Forgiveness: Letting Yourself Out of Prison

I noticed the scowl on the face of a Vietnamese engineer as I taught about the impact of hardened anger and of the need to forgive. I was sure he wasn’t the only one in this room of managers who felt the emotions his face seemed to reflect. After all, the company was about to go through downsizing, and many were unhappy with the edicts that had been handed down from Corporate.

He never spoke up in the group that day, though others were quite verbal. It wasn’t until we sat together on the long ride back from the remote retreat location that I learned what he had been thinking.

“I heard what you said today about how grudges make you sick in your heart and body. But I can never forgive the Communists. They don’t deserve to be forgiven.”

“Tell me more about it,” I invited.

“I had dreams,” he said. “I left Viet Nam in 1982 in little 30-foot fishing boat with 60 people on board. We landed on Malaysian soil after four scary days and nights at sea. One year later I considered myself and my family very lucky to have been admitted to the U.S. under political asylum status. But I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, the horrible images of the past eight years keep coming back to me. All of my dreams would not have been just dreams if the Communists didn’t invade my country.

“What kind of crime did I committed anyway? Were it a crime to be born in a religious family? Were it a crime to attend an American college? Were it a crime to work for a living?

“Unfortunately, it were from the Communist perspective. Religion were considered a tranquilizer to the People’s Movement. Educated in American school was enough to qualify me as a traitor to the “people.” Working with government-owned Air Viet Nam meant collaborating with the enemy.

“I had such a hard time trying to convince the political officer that I attended an American engineering college because I won a scholarship to have free schooling. I worked for Air Viet Nam just to make a living like anybody else does. I was a Buddhist because I was born in a family that believed in Buddhism for generations. The more I reasoned, the more I appeared not wishing to cooperate with the new government. It was not a surprise to see myself in the “re-education camp” (prison) shortly.

“Four years in re-education camp seemed decades. Days after days, I built the hatred in myself, I hate the Communists so much. They came and took away our future, our hope, our country’s prosperity. I look at the guards like looking at monsters. No human would act the way they act… abusing people, treating people like animals, laughing on people’s suffering. They tried to weaken our body by hard labor and undernourishing in order to control our mind.

“Out of 1200 prisoners in the camp, four hundred died in one year, average more than one a day.

“After 15 years, the hatred are still boiling insides myself as much as the time I was in the camp. All the years living in the U.S., I never touch a book on Communism. I refused to watch movie about Viet Nam. When I talk to someone who says one word that seems like favoring Communism, I walk away. My wife has begs me to go with her to visit family back in Viet Nam, but I cannot set foot there because of what happened.”

This man’s experiences are very different from ours…or are they? The setting is different, but the essential elements are the same.

1. LOSS OF POWER AND CONTROL.

He was literally in a prison. We can feel that way when “life” or certain people create negative experiences for us against our will.

2. UNDESERVED PUNISHMENT.

This man did not commit a crime, yet he received four years of cruel punishment. Some of the hardest things to forgive are those that are totally undeserved, things we did not directly bring on ourselves by our own choices.

3. LOSS OF THINGS WE VALUE.

The psychological losses were the ones that fueled this man’s anger the most – the loss of freedom, the stealing of dreams, the horror of witnessing harm to others. It is also these deeper losses that haunt us. They often convince us that our lives have been snatched from us – and that someone needs to be punished for that.

4. DIFFICULTY LETTING GO.

My friend was still living in the prison from which he had been physically released years before. Are you?

WHAT THOUGHTS KEEP YOU HELD CAPTIVE?

Your thought habits exert a powerful influence on your emotions and behavior. Let’s examine some of the “cognitive culprits” – myths that can paralyze you, embitter you, and keep you from moving forward in your life.

1. If I forgive, I’ll be letting the person get off scot free.

Truth is, the other person is probably not the one held most captive by this. It’s you!

You were already injured. You already had important things stolen from you.

Why perpetuate the harm by keeping yourself trapped in the never-ending reliving of the horror?

Forgive to free YOURSELF!

2. If I forgive, I’ll be saying that what happened doesn’t really matter.

No way. It DID and DOES matter. What happened was very, very wrong. Choosing to forgive does not make any statement to the contrary.

3. If I forgive, he/she will have won.

When you allow yourself to have an unforgiving spirit, you are always the real loser. The collateral losses continue, as the bitterness causes you to become a less effective worker, spouse or partner, parent, and/or friend.

You couldn’t help what happened to you originally. You didn’t cause the first losses. However, if you harbor the anger and revenge, you will create more losses than the perpetrator could inflict. It’s your choice about whether to continue to inflict pain on yourself.

4. If I forgive, I’ll be more vulnerable to harm in the future.

Forgiveness will not prevent your learning the lessons that are essential in your future. What has happened will make you more cautious, true enough.

Yes, your rights were violated. However, the reality is, some of the things we presume are rights are really privileges. Another fact is, some of the assumptions we have about, “This will never happen to me,” are unfounded. No one is immune..not even “good people.”

The difficult realization is, this world may not be as safe as you had previously assumed. However, with that loss of innocence comes a more mature realization that, though there is danger in relationships, in work situations, and in all of life, you can make the choices that make safer choices without becoming paranoid.

If you free yourself from the bitterness that can distort your thinking, perceptions, and reactions…you’ll be able to see the world more clearly. Without the irrationality that accompanies hatred and bitterness, you’ll become a wiser person.

I had planned to get to the “how-to” part in this article, but because of the foundation we needed to lay, that essential information will have to wait til the next Magnetizer. See you then!

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist who has worked with organizations across the globe for over 20 years. Her high-energy, high-content, high-involvement Magnetic Workplaces (r) programs provide dozens of practical strategies and skills that can be put to work immediately to:

    1. build strong leaders who influence and develop others through serving;
    1. energize, motivate, and retain team members;
    1. successfully accomplish important organizational transitions; and
    1. impress customers and build their loyalty.

Review a complete list of her programs available for your convention or corporate meeting at the website, www.MagneticWorkplaces.com.