“Forgiveness is a choice followed by a journey”
- Father of child killed at the West Nickel Mines Schoolhouse October 2, 2006
I am writing this on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the tragic Nickel Mines shooting. On that day Charles Carl Roberts IV shot 10 Amish school girls and then shot himself. Five of the girls died. Obviously this is a extreme example upon which to start a discussion around forgiveness. But it is often within the extreme we find wisdom which can inform the more mundane instances of human interactions.
In our work with teams we often find communication problems which are rooted in some occurrence, often years earlier, in which one person said or did something to another person that was hurtful in some way. From that point on the relationship became toxic and communication ceased to be productive. Now we arrive and bring the team together for a team-building session of some type. In the course of that meeting we discover the relationship issue. What to do?
First, let me say we are not licensed therapists. But we do know something about work relationships. Which brings me back to Nickel Mines.
What rocked the world during that fateful time was the response of the Amish families who had children in that schoolhouse. Within 24 hours of the shooting, a group of Amish men descended upon the home of Roberts. His wife watched them approach her house as her father went out to meet them. She soon saw them reach out to her father with open arms expressing their shared sorrow and offering their forgiveness. How could they do such a thing? That was the question on the minds of those outside the Amish community. But, if you were a member of the Amish community you understood. For their culture sees forgiveness as essential. Forgiving others is the only way you will receive forgiveness from God.
I don’t bring this up as a theological message but, rather, to dig a bit deeper into the concept of forgiveness. We have seen too many instances in work relationships (and family relationships) where forgiveness was not an option and relationships were destroyed over seemingly insignificant words or deeds. This made me wonder why we don’t speak of forgiveness in the work world. Why there has been little, if any, training for team leaders or team members on the subject. Why we often find ourselves in the middle of a relationship crisis when working with teams and how quickly the team becomes productive once one team member leaves.
To quote the Amish father again, “forgiveness is a choice followed by a journey”. Perhaps that is the key to bringing forgiveness into the workplace. Seeing it as a choice, difficult as it may be, but not the end of the story. I think too often we see forgiveness as something that is a once and done action and we are often not ready for that difficult task. Whatever happened hurt us too much to just say “I forgive you” and then move on. It is the “move on” piece that has to be addressed in our work relationships. As the Amish father says, forgiveness is “followed by a journey”. Ten years after the Nickel Mines shooting the families involved on both sides of the shooter are still on that journey. For them it will never end since it was such a tragic event. In the workplace, the journey is often much shorter. But only if it begins.
Perhaps another point to ponder regarding the Amish community’s emphasis on forgiveness is the word “community”. In a book that quickly followed the Nickel Mines tragedy, Amish Grace, the authors point to a significant difference between Amish culture and contemporary American culture - “individualism”. They say:
Contemporary American culture tends to accent individual rights - freedoms, preferences, and creativity. In contrast, the core value of Amish culture is community.
Getting back to that choice. In our individualistic culture could it be that one of the barriers to forgiveness is the feeling that the perceived violation is an affront to our individual rights? And, could another key to bringing forgiveness into the workplace be the development of a stronger sense of community - developing a culture in which the journey following the choice to forgive is supported by everyone on the team?