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Recently I went into our local Rite Aid in McLean, Virginia. As you might imagine, the place was packed with shoppers frantic to buy things and exit as quickly as possible. The check out line was long and ‘testy’, lots of impatient frustrated shoppers anxious to get on with their ‘to do’ lists a week before Christmas. And there in the midst of the hustle and bustle; stood Liz, the ever present Rite Aid check out clerk. As each frustrated and impatient customer came under her gaze, something quite extraordinary occurred. Liz lovingly told each of us quite personally that she was so very sorry that we had to wait. Several simple words and yet they possessed a power that was jarring. Remarkably, each customer visibly changed when their crankiness met with her quiet plea for forgiveness. To experience the force of forgiveness and observe its effect is quite something. It is the exact opposite of what we are schooled to do and be in life… strong, seldom vulnerable, not admitting mistakes, and fearful that others might detect our humanity and uncertainty.
It requires vulnerability and interior self assuredness to ask forgiveness. The object of your request for forgiveness just might say no. (Forgive me Nancy Reagan!)
Today I’m pondering the hymn written by John Newton in 1779 in London. Newton, as you will recall, was an 18th century slave trader and rebel who started his rebellion at the ripe age of 10, running away from a military school. In his own hand, he said this about himself, “ By and by, through a process of time, I slowly gave over to the devil. And I determined that I would sin without restraint, the righteous lamp of my life had gone out…but my spirit would not break, and I became increasingly a rebel and common criminal…I was the epitome of the degenerate man.” And then, at the end of his tether, in the bowels of a slave ship where he was chained, starving and delusional, he cried out to God. The rest is history with his tombstone reading: Born 1725, died 1807. A clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves…restored and pardoned…to the faith he once long labored to destroy.”
The most ubiquitous and powerful anthem of all time, Amazing Grace, written by Newton, speaks to the profound sense of forgiveness experienced by this former slave trader. “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” Such a sense of forgiveness and release not only transformed and freed a life, but transformed his times by participating in the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.
Forgiveness is transformational when given or received. It changes everything.
As I am writing this musing, my cell phone rang. It was a former colleague from Goldman Sachs. A huge talent with a large personality. I was surprised by his random call but more surprised by the message he delivered today. “I am calling to apologize.” He went on from there, to share some personal thoughts. But imagine my shock. So rare that someone would humble themselves and make such a call. Crazy. Remember, I am writing about forgiveness and out of the blue comes this call asking for forgiveness. At the conclusion of this rather remarkable call, he wanted assurance from me. “So, you forgive me?” “Of course,” I instantly replied. So is this man on a short list of people who actually apply their personal faith to real life? Absolutely–and how novel. I was stunned and so grateful. He has inspired me to look within and ponder who I need to reach out to in such humility. And the crazy thing is this, we all fear that if we show weakness, and admit the obvious, others will recoil and reject us. Yet quite the opposite is true. My admiration for this man soared.
I am convinced that we cannot ask for forgiveness or forgive unless we know that we ourselves are forgiven. The Apostle Paul said it this way, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Simply put, I only can give what I have received. Forgiven people forgive.
America is a nation of second chances. In some measure this can be attributed to the important role that faith has played in the shaping of this unique nation. So many who came to our shores as immigrants in the earliest day were released from debtor’s prison or were persecuted for religious beliefs. They needed a new gig. Very unusual that woven into the fabric of our culture is this imperative to be gracious and give others a ‘second chance’. When the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was released from prison, the overwhelming majority of Americans truly wanted him to succeed after his release. Even the president called the Eagles owner thanking him for giving Vick another act. The owner, Jeffrey Lurie, said he was “happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.”
Years ago, one of my mentors, a federal bankruptcy judge spoke in an eastern European country about U.S. bankruptcy law. Like many other countries, this nation was extremely punitive when it came to business failures. To make his point that American law gave second chances, he placed a Hershey chocolate kiss on the desk of each member of parliament prior to his remarks to them. When it was time for Judge Bostetter to speak, he mentioned the chocolate kisses and pointed out that without the ability to declare bankruptcy and start over after a failed business venture, Milton Hershey could never have built his chocolate empire. This new start for Hershey enabled him to fund an orphanage and many other worthy causes that changed countless lives for the better.
We all need forgiveness, a fresh start, a second chance.
As we are approaching year end, perhaps it is time to reach out to someone who has disappointed or hurt you. a former friend, family member, a colleague, a child or spouse. Life is short.
I’m making a list and checking it twice.
J. Douglas Holladay, Founder, PathNorth, serving as a resource for business leaders to bring meaning and fresh perspective to both work and life.