Monthly Archives: February 2017

To Err is Human; to Forgive – Unusual

Each of us is made up of two parts: our DNA and our experiences. And our experiences really consist of what others do to (or for) us, and what we do to (or for) others (including ourselves). Unfortunately, we can’t control our DNA; we come pre-wired. But we can control our experiences, or at least how we react to them.

I believe everyone should write their own personal history (someday I’ll even write mine!), not because others will clamor to read it, but because our individual history (our experiences) has shaped who we are. The better we understand our history, the better we will understand ourselves. As I think about my own experiences, I have realized there are three small sentences that I should have spoken much, much more than I have: “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “I forgive you.” Of course, we say “thank you” in response to what others do for us. For most of us, that’s a natural reaction when someone does something for us. But it’s not always easy to say “I forgive you” when someone does something to us, or “I’m sorry” when we do something to someone else. In fact, often we don’t apologize because we don’t even know we have offended or otherwise hurt or embarrassed another person. We remain in our own world, oblivious to what we have done, while the persons we hurt are left to plan out their hateful revenge, or perhaps worse, turn that hatred inward upon themselves, as Willie did in this scene from Gridiron Gang[i]:

Who knew such wisdom could come from the Rock! By failing to forgive, we give those who hurt us too much power over us. We need to forgive and move on.

Many years ago I had an interesting experience. I was playing in a church basketball league, and being more competitive than most, I trash-talked about the best player (who was also a friend) on the team we were scheduled to play next. I told another player on that team that their best player (my friend) had no shot (or words to that effect) – that if we locked him in the gym for a week the only way he would make a basket is if he jumped through the hoop while holding the basketball (he was a former collegiate volleyball player and proved wrong the stereotype that white men can’t jump). It was all in good fun – or at least that’s what I thought. Several days later, this player approached me in private and said, “I’m not quite sure what I said or did to make you not like me, but whatever it is, I’m sorry.” At first I had no idea what he was talking about. Then it hit me. The person I had trash-talked with (all in good fun at least on my part) had gone to this man and told him in all seriousness what I had said. Some friend I was. I immediately felt terrible. I assured him that I didn’t really mean it – I was just having fun (although apparently at his expense) and apologized profusely. That experience taught me two great lessons. Obviously, if you are going to joke about someone’s looks, abilities, etc., don’t do it behind their back. And if you do it to their face, make sure they know you are just joking (although even doing it to their face shows a certain lack of common sense). More importantly, I learned that if someone offends you (assuming you can’t just let it go), rather than let it fester into hatred and revenge, go to that person and talk through it. Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Said another way, the most important thing is, not what someone may do to you, but how you respond to what they do to you. I love what Oscar Wilde said: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them as much.” Seriously, we need to forgive others, not because of what it might do to help those who have hurt us, but because of what forgiving others does for us. It is liberating. One of my favorite movie quotes is from The Light Between Oceans.[ii] One of the characters, when asked how he always remains happy, regardless of what life throws at him, replies, “I choose to [be happy]. I can leave myself to rot in the past, spend my time hating people for what happened … or I can forgive and forget.” When pressed further, he adds, “It is so much less exhausting. You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things. I would have to make a list, a very, very long list, and make sure I hated the people on it.” Hate lists reminds me of this scene from Billy Madison[iii]:

Perhaps we don’t keep an actual “People I Need to Kill” list, but often we keep mental lists of those we hope bad things happen to, even if we aren’t willing to inflict the hurt ourselves. I love this scene from The Interpreter,[iv] as Nicole Kidman explains the tradition an African tribe uses to end grieving by forgiving.

Let’s have the courage and strength to forgive everyone that does something to us, by doing something for them – forgiving them and perhaps even more. They will be happier, and more importantly, so will we.

[i] Gridiron Gang

  • Production Company: Sony Pictures
  • Director: Phil Joanou
  • Screenwriter: Jeff Maguire and Jac Flanders
  • Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Xzibit, L. Scott Caldwell
  • Release date: September 15, 2006

[ii] The Light Between Oceans

  • Production Company: Heyday Films, LBO Productions, Dreamworks
  • Director: Derek Cianfrance
  • Screenwriter: Derek Cianfrance (based on the novel by M.L. Stedman)
  • Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz
  • Release date: September 2, 2016

[iii] Billy Madison

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Robert Simonds Productions
  • Director: Tamra Davis
  • Screenwriter: Tim Herlihy, Adam Sandler
  • Starring: Adam Sandler, Darren McGavin, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras
  • Release date: February 10, 1995

[iv] The Interpreter

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Working title Films, Misher Films
  • Director: Sydney Pollack
  • Screenwriter: Martin Stellman and Brian Ward
  • Starring: Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener
  • Release date: April 22, 2006


He Who Laughs Last, Laughs Best?

Years ago, a retired couple was enjoying a vacation in central California, visiting the man’s sister. While traveling the crowded freeways of California, the man changed lanes and nearly hit a car in that lane he had not seen (they call it a blind spot for a reason!). He tried to apologize by waving at the car behind him. The young man driving that car, however, looked angry and began tailgating the couple. Whether speeding up or slowing down, the car behind the couple stayed dangerously close. The tailgating continued for miles. The retired couple became concerned, then worried. They hoped the shelter of the underground parking lot of the man’s sister’s apartment would protect them, but the tailgating car followed them right into the parking garage. Prepared to be hurt or even killed, the retired man got out of his car and faced his pursuer. He apologized again, explaining he hadn’t seen the other man’s car. The other man, still angry and saying nothing, walked up to the retired man’s car, pried off one of the hubcaps, and with hubcap in hand, got back into his car and sped off.

