The dreadful bombings on the finish line of the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013, in which three persons died and at least 183 were injured calls to mind another senseless tragedy.
On December 14, 1992, Wayne Lo, a student at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, went on a shooting spree in a psychotic state. He subsequently told psychiatrists that God had commanded him to carry out the shootings. When it was over, Lo had killed a professor, an 18-year-old student, Galen Gibson, and wounded four others.
The Boston disaster appears to have been perpetrated by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a 19-year-old college student and his brother, Tamerlan, 26. The younger brother was shot in the throat and could not speak because of injuries to the tongue and it was unclear when he would be able to speak again or when he would be charged. Tamerlan died after a shootout with police.
Wondering how to process the shocking disaster, one can consider the way that Gregory Gibson, father of the murdered Simon’s Rock student, responded. He provides a positive role model.
Gregory Gibson set out on a “walkabout” for the next seven years in an attempt to make some sense of the tragedy. ”I had a story with characters and events but nothing connecting them,” he writes, and decided to “fill in the blanks.”
A “walkabout” is a temporary return to traditional Aboriginal life, taken especially between periods of work or residence in modern Australian society and usually involving a period of travel through the bush as a spiritual journey. It has come to mean a journey similar to a walkabout.
By so doing, he transformed his murderous rage into compassion for the murderer and his investigation kept him alive. It became, he wrote, “a single thread of purpose in my life. It had kept me from winding up in a detox ward, or from jumping off a bridge, or from shooting someone myself, while I healed.” Gibson writes:
My pursuit of vengeance had at its core those seemingly endless chains of causes that I had recognized immediately after Galen’s death. I should have understood that by initiating legal action against the college I was setting in motion yet another series of causes that would have their effect on my life. I should have understood that by investing myself so completely in the judicial system to further my vengeful aims, I had made myself a prisoner of that system. (p.58)
It took Gibson three years of walkabout from the time of his son’s death, December 14th, 1992, until he decided to write about it, and only in the summer of 1997 was his walkabout completed. The end of the journey followed a visit from the parents of the murderer during which Wayne Lo’s mother described a visit she had had with her incarcerated son. Sitting side by side with him in his jail cell, he would rock slowly back and forth, using the whole of his torso, from the hips up. She asked him, “Wayne, why do you do that?” and he replied, “Mom, lots of times people talk. They have nothing to say, they just need to talk. So I move like this because it looks like I listen to them, and then I don’t listen.”
The mother asked her son if he listened to her and he replied, “Sometimes,” so she said, “Well, you stop that, Wayne. You no need to move like that when I talk.” He stopped for a few minutes, and then resumed rocking. Hearing this account, Gibson realized Wayne Lo was the “gone-boy” whose rocking removed him from human contact, not his murdered son Galen who would always be with him. Gibson writes,
I began to realize that what I thought of as “the story” had in some way been completed by their visit to our house, and that the activity of gathering in the materials of this story, my “walkabout,” was also over…Lin and C. W. Lo [Wayne Lo’s parents] had elicited something in me. Maybe it was empathy or compassion, or maybe there was no precise word for it. Whatever it was, they had drawn it out, and it had repaired something deep in my being. The need that had driven me was satisfied.” (p. 261)
Perhaps the word for which Gibson searched is forgiveness
The etymology of forgiveness, from the Old English word, forgiefan (for + gifan, to give) reminds us of its therapeutic potential. When we forgive another by giving up resentment we give a gift—both to ourselves and to the other. Forgiveness, acknowledging yet moving past a transgression, may be contrasted with revenge which, as social critic Hannah Arndt writes, is “the automatic reaction to transgression.”
Because of “the irreversibility of the action process, its [negative] results can be expected and even calculated.” The consequences of forgiveness, on the other hand, are unpredictable. Arndt notes that forgiveness “is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way, and thus retains though being a reaction, something of the original character of the action.”
Although underused, forgiveness is a powerful therapeutic intervention in psychotherapy, for it is difficult to forgive someone who has harmed you in some way. Cognitive restructuring is necessary, as we see from Gibson’s account. The outraged uncle of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, when they were still at large, called on his nephew to surrender and to ask for forgiveness from the victims of Monday’s blast. “I say Dzhokhar, if you’re alive, turn yourself in and ask for forgiveness from the victims, from the injured.”
Would we be able to forgive Dzhokhar were he to seek forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the renunciation or cessation of resentment, indignation or anger as a result of a perceived offence, disagreement, or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution. It is not easy to let go of ill-will but it can be accomplished in four steps that are not necessarily linear.
1. Ventilate the emotion. There is a need to feel and express fully the affects that were evoked—in this case anger, fear, and shock. These may shared with a friend, therapist, in a journal, diary, or letter to the perpetrator that needn’t be sent.
2. Comprehension of the event. It is natural to ruminate after a shocking event but when one finds an explanation that makes sense, the “monkey-mind” tends to settle down. When I read that the mother of the Tsarnaev brothers had been caught shop lifting, that she considers that her sons have been framed, I am enables to move in a compassionate direction. I think that had I mother like that I might also have wound up explosively.
3. Restoration of safety. The person forgiving must feel the act will not recur. In this case, the death of one brother and removal of the other’s influence facilitates the restoration.
4. Letting go. Forgiveness is not condoning or minimizing what was done and does not require a physical “walkabout” but a cognitive restructuring, “a shift in thinking” so that the desire to get revenge or carry a grudge is replaced by the conscious decision to learn from the trauma, find constructive use for it, and move on in life in a more integrated fashion.
When I think of forgiveness I think of Nelson Mandela who said when leaving the prison in which he was incarcerated 27 years, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
A Buddhist proverb vividly expresses the principle: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
Article by Dr. Michael Sperber – Thrive Boston Psychiatrist Mike Sperber, MD was trained in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital where he is currently a psychiatric consultant. Dr. Sperber is also a renowned author in the field of psychiatry, his most recent book is based on excelling in life after a trauma.