Stranger than Forgiveness

Sunday evening I attended a screening of the first part of Helen Whitney’s new documentary, Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.

I admit that it took a bit of time for me to get into it. The first segment was a telling of the oft-repeated story of the shootings in an Amish school and the community’s seemingly instantaneous forgiveness of the perpetrator. Then the movie headed into the story of a woman who managed to live a happy life despite an abusive childhood and being infected with HIV. I can’t remember much about that segment.

But the next two segments really intrigued me. The first dealt with Terri Jentz, the author of Strange Piece of Paradise, who survived a brutal, anonymous attack. After the attack, she lived through 15 years of torpor and depression. During that time, when someone would ask her about her feelings about her attacker, she would say, “Oh, I’m above that. I’ve forgiven him.” It wasn’t until she started to dig into her case, trying to track her attacker down, that she came alive again. She says near the end of the segment that her 15 years of “forgiveness” were unhealthy for her.

The last segment was about Katherine Ann Power who, during an armed bank robbery to get money to support her Vietnam War protest, was complicit in the killing of a police officer. She managed to evade the law for 23 years, and probably would have done so indefinitely, except that, being overwhelmed by her conscience, she finally turned herself in.

As Whitney told us before the screening, the meaning of forgiveness is under intense debate right now. But I saw an interesting definition arising from these stories. It’s best illustrated with a scene from the movie Stranger than Fiction, where Will Ferrell’s character realizes that he is a character in an in-progress novel. In the middle of the movie, Ferrell decides that if he remains immobile, he can derail the plot and get his life back. So he sits in a chair for hours until his apartment wall is suddenly knocked in by a crane. The plot has come to get him. After that, he becomes a very active main character, tracking down the author and taking control of his story.

As Frances Menlove wrote in the most recent issue of Sunstone, “We all know that the universe isn’t made of atoms; it is made of stories.” Each woman spent a lot of time hiding from her life story. The woman infected with HIV turned to addictive behavior to avoid dealing with her life’s plot points. Jentz pretended that a major character in her life’s story didn’t matter. Power, like Ferrell, hid from the sad stories she had set in motion. They were passive main characters, letting other forces run their lives. And, of course, if you relinquish the story of your life, your soul is bound to start fading. Life seemed to regain richness and meaning when the women actively re-entered their stories.

So perhaps forgiveness is when you become an active protagonist in your life story. It’s when you say, “Here are the pieces of my story. I’m not going to ignore them. I’m going to make something new out of them.”


  1. Carol says:

    The most empowered and peaceful people I know are those who have forgiven others, even when the offense has been heinous. When my dad forgave a drunk neighbor who drove onto the sidewalk and killed my sister, he dad experienced unspeakable peace.

    We can either allow past offenses to destroy, wound, or incapacitate us, or we can move forward with serenity and loving kindness. I truly believe that forgiveness is one of the most healing gifts that we can give ourselves.

  2. Mattathias says:

    I really like this reading of forgiveness. I think many of Christ’s commandments to us work this way. When, in the Sermon on the Mount, he instructs us to go two miles with someone who has asked us to go one, he is saying that we can take action– instead of merely responding to the demands and decisions of those around us, we can act, and act in a way that changes the world for the better.

    I think repentance also functions in this way. By turning our lives around (and towards God), we become active, instead of simply following the trajectory of our past actions.

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