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What Trump Can Teach Us About Forgiveness

Forgiveness is something we are taught as children, that we carry with us throughout our adult lives. For religious communities, atonement embodies a more sacred meaning. The notion of forgiveness is personal to me, as I was raised Roman Catholic. As in most major religions, forgiveness plays an active role in my faith. In Catholicism, to be forgiven, you must first forgive others.

Every individual can assign a personal definition to forgiveness. But to forgive does not mean to move on completely. It does not imply forgetting or a complete absence of anger. When someone is forgiven, their trust is not immediately regained, nor is their former place in your life restored. Forgiveness can simply be a hope that someone learns from their transgression, but most importantly, it should bring you peace.

Victims of tragedy often handle their plight by learning forgiveness. A man who lost his sister at 17 wrote an article for The Guardian about his experience later in life. His sister had been stabbed by her boyfriend, and the family had the opportunity to meet the killer at a victim-offender conference years later. This was a cathartic experience for the author: “It didn’t bring back [my sister] but it did bring me back to a point where I can now forgive him. That may sound strange to some people, but I’ve learnt that forgiveness is not about the perpetrator, it’s about you. It’s about you letting go of the stuff that holds you back so you can live a happy and fulfilling life.”

Misty Wallace was only 18 when she was shot in the face by a complete stranger. Her assailant was also only 18, and at the time he was involved with gangs. After spending the night robbing, he decided to shoot Wallace in order to steal her Mustang, explained Jessica Pishko in a TakePart article. The two were eventually able to reconcile, after Wallace’s shooter was released from prison. They both give talks together about their experience through a restorative justice program called Bridges to Life. “You can forgive someone. It doesn’t mean you have to forget what happened to you. I’m free. I don’t have to carry it all around anymore. And it feels good,” Wallace said.

The Forgiveness Project is an initiative which allows individuals to publicly share their journey of forgiveness after experiencing trauma or injustice. Their website features a range of stories, but all individuals brave enough to share their story have moved on and grown from their experience. Satta Joe lived in the Kono District when the Civil War broke out in Sierra Leone. During an invasion of her village, she was raped by a group of rebels, the leader being her own relative, Nyuma Saffa. Joe’s seven year-old son and husband were shot and killed, and she was left alone with her newborn. Despite these traumatic events, she was ultimately able to forgive Saffa due to a reconciliation program led by her community. Saffa and Joe were encouraged to hold hands and participate in a ceremonial forgiveness dance; Joe eventually agreed, and she explains in her story that there is now peace between them.

This model of forgiveness applies to our current political climate as well. We are taking part in a particularly powerful moment in history, and we have the ability to choose what to do with it.

Since Donald Trump’s election, politics have become increasingly more partisan, and foreign relations with some of the United States’ strongest allies have been jeopardized. Trump claims he is one of the best presidents in American history, while in reality he has spent the last two years dismissing climate change and leaving the Paris Climate Accord, challenging women’s rights to contraception coverage and equal pay, detaining innocent migrant children, and lying to the American people.

We have a choice of what to do: we can either live with the contempt that many of us feel towards the current administration, or we can channel it into something more productive.

Choosing the latter would not be a pardon of Donald Trump’s actions nor an excuse of any kind. It would not be a dismissal of his abhorrent behavior. It would instead be a way for us, as a nation, to use our collective power in a positive way to make amends.

Many have felt so personally targeted by the actions of this administration, so hurt by those close to them who have chosen to side with those actions. And it would be unrealistic to suggest that we simply “move on.” Too many lives have been seriously affected and rights threatened by Trump’s presidency for the answer to be that simple. But, the healing process must start somewhere.

We could spend our lives waiting for an apology from Trump and every Trump supporter who has wronged or disrespected us in some way—but we shouldn’t hold our breath. And if they did apologize, would it really matter? Forgiveness is not about the other person: it’s about freeing yourself.

This is not about revenge or anger. It is about channeling our dissatisfaction into altruistic change. This is about getting closure.

We can look at our current circumstances as a burden and a chance to express our anger at the world. But, in some way, this is the opportunity we have been waiting for, one that will allow us to affect change in a tangible way. We should continue to rally for progress and equality—it is essential that we maintain our united front. There’s always a next step after forgiveness.

We should accept the anger that we feel towards our circumstances, but we should push ourselves to ultimately let go in order for our passion and productivity to flourish. Our spite will only hinder our progress.  

These troubling times may not be over any time soon. But, it is not too early to begin to heal.