Forgiveness: the Gift of an Open Heart

people, relationship and love concept - close up of mans cupped hands showing red heart I sit with a profound sense of horror and awe for what happened in South Carolina. A young Caucasian man named Dylann joined an African American bible study group. After spending almost an hour with the group, Dylann allegedly took a gun and killed nine people.

I hear the words “racial crime,” “murderer and hater” and “evil act” from the media. I understand people are trying to make sense of this horror by attempting to find some comfort in labeling and classifying the act and its agent. Yet, these categories are not allowing us to open our hearts to this tragedy.

I wanted to keep my heart open to all that was present in relationship to this human tragedy in South Carolina. It was that intention that allowed me to include both the horror and the awe for our humanness in my heart.

I saw a video of Dylann in court where the family members of the nine people he is accused of murdering spoke to him directly. They told him they will be never be able to talk to their loved one again, that “every fiber of their body hurt.” People who talked to Dylann shared with him what was present in their hearts. They mentioned grief, anger, struggle and heartache. None of them judged him, labeled him or condemned him. My heart melted in the presence of these people who were feeling so much pain, yet were communicating from the heart with the person who killed their loved ones.

What happened next was deeply moving and profound. Click here to read more.

Then, they told him they forgave him. My heart felt so tender and connected with their compassionate hearts. I wonder what it might have been like if I had gone through the experience of having to talk to a person who killed someone I loved. I felt that these people had so much love in their hearts that they were able to include in it the very person who had killed their family.

I heard the words of the sister of a pastor who was killed and felt so much gratitude and admiration for her capacity to stay connected to her value of love at this time. She told Dylann that her sister taught her they are “the family that love built” and because of that love she had no room for hate in her heart. It was that love that gave her the capacity not only to say “I forgive you”, but also to include him in her heart by saying “I pray to God for your soul.”

These families could forgive because they did not shy away or try to deny their pain. They could forgive because they let their pain in all the way in. This pain broke their hearts open. To be able to forgive we need to have an open heart.

As Dylann stood there in court hearing every word, his eyes seemed vacant. He was there in physical form only. You could not see his essential presence there. His face revealed not just a lack of emotion, but a closed heart. A closed heart cannot receive anything. The loved ones of those he supposedly killed were offering love and forgiveness and he could not receive it. I felt so sad for him. I asked myself, what was so challenging for you Dylann that lead you to close your heart in this way? What happened to your precious human life that lead you to take nine others?

This was an extreme example of the consequence of judgment. When we judge others as bad, such as Dylann did, we close our hearts. When our heart is closed, we can construct enemy images of the other. When others have become enemies in our mind, we justify the impulse to condemn, punish and even hurt the other. We might even think that it is righteous to show others our rightness and their wrongness. Yet, in the act of closing out hearts to others, we close it to ourselves as well. When we close our hearts, we forget our humanity and are able to commit acts that bring and perpetuate the pain that started the judgment in the first place.

What would have happened if Dylan had been able to communicate his own pain and thus open his heart to other human beings?

As I watched this unfold, my heart felt tender, heavy and so touched by the families of the nine people who were killed, by the thousands of people of all races who went to the AME Church, where the killing took place, to pay their respect and show their pain and solidarity.

More tears came when President Obama eulogized Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people killed. In awe, I heard Obama speak from the heart and show his own vulnerability. He spoke of empathy, generosity of heart and the capacity and great opportunity we have as human beings to honor grace. He asked us to acknowledge the pain and suffering by talking about it, reflecting about our role in it and doing something to change the injustices that have been going on for so long in our society.

The President described Rev. Pinckney’s character by mentioning the wisdom of his speech and the kindness of his spirit. He acknowledged Pinckney’s sense of empathy as his “ab[ility] to walk in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.” He emphasized Pinckney’s approach of collaboration instead of competition. He complimented the steady commitment shown by Rev. and Senator Pinckney as a public servant and a man who sought comfort in his faith.

I was moved to hear that President Obama chose to highlight the qualities of Pinckney’s that are in alignment with the kind of world so many of us want. I felt hopeful that what was honored about this man was his human kindness.

Towards the end of the eulogy, President Obama invited us to engage in “thoughtful introspection and self-examination.” He encouraged us to “search our hearts” by “recognizing our common humanity, by treating every child as important”, by recognizing the “uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society.”

With his invitation, he asked us to not allow ourselves to “slip into old habits whereby those who disagree with us are not merely wrong, but bad; where we shout instead of listen; where we barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions or well-practiced cynicism.” And he added, that if we were to reflect on how to be more human we would actually be walking the path of grace. The path of grace he said “involves an open mind. But more importantly, an open heart.”

His final words “That’s what I felt this week — an open heart” resonated deeply within me. I felt so touched to hear these words. These words were not coming from my beloved spiritual teachers; they were uttered by the president of the United States.

Yes, it’s an open heart that allows us to make room for all the feelings that are present in us. It’s an open heart that lets us see the damaging impact of making enemy images of others. It’s an open heart that let us face our pain as it is and move to courageous forgiveness.

If you notice closeness of heart because of what someone did or said, I invite you to:

  1. Let yourself feel your closed heart without judgment.
  2. Notice how much it hurts to have your heart closed at this moment.
  3. Ask yourself “what meaning am I attributing to what the other person did or said?”
  4. Hold that interpretation of the other person’s words or deeds with kindness.
  5. Identify the feelings that come up when you believe that interpretation is true.
  6. Invite some openness in your heart to consider other possible explanations for what was said or done. Example: perhaps the other was hurt or confused and acted out their hurt instead of communicating it to you.
  7. Connect to what values are calling your heart’s attention now. What is really important for you in this relationship or dynamic with this person? Identify those values, and feel how they live within you.
  8. If and when the moment arises where you discern that you are ready and the other person is ready, share your open heart with that other person.