Recently, someone did some damage to some of my property, causing me a small amount of emotional pain. The damage was minor. However, my reaction was major, far more than warranted, in my eyes. In fact, my reaction was so severe, it threatened the very core of my self concept and caused me to severely doubt the reality of my belief structure.
While I stood at the till in the convenience store where I work, I watched as a semi-regular customer pulled into the parking lot at high speed. He turned into a parking space and continued on through that parking space banging the front of his vehicle into the wall of the building with such force that he knocked the two liter bottles off the rack on the other side of that wall. Then he threw the transmission into reverse and backed, again at high speed, on into the right rear of my pick-up, shoving it around so that the left rear was smashed up against one of the legs of the gas price sign. Next, he continued on through where my pickup had been and into a parking lot light post, knocking the air and water hoses off of that post. While he was recovering from doing the damage to my pickup and the lamp post, I did manage to excuse myself and get out to obtain his license plate number, In case he decided to “hit and run.” After causing all that damage, as I still watched him, he managed to gain control of his vehicle and parked it. Then he came into the store and attempted to purchase two six-packs of a flavored malt beverage.
When this man arrived at the till with his two six-packs I asked him if he was the one who just ran into my pick-up. “Oh, I don’t know if I hit any pick-up,” he told me. Other customers assured him that he did hit my pick-up and that is how he received so much damage to his vehicle. He acted dumb-founded, as if he wasn’t even aware that he had damaged his own vehicle.
I refused to sell him the alcohol and told him that I wanted his driver’s license and proof of insurance. He gave me his driver’s license, which I laid aside, and went out to find proof of insurance. Then I called the police. By the time he returned the police already arrived. I surrendered his driver’s license, my driver’s license and insurance card, and went back to work.
I spent the next forty-five minutes, my navel glued to the till drawer, waiting on the customers and wondering how bad the damage to my truck was, expecting the worst.
The convenience store I work at is a neighborhood store. Most of the neighbors consider the cashiers to be a part of the neighborhood. When they saw my truck get hit, they rushed over to gawk at the damage, to give me their condolences, and while they were there, to conduct some business. I don’t know how many times I heard, “Sorry about your truck, Uthur, and while I’m here, give me some Camel Menthols, would you.”
I didn’t want their condolences. I didn’t want their business. I wanted to get out and see if I would be able to drive home after work.
The police sat the man down on the walkway in front of the entrance to the store, which is just in front of the till. Every time I looked out the glass doors and saw the back of his head, I found my anger increasing. Every time I stumbled over the two six-packs of flavored malt beverage he had tried to buy, without even realizing what he had done, I found my anger increasing. Every time I looked out and saw my pick-up, smashed against the leg of the gas price sign, the large dent in the right rear fender, obscene in its obviousness, the tail-gate sticking out at an unnatural angle and contorted, the glass on the ground by the left rear, looking like the glass from my pick-up’s tail light lens, I again found my anger increasing.
Finally, a full forty-five minutes after all this happened, I got enough of a break to go outside. I asked the police to move him because when I looked at him I just found reason to get even more angry with him. Instead of compassion or at least an attempt at understanding, I was lectured on how I had to control my anger and let the police conduct their business. They had an expert on dealing with people who drove while under the influence handling the case and he was in charge, not me.
I thought I was doing an excellent job of controlling my anger, considering the circumstances, and took extreme offense at the lecture I received.
I was mad, and I believed justifiably so. This man, in addition to the damage he had done to my employer’s property, had demolished my pick-up, my only means of transportation to and from work. This was the truck I was using to haul materials and refuse as I worked on a major remodel to the house. This was the pickup truck I had owned for five days and then had to rebuild the motor. Yet, this man was so oblivious to what he was doing that he didn’t even know if he had hit it, so oblivious to what he was doing that he attempted to purchase alcohol without even mentioning, let alone apologizing for what he had done, and apparently so oblivious to what he was doing that he didn’t even realize that he had cause his own vehicle thousands of dollars worth of damage. I thought I had dealt with him in a cool, calm and yes, even professional manner. I thought that asking the police to move him was a legitimate attempt to continue to maintain the excellent control of my anger, a control I believed I had demonstrated up to that point. For all this, I received a lecture on anger management.
As I stewed over that lecture I began to realize why it hurt so. I did have anger to manage. Yes, I was managing it very well, but it was there. I did indeed have a desire for revenge, an extreme desire to see this man hurt for the pain and suffering he had caused me. I was unable to forgive him.
