Forgiving someone for kidnapping you at gunpoint requires a Gandhi-sized pill of compassion, and most of us do not have this depth of empathy. Last week my family member—let’s call him John—made the worst mistake of his life by second-guessing himself. His mistake serves as a prescient reminder of how quickly the tectonic plates of life can shift under your feet and forever change the landscape of reality as we know it.
Have you ever wondered what drives people? By understanding human needs we can interpret human behavior. Depending on which source you turn to, human needs may range from about five needs to more than a dozen needs, or some 89 needs in total. These are often structured as a hierarchy, but can also be seen as oscillating. Max Neef developed a model that has 9 needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. These needs have been found to transcend cultures and history. However, the way in which these needs are met has evolved and changed. So much of what we do and say is governed by our drive to meet our needs.
On August 5th, John was traveling to Stuart, Florida, to join his family for a summer holiday when he stopped at the first gas station from his exit. A fairly clean-cut and well-spoken man in his thirties approached him with a gas can explaining his car ran out of gas on I-95. Could he please get a ride?
What would you do in such a situation? John told the man he could not help him, as he had been on the road a long time and his family was expecting him. The guy walked away to stand on the corner with his gas can, and that is when the fault lines began to shift. This is where he made the worst mistake of his life by second guessing himself. I can only assume what went through John’s mind. “Am I being prejudiced? What if I were in his situation? It is just a few minutes out of my way to help a guy down on his luck.” John confessed he felt sorry for the guy and after filling up his car John changed his mind by offering him a ride to his car.
He asked John to get onto I-95 and after a few minutes, a semi-automatic handgun was pulled from a plastic bag and pointed at John’s abdomen. “Sorry, but this ain’t about you. You do what I say and I’ll let you go and you will see your family again.”
John pleaded that the man take his car, credit cards, and wallet if John could just pull over and get out. The gunman ignored the requests. He asked for John’s name, bank, birthday, and iPhone password. He said they would go to a branch of his bank. John drove as this man went through his iPhone. He followed the man’s directions but knew he would have to choose between fight or flight.
I am reminded of the poem “Design” by Robert Frost as I try to understand what was driving the decisions of each of these individuals and how their paths crossed. In the poem, the narrator observes that a white spider and a white moth each choose to go to the same white flower for different reasons. The spider seeks safety and a jump on his prey. The moth seeks to blend in on the white heal-all. The poem concludes when the spider makes a meal of the moth. The narrator asks, what had the flower, the moth, and the spider to do with being white? What drove them there in the night, if anything at all? What had brought the good Samaritan and the con man (gunman, and possibly a killer) together, if anything at all?
After twenty-nine minutes with a gun on him, John was instructed to get off on Okeechobee which signaled that this ride was coming to an end. Fortunately, they had a red arrow at Okeechobee Blvd and Parkway/Peters Road. As they slowed down the gunman looked out the passenger window to check his surroundings. That is when John dived from his moving car, hit the ground, jumped up and started running. His car was still in drive so it collided with the car in front. This motorist never stopped to examine damage to the car likely out of fear upon seeing a man jump from a moving car.
John looked over his shoulder to see the gunman yelling something and now standing at the driver’s side. When he got to a place of relative safety he called the police. Unfortunately for John, this would only be the start of his trying time.
If the start of this was nearly unbelievable what follows is incredible. The police suggest that this entire story is made up and would like to know, “what really happened.”
John decided to advocate for himself and in less than 24 hours went back to the scene to search for cameras, look for his car, and look for the individual who did this to him. To his disbelief, he got a ping from his iPad that was with his stolen car. John called the police and after an hour of waiting he gives the officers the address from the GPS of his iPad. The officers reported that the car was not seen and left it at that. John drove to the GPS location to have his own look. One street over from the iPad location he found a car that matched his make and model one residence immediately behind the address sent from Apple. John drove by slowly to verify the license plate when just at that moment his former captor, the person with the con-story who held a gun to his abdomen, walks into the street to get a closer look at John in his mom’s car.
Life presents John a choice. Understandable thoughts cross John’s mind. Shall I run this person over who threatened my life, stole my car, wanted me to empty out my ATM? Besides, he ruined a perfectly good family holiday! Can I meet this person with an equal amount of disregard for human worth as he has shown to me? Will I be able to accept my choice and the gravity of the consequences?
Violence can be seen as the language of unmet needs. Violence is the outcome of a person’s inability to identify truly and deeply what he/she needs along with an inability to communicate those needs, in which case violence in the heart takes over and manifests itself in harm, ill will, hurt and pain towards others. Nonviolence, on the other hand, is the natural state of compassion. When we work to listen to our needs and the needs of others through an emphasis on deep listening, we discover the depth of our own compassion. This language reveals the awareness that all human beings are only trying to honor universal values and needs, every minute of every day.
John chose not to run this man over, although I cannot say for sure it was the path of nonviolence, the path of compassion. However, John was deeply aware of his own needs, which included being whole and having justice.
He chose to drive by him, call the police, and in a barely controlled voice tell them, “I’m the guy that got kidnapped at gunpoint, car jacked, and jumped out of my car in an intersection to escape yesterday. I’ve found my car and the person who did it. I think you better get over here soon.”
The police questioned the suspect who claimed he had never seen that stolen car before. Things would not go quite how John would have liked. The police would not search the house; therefore a gun was not looked for or found. The keys were not on the suspect so the car would have to be towed. Several papers that have personal identification information were no longer in the car and conceivably with the suspect. The suspect was arrested and charged with grand theft auto, but nothing else and released five hours later. Also, John was called down to the police station to be questioned because the new narrative was that John was trying to buy crack-cocaine. The police seemed unmotivated to pursue this case further because of this new ‘revelation.’ John, in absolute disbelief, pointed out that he was an attorney, a member of the Florida Bar, and a marathon runner. He did a half marathon every day in May and ran 18 miles on the morning of the incident.
He suggested to the detective it was unlikely he ran 18 miles that morning then decided to celebrate with some crack-cocaine before joining his family at the timeshare.
John will have to put this all behind him. He will have to accept that systems are not perfect, and people turn to violence when they have unmet needs, an inability to communicate their needs, and threaten others instead of making reasonable requests.
If John cannot find forgiveness for his transgressor, he will be bogged down by anger and resentment. His health will deteriorate and this experience could begin affecting his loved ones.
I’m sure that John will indeed forgive and move forward in a manner that is both gentle and magnanimous.
These are my thoughts on ways to forgive transgressors in our lives so that we too can move forward with compassion for people who have unmet needs.
- Recall that all any one is ever saying is please and thank you. This person was saying, “Please give me some money.”
- People are more likely to meet your “please” if you make a request rather than a demand. John had a negative reaction to the demand of “give me your money” and chose not to fulfill the need.
- Train yourself to look past words and actions to see the human need driving the behavior. John may have given this man money if the man said, “Can you please give me $50 to help my child who has asthma and is in desperate need of an inhaler?”
- Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. We are not perfect so forgive yourself as you learn to hear needs.
In this manner, we will as a human race begin to eliminate the language of blame, judgment, and domination while we absolve our hearts of the want for violence against our fellow man, our neighbors, our coworkers, and our family.