On the night of January 21, 1995, Azim Khamisa’s life changed forever. While delivering pizza, his 20-year-old son, Tariq Khamisa, was shot and killed by Tony Hicks, a 14-year-old gang member. Set to be married to his girlfriend, Tariq would never see his wedding day. Neither would his father. Days and months went by, and Azim struggled to get out of bed, to even take the simplest steps towards the next day. But as life dragged on, Azim began to sense that something extraordinary would have to occur in order for him to survive, and thrive again. He would have to forgive his son’s killer.
As described in the CBS interview (see below), Azim felt he needed to take some responsibility for the tragic death of his own son. He started by forgiving Tony Hick’s family, and eventually forged a friendship with his guardian and grandfather, Ples Felix. He then founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF) in honor of his son, with the purpose of reducing youth violence by reaching students at various ages. Founded on six key tenets, the Foundation, which provides services and mentorship to over 20,000 students annually, begins with the idea that “Violence is real and hurts us all” and ends with the belief “From conflict, love and unity are possible.” But Azim’s story did not end there. Five years after his son’s life was ended by an arbitrary bullet, Azim stared into eyes of his murderer. He saw himself. Then, he forgave Tony, and offered him a job at his Foundation if and when he would be released from prison. Tony is up for parole in 2027.
All of us hope that we never are asked to face the reality that Azim was forced to confront. Most of us struggle to understand how we could find the resolve to forgive someone in the way that he did. But none of us have the luxury of not being hurt by others, in the infinite number of ways this can occur. Over the past 20 years, the time-honored virtue of forgiveness has been subjected to a huge scientific inquiry. A simple PsycINFO search of “forgiveness” uncovers almost 3,000 citations regarding a deeper review into what has become accepted as an effective therapeutic technique for traumatic experiences, whether it be chronic child abuse, random acts of violence, or institutional warfare. Forgiveness has consistently been shown to be associated with better psychological and physical health (Worthington et al., 2007). Large scales have shown that forgiving others is associated with less anxiety, depressive symptoms, and perceived stress (Lundahl et al., 2008).
But the models of forgiveness differ, and the misconceptions abound although some, some like Mr. Khamisa, take particularly exceptional steps to move forward. As C.S. Lewis once said,
…forgiving does not mean excusing. Many people seem to think it does. They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or no bullying. But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive. They keep on replying, “But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.” Exactly: that is precisely what you have to forgive. (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise. It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart—every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)
Interestingly, too, forgiveness is often more of an intrapersonal process, than an interpersonal one. In a study looking at small sample of individuals from Western Australia exposed to severe trauma, one theme kept coming through as with other research. Participants reported that forgiveness had much more to do with themselves than the offender. In reconciling what had occurred, and in releasing much of the guilt and pain and anger that they held so close, there was a sense of “letting go” that allowed for the possibility that tomorrow just might be different, and even better, than today. (Field, et al., 2013) But in order for this to happen, it seemed there must be an awareness of just how the circumstances, and their subsequent reaction, had changed the course of their lives. In doing so, many experienced a new perspective of the offender (not necessarily to be confused with unconditional positive regard), one less jaded with attributions of absolute evil, but more colored with the imperfections that existed within all humanity, including themselves.
But for some, like Mr. Khamisa, this process leads to what is termed “interpersonal reconciliation sentiment” (IPS) and unconditional forgiveness. IPS is defined as “…the personal, intimate feeling of being reconciled, at least to a certain level, with the people who have severely harmed you” expressed into “the resumption of some amount of trust and collaboration.” Research (e.g., Mukeshema, 2013) into those affected in the 1994 Rwandan genocide found that most of the perpetrators of violence did not apologize, and yet people were left to find a way to move forward in the midst of the disharmony that abounded. Findings indicated it was not only necessary for personal growth, but also critical for societal well-being, and rebuilding, as a whole. As Nelson Mandela stated on his inauguration day, after 27 years in prison, “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”
Regardless of the path taken, though, it appears that the necessity of forgiveness is born of a few different dimensions. One is what I will call personal and political effectiveness. It is clear that while rage and distrust can spawn awareness and discussions of misdoings and maltreatment, it cannot sustain a unitive, long-standing movement towards a larger goal of recognizing just how seven billion, imperfect human beings could co-exist in an authentic, yet peaceful way. Those who never find ways to reconcile with imperfect manifestation of others, and instead focus on the failures that may arise, will struggle mightily to move beyond their own constituency of bitterness. Reiterating Lewis, forgiveness does not mean excusing or forgetting, especially as we go in search of a better way. But it does mean acknowledging—of which we are flawed, of which we are failed, of which we are all in need of mercy.
Forgiveness also breeds from a deeper understanding, that being that our life may not be what we expected, or even desired. As Mr. Khamisa must have felt he was posed the very unfair question, “Do I choose my pride, or do I chose my life, just not as I would have had it?” It seems very doubtful that even in the midst of his forgiveness, he still does not experience periodic spikes of anger, and of loss—for he did lose his son. But as with every great heroic act, forgiveness requires daily, willful acts and reminders that I am opening myself to a different pathway, which is especially difficult when the reminders of transgressions remain palpable, such as ongoing physical issues that stem from an offense. For many, this is partly why forgiveness and faith are intertwined so tightly, as there is an acceptance that my life is not my own while I strive to live in communion with others. But my life is one that I choose to open myself to each day, and not allow the walls within to close ever more tightly when suffering presents itself. Ironically, although the intrapersonal model suggests forgiveness is self-serving, others left in our “distraught wake” may suggest that in serving ourselves, we are serving others in a much better way.
The human condition is both incredibly unique and yet so much the same. Our experiences are as vast as the oceans and as similar as the atoms that comprise them. Our calls range from the most secluded of hermits to the most exposed of world leaders. But we are all faced with betrayal and disappointment. We are all faced with each other. And if we choose to take on what life has given us, and open ourselves to others, then it sure seems we have an implicit understanding that we must forgive. This past year, I attended a wedding in which the groom and his only brother were estranged over what seemed to be a minor issue. His brother did not show for the ceremony. Although I knew little of the details, I was greatly saddened that two raised so closely could move so far away, and forego one of, if not the, most important day of their lives. It seems that a long road of forgiveness must ensue if the bonds of their brotherhood will resume, and they live to teach their children how to love again. So it seems for us, too.
Field, C, Zander, J., & Hall, G (2013). ‘Forgiveness is a present to yourself as well’: An intrapersonal model of forgiveness in victims of violent crime. International Review of Victimology published online 3 July 2013. DOI: 10.1177/0269758013492752
Lundahl BW, Taylor MJ, Stevenson R and Roberts KD (2008) Process-based forgiveness interventions: A meta-analytic review. Research on Social Work Practice 18(5): 465–478.
Mukashema, I, & Mullet, E (2013). Unconditional forgiveness, reconciliation sentiment, and mental health among victims of genocide in Rwanda. Social Indicators Research (2013) 113:121–132. DOI 10.1007/s11205-012-0085-x
Worthington, E. L., Jr, Witvliet, C. V. O., Pietrini, P., & Miller, A. J. (2007). Forgiveness, health, and well-being: A review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30(4), 291–302.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.