldn’t forgive, if I couldn’t feel joy, that would be like giving them the rest of my life.
The rest of my life is mine.
Alabama took 30 years.
That was enough.
Tobias listened intently to the story of Ray Anthony Hinton. After a few minutes of silence, Tobias looked at me and said, “This is exactly why I hate spending time with you!” He was irritated that I would I actually tell him a story about anger and forgiveness when he has been so invested in being furious with his ex-wife…and, based upon what he told me, he would never, ever, forgive her for her careless actions. I joked back and told Tobias that I wasn’t too keen on his company either, but as long as we were still at the table, I asked him, “What are you getting out of your anger?” Well, the answer was obvious: nothing, nadda, bupkis (an actual Yiddish word that means absolutely nothing).
So how do we navigate the complex waters of forgiveness? Think about what Anthony Ray Hinton said, “They took 30 years of my life. If I couldn’t forgive, if I couldn’t feel joy, that would be like giving them the rest of my life. The rest of my life is mine. Alabama took 30 years. That was enough.” Forgiveness is an essential part of moving past anger. Each of us no doubt has his or her own path or process of reaching the point of forgiveness and, I believe it is paramount that we get there. After all, we know that we will get nothing from holding on to the anger. It may not be an easy process, but it is a crucial element of moving on with your life. If Tobias were to hold on to his anger, how might it affect his relationship with his children, how might he feel on graduation day when he can’t look at Elizabeth? She made a huge mistake, which happened to be tied to an illness, and he needed to resolve his anger one way or another.
We all hang on to anger and generally feel we are justified in staying angry at someone or something. Perhaps it might be time to think about what we get out of our anger. Once we realize the anger serves us no purpose, we can begin the awesome first step of moving forward towards forgiveness. It may not be easy, but using your thoughts to realize that the anger is just that, your thoughts. Try using your inner wisdom to move past the anger and let yourself out of your own prison of this useless thinking. Even if you feel justified in your anger, there is nothing, or bupkis, that you will ever get out of it!
Ray Anthony Hinton had 30 years of his life taken from him and yet he moved on. He found forgiveness which allowed him move past his anger about the injustice of his conviction. He had to be released from his physical prison to find freedom from his metal prison. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if we could all free ourselves from our own prison? We can…it just starts with forgiveness.