Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
When I was in Burundi, a genocide survivor shared with me this wisdom, “Forgiveness is a gift that sets you free. It’s not for those who have hurt you but for you. So why not forgive?” I received this essay from Antony Campise. He courageously shares with us his journey in learning to forgive. I had thought to break this into two posts, it’s longer than normal. But stick with it; it’s a powerful story of transformation, Tony’s story, in his words.
There was a time when the only number associated with my name was a social security number. That is no longer the case. Now I have a seven digit Department of Corrections number behind my name. It took me awhile before I came to the realization that reflection and forgiveness would be the only salvation I had to escape the Hell that I had condemned my victim, my family, and myself to. To say my crime had a “ripple effect” on others would be a gross understatement. What my selfish actions caused was more like a Tsunami that will change the landscape of other’s lives for years to come.
In July, 2011 I was arrested for second degree domestic assault. Let me say, I was the first one to come to my own defense. You know the drill … it wasn’t my fault, she made me do it, she lied, blah, blah, blah. During the initial shock of being locked up my brain took a vacation and stupidity became second nature for me. Not that I hadn’t used that same tactic to get myself in here. I kept thinking, “If I could contact my victim I could straighten this all out”. Dumb, I know, but fear has a way of pushing you towards a purely selfish agenda at times. I didn’t care about anyone but me. It took a long time before I learned how I single-handedly altered my victim’s world and everyone that would come into contact with her for the rest of her life.
During the prosecution and sentencing phase of my journey I found myself in the same room with her for the first time since I committed my crime. I was ordered by the judge to keep my eyes on him and speak only to him. The judge told me I was banned from any and all contact with my victim in any way, period! Here was my chance to prostrate myself in front of the court and directly to my victim. To tell her how sorry I was. To explain how bad I felt. It had all just slipped through my fingers, just like that.
You know what? I am glad I wasn’t allowed to apologize at that point. I wasn’t truly aware of what an apology was and what it meant at that particular time. I also don’t think my victim would have been able to digest or accept my apology. The emotions of my crime were still too fresh for either of us to come to terms with. They hung thick and sticky in the courtroom. It was hard for me to breathe in there and I can only imagine what she was feeling having to be in the same room with me after what had happened. My victim needed time to heal. I needed time to think about all of this. I also needed time to purge myself of an overblown ego. I was still thinking recklessly and that would not make for an acceptable apology. I had a lot of work to do.
After several months of getting up with anger as my constant companion – its weight heavy on my shoulders, its grip tight around my throat keeping me from taking in the air I needed – I decided to do some serious soul-searching and a good old-fashioned spiritual housecleaning. What could it hurt, right? I wasn’t getting anywhere doing things my way. My way is what put me here. I decided to get real honest with myself. I decided to tell myself the truth about what happened on that day in July, 2011. They say, “‘The truth shall set you free …”, but I learned “first it shall piss you off!”
I had to get real, real quick. I had to admit to myself: My actions put me here. An open vessel is accepting of light, and I had to become open to myself. I wasn’t here because my victim decided to call the police on me; I was here because I violated the trust my victim had in me. I used physical, mental, and emotional assault against someone. My victim believed in me, trusted me, and loved me, and I used all of that against her. I repaid all of that with evil actions. The split second I chose my actions, I altered everyone’s lives from that point forward. I’d been taught my whole life that altering a person’s life should be for the better and here I was using my power for evil not for good. I had to find a way to make something good come from this.
First, I had to deal with all the guilt, shame, frustration, and sadness I was experiencing from being totally honest with myself for the first time about everything. This was the tough part. I had to figure out how to forgive myself without excusing myself and my actions. I also desperately needed the forgiveness of my victim if I was going to be able to look at myself in the face again. What if my victim wouldn’t or couldn’t forgive me? What if she just wanted me to go straight to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars? What if I was not even allowed to apologize until I was off parole? All of those thoughts plagued me and I decided to take them on one at a time. A fool thinks he can solve everything; a stupid person doesn’t even try. I was neither, just a person who wanted the opportunity to own up to the pain I had caused.
Seventeen months after committing the biggest mistake of my life I completed Impact of Crime on Victims Class (ICVC). Upon completion I was told that my ICVC coordinator might be able to facilitate an apology to my victim from me. Here was a chance to be the man I needed to be and take responsibility for what I’d done. I needed to own up to my actions. I needed to get an apology off my chest that had been weighing me down for two years. At that particular time I’m not sure which was the stronger of my emotions, excitement or fear.
I started writing and after three days of thoughtful purging I was emotionally exhausted but I managed to say what needed said for so very long. This apology was a long time in the making. I gained some closure and I quietly prayed my victim would receive some closure in the letter I so desperately hoped she would receive. I took the pages that I felt I’d pulled from the depths of my gut and handed them over to be sent away and, hopefully, do some good.
In March of this year the victim service coordinator handed me a letter in reply. I was shocked. With palms sweating I managed to open and read it, not once, but three times. I hadn’t expected a reply and I hadn’t expected the rush of emotions I was feeling. After reading the letter I felt as though I had taken my first gulp of air in two years. I breathed so deeply my chest hurt or maybe that was just my heart aching. The letter left me feeling peacefulness, and sadness, all at the same time. Peace because my victim forgave me, sadness because after all I had taken from her she gave me the gift of forgiveness. In the end that was the one thing I had given my victim, an apology. It was the one offering my victim needed in order to release her guilt for, as she said, “putting me here”. An apology so she could release “her guilt”? My victim felt responsible for my incarceration? What a wake-up call for me. I have to say this again, her actions did not put me here; my actions, or lack thereof, are why I am going down this road! The options I could have taken that night are many. I chose the worst option I could have ever chosen for her and me, the wrong option, period! I wish to this day I could go back and change all of it. I cannot. I can only learn from all of it and hope by others reading this they may learn before it is too late.
In that same spirit, I also learned while forgiving me she admitted to taking a self-defense class and getting a conceal carry permit. My crime had such an impact on her that she is now ready to defend herself at all cost. I pray she never, ever has to. She and everyone she comes in contact with will be forever reminded of a mistake I made in my past.
In closing let me say, crime affects not only people but communities and the economics of those communities. There are no victimless crimes, period. Every crime begins with one thought followed by one action to bring that crime to fruition. We cannot fix what we do not acknowledge. I now know from firsthand experience how painful it can be to have to admit when you’ve done something wrong. I also know when you are truly honest with yourself, you not only give yourself a gift, but the rest of society is gifted as well.
I cannot thank Tony enough for sharing his story with us. How do we learn to forgive ourselves even as we are accountable for the harm we have done? Who do we need to forgive, in order to be set free? Am I willing to forgive, seventy-seven times?
Learning together on the path,
Tony and Anna