I am a Christian. I do not advertise that fact. I find that when people learn of my faith perspective they assume that I am like all those who limit the faith to the trivial concern of “salvation” from the consequences of their wrongs so that they can avoid an “eternity in hell.” My faith goes far beyond that. If there were any other term I could use to describe it that would both acknowledge how central the person of Christ is to this faith and how unique it is from the “born again” mentality, I would use that term instead.
At the center of my belief structure is a concept of justice which I have come to call creative justice. It started with the assumption that the creator endows each and every single human with a purpose and with the potential to achieve that purpose. This purpose, in some either great or minuscule manner, improves the human condition, that is makes it easier for others to both realize and achieve their own God endowed purpose. For me, justice, that is creative justice or God’s justice, approaches reality the more a person is able to achieve his or her own potential and the closer that person is allowed to fulfill that creative or God given purpose. It is the way I make sense out of both the life and the cross of Christ. All the rest of my beliefs are based on this central concept of justice. Redemption is being placed back on the right track to achieving this justice in one’s own life. Evil is anything which would inhibit a person or a group of people as they strive for this goal of justice. Sin is that which you or I do which either limits our own ability to achieve this creative justice, or limits the ability of another in that same goal. And, forgiveness is so necessary, so important to this goal of creative justice that forgiveness is a very important part of my definition for creative justice.
When I found myself unable to forgive the man who had damaged my truck, I found that I was unable to live by the dictates of my own belief. The concept of hypocrite came into my mind. My self-image was shattered. My life became a farce. I was totally devastated.
I have intellectual reasons to forgive. I do not believe that people, or any one person, is innately evil. The word “reprobate” is not a part of my theological vocabulary. Instead, I believe that each and every person does the best he or she is able to do in any given situation. If that choice is what I would call evil, that choice is explained by factors or circumstances which limit the range of choices, or color those available choices so that the one made is the best that person can do at that time. This does not justify evil or sin. Instead, this explains it. But, this also allows us to understand how we can overcome evil. If we can expand the range of choices a person has available to them, we can increase the possibility that he or she will choose one which does not result in sin or evil.
I also believe that many times a person makes the wrong choice because he or she is unable to understand the consequences of his or her behavior. We do not often realize the pain and suffering our actions will cause another. In our society, quite often we are protected from that realization. If we did, our choices would be colored differently, increasing the chance that a choice which hurt the least amount possible would be made.
People who are incarcerated for their crimes are told that they have paid their debt to society, but are very rarely held accountable for, or even told of the debt they owe to those they hurt in the process of committing those crimes. I am convinced that if we truly knew how our behavior affected those around us, our choices would demonstrate a far greater concern or compassion for others. However, there are times when paying the debt to those we hurt would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.” This is when forgiveness becomes even more necessary.
Forgiveness is not just the means by which I avoid standing in the way of another as he or she strives to reach his or her potential and achieve his or her creative purpose. As a Christian, this is the minimum I need to be able to do in order to avoid becoming a stumbling block to those who have hurt me. In addition, if I am involved in the life of a person who has committed a sin and is trying to overcome that sin, forgiveness is the first step I need to make in order to help that person achieve redemption, to get back on the right track to realizing his or her potential and achieving his or her created purpose.
Yet, in spite of my intellectual understanding, I was unable to forgive the man who damaged my truck.
When I tried to express my pain, I found most people totally incapable of relating. They were unable to see beyond my truck and into my heart.
“Of course you have the right to be angry, Uthur, look at what that man did to your truck,” they said, trying to console me.
By this time, my pain had moved beyond my truck Up until now, I had been proud of how my faith had moved far beyond that born-again experience back in June of 1971. Now, that evolution of my faith served to isolate me further from those who professed the same faith, which increased my pain.
That first night after my truck was hurt, the only person who seemed capable of understanding was my daughter. (My wife was unavailable to me because we work conflicting shifts and do not see each other during the week. In addition, she planed a trip back home the following day, and I couldn’t ask her to cancel the trip because of something as trivial as my truck.) Our daughter recently moved back in with us, with her own daughter, because of some financial difficulties. I don’t know how well she understood, or even agreed with me…but she did listen without criticizing, condemning, or consoling inappropriately. She agreed that I needed to forgive, which was very helpful, and suggested that maybe all I needed was time, to get over the initial pain, before I could forgive.