What causes a young man to go miles out of his way to follow a couple in their 70s who changed lanes too close to him? The retired couple was my father-in-law and mother-in-law. Later, they were able to laugh at the experience, but it was no laughing matter for them as they went through it. I have often wondered what the young man did with that hubcap. Did he hang it on the wall of his bedroom, a trophy of his courage and conquest? More importantly, what possesses any of us to one-up those around us for any and often no reason? Why is it so hard for us to learn the time spent in getting even is better used in getting ahead?

I get it. Whether playing sports as a youth, or even now playing board games with the family, I hate to lose, and the taste of winning is never so sweet as when, once beaten, I come back to trounce my opponent the next time. In truth, we all get it. We savor getting back at someone who has taken advantage of us (at least as we perceive it) or beaten us, whether it is in sports, games, business or politics – or even getting home faster than the car next to us.

Hollywood apparently gets it as well. On Wikipedia, I searched “movies about revenge” and the results listed over 200 movies, and I suspect there are even more than that. In my own lifetime, at least 10 of the Oscar winners for best picture arguably were movies having a major plot line about getting even.

It should not surprise us that revenge movies are so popular, as there is something innate in all of us that demands justice. A farmer might describe this as you reap what you sow; I scientist might say for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; a businessperson might follow the mantra, I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine. Even criminals often live by this same rule. In the opening scene of The Godfather,[i] a fellow Italian asks Don Corleone for a favor. He wants the Corleone “family” to avenge an attack upon his daughter, who was beaten by her boyfriend and another young man. These attackers were arrested but given a suspended sentence, and so the father wants justice – inflicted by the family – since the law wouldn’t do it. But Corleone wants something in return:

As Jonathan Haidt explains it in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis,[ii] even though we never have been part of a crime syndicate, we understand instantly this complex interaction. We understand why the father wants retaliation against the young men, and why Don Corleone initially refuses to do it. We understand the importance of cultivating the right relationships, and why, accepting Corleone’s gift, the father must now be a part of Corleone’s extended family with an obligation, at some point, to return the favor. Haidt goes on to explain that reciprocity, as he calls it, is our social currency, and one of the main things that separates us from lower animals. He uses as a simple example a study conducted at Arizona State University where a psychologist sent Christmas cards to people at random that didn’t even know him. The great majority sent him a card in return. In short, “people have a mindless, automatic reciprocity reflex.”

This natural reciprocity reflex in us requires justice. We believe in karma. If someone does something to us, we expect the perpetrators to get what’s coming to them, and if the law won’t (or can’t) do it for us, then we’ll do it ourselves (which generally feels better to us anyway). As you watch the opening scene of a movie like True Grit,[iii] you immediately get invested in the quest that justice be done:

We reflectively nod our heads when Mattie tells us “you must pay for everything in this world, one way or another.” We, along with Mattie, feel satisfied when her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, is killed. But there is a twist in the movie we can learn from. Often there are unintended consequences when we expend great energy to get even. Here is the closing scene of the movie (don’t feel like you need to watch all the closing credits!)

The recoil from the gun Mattie fires to kill Chaney knocks her into a pit of rattlesnakes. As the last scene shows us, most of Mattie’s arm had to be amputated due to gangrene resulting from a snake bite – an unintended consequence of her getting even for the murder of her father. I have heard it told this way. If you get bit by a rattlesnake, you have two choices. You can use all your energies to pursue and kill the snake that bit you, or you can use that same energy to get medical help. Getting even with the snake may feel gratifying; but getting medical attention may save your life.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I believe in justice. Without justice, our world would be chaos. But I also believe in forgiveness and mercy. And knowing when to apply one over the other requires true grit – and true wisdom. Before we retaliate, let’s consider the motivations behind the perpetrator before we seek revenge. Was it an accident? Was there some other, justifiable reason for the perpetrator’s actions? Are there others more capable than we are of obtaining justice? Does the punishment fit the crime? Will getting even do us more harm than the “good” we inflict by seeking retribution? I love this scene from Schindler’s List,[iv] which answers the question of what is power, but also gives us some guidance in determining the appropriateness of either justice, mercy, or even a combination of the two:

In the final analysis, although different circumstances may require different responses, I believe generally we are better off cultivating cooperative relationships where we return favor for favor, rather than avenging others with an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, mentality. If we would be better off building that kind of social network, the entire world just might be better off as well. So send Christmas cards to people you don’t know, say hello to people you pass on the street, open your wallet to the beggar on the corner – and let good karma do the rest.

[i] The Godfather

  • Production Company: Paramount Pictures; Alfran Productions
  • Director: Francis Ford Coppola
  • Screenwriter: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
  • Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino and James Caan
  • Release date: April 4, 1997

[ii] Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, Basic Books (2006)

[iii]True Grit

  • Production Company: Paramount Pictures, Skydance Media, Scott Rudin Productions
  • Director: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
  • Screenwriter: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (based on the novel by Charles Portis)
  • Starring: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld
  • Release date: December 22, 2010

[iv] Schlinder’s List

  • Production Company: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian (based on the book by Thomas Keneally
  • Starring: Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley
  • Release date: February 4, 1997