Maybe no one has ever said it to me the right way.
I always thought it was the kind of thing that philosophers and people who committed their lives to God really understood.
I thought it was really just a question in one of those games that asks mind bending questions – you know, could you ever forgive someone who murdered someone you love? And we wrestle with it back and forth while we drink shots and say things like, “it depends who they killed”.
So trite. So silly.
I watched a video today of a man named Robert Rule who read his victim impact statement in court to the man who had pleaded guilty to murdering his daughter, Linda Rule. A man who in fact, had pleaded guilty to murdering 48 women. He was widely known as the Green River Killer. This may sound familiar to you since he was considered to be the biggest serial killer in US history, even though the court date took place back in 2003. Maybe I am just that behind the times that I am just seeing it now or that all these years later, it has found its way to me, but there it was just innocently asking to be watched. I clicked on it out of the strange curiosity that serial killers elicit. I had no idea what the link would leave me with. I expected to feel unsettled but I did not expect to be completely undone.
Robert Rule read his victim impact statement after a steady stream of angry and often violently spitting family members wished him a painful death and place in hell. It was short. His voice was steady if not a little hesitant, but there was no doubt he knew what he was going to say and he knew perhaps, it would change everything. He said:
“Mr. Ridgeway, there are people in this room who hate you. I’m not one of them. You have made if difficult to live up to what I believe and that is what God says to do and that’s to forgive. You are forgiven Sir,”
Read that again. You are forgiven Sir. The simplest words. The most incredible possibility realized. It made everything in my life seem so small. So petty. I have written about forgiveness before. My “demi-forgiveness” as I call it. The half ass way to say that I’m probably capable of being a decent person but it’s not my fault if I don’t succeed because somebody hurt me. The realization that someone could forgive the person who murdered his daughter and I was still holding a grudge against my ex husband whose sins were negligible…seemed unbelievable. I say it all the time – perspective is everything but I had never, ever, ever considered this perspective. I have never had to, save for a wayward game of “Would you Rather?”. I am struck by how difficult it is for me to watch that video without feeling overwhelmed by the act of his forgiveness – knowing nothing of him or his daughter or their lives. I felt relief too. I felt the weight slide off even my shoulders, the weight of the anger and pain and regret that he would carry otherwise. I felt an undefinable sense of grace unfolding, that thing that we all wish for and leave to beauty contestants to speak out loud – peace. Real, actual, unfettered peace. How do you, without years of practice and chanting and hiding far, far away from the world – how do offer forgiveness without retribution? Because we do that all the time, hold forgiveness at a cost, reap rewards for our platitudes. It is very rare to see forgiveness in its stripped down, bare existence where is does nothing for you but actually free you. But there it is…in a YouTube video from a court date in 2003. Just staring me in the face asking me who the hell did I think I was, losing sleep over the most benign of offences.
I want to tell you that I had an instant chain reaction of forgiveness. A stirring akin to Scrooge’s unlikely outpouring of Christmas spirit. But I didn’t. What I felt was shame. And Compunction. Possibly the exact opposite of forgiveness. What I felt was an instant replay of all the thing that I needed forgiveness for. The stupid and reactionary and selfish things I had done over the years. I started to second guess what and who I was forgiving. How do you compare your silly trifles with that? Who among us can offer such a gift so as to absolve even our own selves? I count my tributes to the Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandelas of the world. And yet, there is no monument, no following of Robert Rule. How troubling where we set our attentions to, that we have no mass affinity for a man that did what most of us will probably never have to do and could likely never abide by.
I’m humble as hell today. So much so that I decided to dedicate this year to forgiveness. Forgiveness to those who have wronged me. Forgiveness to myself. Forgiveness for all the times I will forget about this video and how it makes me feel right now. I’m leaving it here for all of us to come back to.