The next day I was able to relate to a woman who had recently watched a documentary on Jeffery Dahlmer, the cannibal from Chicago. After watching this documentary and understanding how so many factors went into the make up of that man, she saw the punishment of him as a travesty of justice. From this, she was able to understand why I needed to be able to forgive, and then why the fact that I could not forgive cause me so much pain.
These two women, my daughter and the old woman who was a regular at the store, were angels to me, messengers sent by God. They did a lot to help me overcome my pain by understanding it, the cause of it, and by not trying to talk me out of it. Another message from God came in an episode of an old program which I enjoyed and watched almost religiously about fifteen years ago.
I took that Friday off, two days after my truck had been hurt, primarily to wallow in my pain as a means of getting over it. That evening I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In this episode, the Enterprise stumbled upon a planet which had been destroyed by a nuclear holocaust yet contained a patch which was free from that destruction and supported two humans. In the course of the story it was discovered that the man was actually a powerful, non-human being, pretending to be human. As the planet was attacked he refused to defend it. Yet, when his wife, a real human, was killed in the process of the attack, he retaliated by committing genocide, by destroying the entire species of those who attacked his home and killed his wife. Then, he returned to the planet, restored a patch so that it provided a habitual place to live, brought his wife back to life, and continued in peace and contentment.
The parallels between that story and my own situation did not hit me until a few days later. This being had the power to restore all that had been taken away from him. I have the power to restore my truck, perhaps not as easily, but it is there. If the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation could conceive of a being with this kind of power who gave into the desire for revenge, my own inability to forgive was understandable. On this basis, I could forgive myself and then work on what caused me to commit this sin.
On Sunday morning I got out and took a good look at my truck, primarily to get it ready for the road again. (The regulars were still expressing their concern and I needed to give them proof that my truck had not been totally destroyed.) The taillight lens was intact and the lights worked. The tailgate was bent beyond repair, and the back of the bed was warped just enough so that I couldn’t put another tail gate in its place. However, scrap plywood from the house remodel could easily serve as a substitute tail-gate when I needed to haul something. The dent in the right rear was a blemish that did not effect the operation of the truck. It made it so that I would have to replace the bed of the truck if I wanted to restore it, not just have some body work done. That will be easy enough to do. In the course of driving around since I purchased the truck I have seen several of the same make and model which are not operating. I might be able to purchase the bed from one of them. The color might not match, but that is what paint jobs are for. Perhaps I might also find some other things that need replacing in my truck, such as the inside door handle which wore out shortly after I purchased the truck and the window handle I lost while trying to determine how to repair the door handle.
In the process, I realized how much I had become attached to my truck. It is, after all, only an object, a piece of material property. It will be restored fairly easily, should I continue to desire to restore it. It was not important enough to prevent me from forgiving the person who damaged it. Here is a problem of mine that I need to work on, my attachment to material goods. In discovering this, I began to realize how this attachment to material objects affected my relationship with others.
Then, information began to come in. The man was arrested for driving under the influence of prescription pain killers. From what I had seen of him before, I can believe that he is disabled, on prescription pain killers, living a life of bare existence. On occasion he might be like another of my regulars, in so much pain that even the prescription won’t subdue it. On those occasions the regular, and perhaps the man who hurt my truck, uses alcohol to supplement the prescription. This information doesn’t justify what he did. It explains it. It is enough so that I can muster compassion and, on the basis of that compassion, forgive him. If my assumptions, based on my knowledge of another and the scanty information I have about him, are true, the pain severely limited his choices and perhaps an accidental overdoes of pain medication impaired his ability to properly operate his vehicle.
This confirmed my belief structure.
Paul once said that all things work together for the good of those who love Jesus and are called according to his purpose. It certainly seems to be true in this case. My pain had caused me to examine my own life, to identify and recognize some of my problem areas. It has taught me how to forgive myself when I am not able to measure up to a standard I have set for myself. In addition, what at first seemed to be an attack on my core beliefs has served to confirm those beliefs. I will become a better and stronger Christian because of it. Maybe it is only a matter of perspective, but I do believe that I can see the hand of God working out his purpose through this unfortunate accident.
Writing as “Uthur, from the Town by the Sea,” the author contributed to Whosoever while attending church in a UCC congregation in the Pacific Northwest Conference.