What if your superpower was forgiveness?
I recently met a remarkable man. At 86 years old, Manfred Lindenbaum is still hiking up mountains (I made his acquaintance on the trail, in fact) and riding his bicycle to raise money for various causes. But this is only a very small piece of what makes this man so inspiring to me.
In 1932, when Manfred was just 5 years old, the Nazis knocked on the door of his family's home and told his parents that, as Jews, they were no longer welcome in Germany. A train was waiting to take them east, to the Polish border, where he would be separated from the rest of his family -- his mother and father, his sister, his grandparents -- whom he would never see again.
He and his older brother, Siegfried, with the help of a Jewish relief organization called HIAS, were put on a Kindertransport boat to England and eventually made it to the United States.
The young Manfred became an angry adolescent, bouncing around from foster home to foster home. He lost track of his brother, who had to spend months in the hospital recuperating from the deprivation he suffered as a refugee. It would be several years before they would be reunited again.
As I listened to the 86 year old Manfred recount the harrowing details of his early life I had trouble reconciling the horror he lived through with his current disposition: open, optimistic, full of life and love. He seemed to harbor no anger for what had happened to him and his family.
When I was able to spend a couple minutes alone with Manfred I thanked him for persisting in sharing his story. There aren't many Holocaust survivors left, and many of them don't want to talk about what happened to them and their families over 70 years ago (Manfred chose not to talk about it either until he was a middle-aged man). I wanted him to know how important it was for people like him to keep this tragic history alive lest we once again watch as our fellow human beings sink into tribalism and barbarity.
But what I really wanted to know was how he was able to forgive and how long it took him. I wanted to know how he was able to move on after having his entire world ripped away from him as a 5 year old boy. I wanted to know how it was possible for him to pick himself up and live a more or less normal life after his first life ended before it really even began.
It took him decades, he told me. He was in his 40s, working for relief organizations, and would meet young German volunteers, men and woman who carried the guilt and shame of their parents' transgressions against humanity (Jews weren't the only ones who were murdered by the Nazis). He saw their pain and felt a kinship; the wounds that their souls had endured -- very different from his own -- were nevertheless very real and very painful. These young people willingly embraced the burden of atoning for their ancestors' sins. How could he possibly hold a grudge against them? So he forgave.
This put me a reflective mood for days afterward. Could I forgive had the same thing happened to me? Could I carry on and have a normal life after nearly my entire family had been murdered? Could I go even further, and embody openness, humility and generosity of spirit while in service to others, as Manfred has?
Then I started thinking about the many things -- the petty transgressions that turned into resentments, which morphed, over time, into ancient grudges -- that I've carried around with me, sometimes for years, decades even. Why did I let them sour my mood, weigh me down and hold back my growth for so long?
And though I'm better now, quicker to forgive, it's a work in progress. I have to remind myself to forgive by practicing gratitude for those things that frustrate and disappoint me, for they are my teachers. They're here to shape me, to give me something to rub up against, to hone my character.
If I'm a better person for having gone through the trials I've endured and survived -- illness, heartbreak, loss -- then I should be thankful that those things have happened to me, no matter how painful. If everything is a test designed to steer me in the direction of growth and wisdom then what is there to be resentful of? Instead of needing to forgive I should be giving thanks that those things have seen fit to visit me to help me grow.
There's really no other sustainable alternative that doesn't lead to misery and suffering. It's far easier to forgive then to try to change someone or something that isn't aligning with your needs, especially the past. Though we would all understand had he lost himself to hatred and grief, Manfred Lindenbaum found his way to forgiveness so he could live the rest of his life.
Who do you need to forgive?
What resentments are you carrying around with you because they fit your story about yourself and your place in the world (as a victim, as powerless)?
Could you learn to forgive? Could you see your way to letting go?
Could you go even further, beyond the need to forgive, and find gratitude for this opportunity to grow?
What is holding you back from living your life without resentments or grudges?
Manfred Lindenbaum was able to forgive. Can you?