2016 Books For A Better Life Award winner
When Megan Feldman Bettencourt found herself embittered after a breakup and a string of professional setbacks, she met an extraordinary man named Azim. Azim had forgiven the man who killed his beloved only son, and even reached out to the killer’s family. He truly seemed to be at peace.
As a veteran journalist, Megan recognized it for the amazing story it was. But as a self-admitted grudge-holder, she was perplexed. Was there something wrong with him, or was there something wrong with her? She wondered about our ability to forgive—why we have it at all, why we do it, and whether it can help us.
Triumph of the Heart is the story of Megan’s quest to understand this complex concept, from both a scientific perspective and a human one. She draws on cutting-edge research showing that forgiveness can provide a range of health benefits, from relieving depression to decreasing high blood pressure. She examines situations as mundane as road rage, as painful as cheating spouses, and as unthinkable as war crimes. Through stories of people and even communities who have forgiven in the toughest of circumstances, she shows us how they’re able to do it, the profound sense of freedom they feel afterward, and the evocative implications for peacemaking worldwide.
This journey takes Megan from recovered addicts who restarted their lives by seeking forgiveness, to a Baltimore principal who used forgiveness techniques to eradicate violence in her school, to genocide survivors in Rwanda who forgave the people who killed their families and perpetrators who are still trying to redeem themselves.
Along the way, Megan strengthens her own powers of forgiveness, altering her life in ways she never expected. With grace and compassion, she reveals that our human capacity for forgiveness not only makes us healthier and happier, but is the key to healing, growing, and living well.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Megan Feldman Bettencourt is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in magazines such as Glamour, Details, and Southwest: The Magazine, and in newspapers including Newsday and the Dallas Observer.
She began her career as a Central America-based freelancer and holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She lives in Denver with her husband and son.
Read an Excerpt
How I Reluctantly Discovered Forgiveness and Why I Set Out to Explore It
In early 2012, I found myself writing a magazine story about a remarkable man. Seventeen years earlier, Azim Khamisa was working as an international investment banker based in San Diego when his only son, a college student working a pizza delivery job, was shot to death by an aspiring teenaged gang member. Azim’s response shocked everyone, from the prosecutor in the murder case to local crime reporters: He forgave the killer. He reached out to the killer’s family. He befriended the killer’s grandfather. And then, together, these two unlikely friends launched an organization that teaches nonviolence in public middle schools. I learned about Azim through a mutual friend who had attended one of his speaking engagements, and my interest was piqued.
I wanted to know why he forgave. I wanted to know how. And I wanted to know what it meant—for him, for me, for all of us. I was intrigued, if more than a little unsettled, for reasons I couldn’t quite identify.
Forgiveness had never been my forte, nor my aspiration. If I thought of forgiveness at all, I did so with disdain, as something weak and almost pathetic. When I was two, my mother took me to the neighborhood pool. As she grabbed one of my chubby arms and led me toward the water, a middle-aged woman stopped us. “She is so cute!” the woman said to my mother, bending toward me with a smile. Before anyone could say or do anything, I kicked the unsuspecting stranger hard in the shin. The woman recoiled and rubbed her leg. My mother, horrified, apologized and ushered me away. When she demanded an explanation, I narrowed my eyes and stuck out my chin. “I’m not cute,” I said. “I hate cute.” Cute was for babies and docile animals. I wanted to be fierce. I wanted to be strong and smart, someone to be taken seriously. As I grew older, the idea of being forgiving seemed just as embarrassing to me as being cute did on the day I rewarded a stranger’s compliment with a merciless kick.
Growing up, the more I learned about the world’s injustices, the angrier I became. I was angry about the Holocaust (one of my favorite books was I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a compilation of art and poems by Jewish children interned at Terezin), I was angry about the U.S. genocide against the Native Americans, and I was angry that some people were reduced to sleeping on the streets and scrounging for food in dumpsters. My outrage over these injustices was linked to the fact that I seemed to feel everything—particularly the suffering I saw around me—so deeply. I remember learning about the gas chambers at Auschwitz in a middle school class. I was so devastated after the documentary we watched that I could barely speak at recess, and I was horrified—and yes, angry—to see my friends playing tag and telling stories, as if nothing had happened. I felt like I’d just discovered that the world was actually hell, and my friends were carrying on as if no one let them in on the secret. My mother, meanwhile, was a psychologist specializing in treating trauma, and I gleaned tidbits about her patients’ lives. They’d been beaten by mothers, raped by fathers, stalked and nearly killed by strangers or colleagues. At one point, on the eve of middle school, misfortune struck even closer to home.
One afternoon, my best friend’s father was late to pick her up from school. The next morning, my mother sat on my bed to wake me. A knockout who was normally perfectly put together, Mom’s eyes were red and nearly hidden by great, swollen folds of skin. Through tears, she told me that my friend’s father had killed himself, and her mother found his body. We jumped in our car and drove to their house. All I remember is the five of us—my mother and me, and my best friend, her older sister, and their mother— holding each other under a big elm in their backyard. Their family moved away that summer. I began sixth grade alone at a new school that my bestie and I had planned to attend together. At night, I filled my pink, heart-covered diary with sad, lonely entries.
When my English teacher assigned a personal essay, I wrote about what happened. I was amazed at how cathartic it was, how I felt I’d somehow made sense of something senseless, and in the process, purged some of the haunting feelings that kept me awake at night. My teacher read that essay aloud to every single one of his English classes. Peers I’d never even met approached me in the halls to say how the piece moved them. Some confided that they, too, had experienced puzzling tragedies in their young lives, and that they related to what I’d written. Unwittingly, I had stumbled upon something that helped me understand—or at least express my feelings about—pain and suffering, something that could perhaps also help others.
It was my outrage over injustice and pain, as well as my fascination with the ways in which people overcame tragedy, that led me to journalism. I focused on stories about suffering and triumph: addicts finding unique ways to recover, fathers fighting unjust paternity laws, war widows launching support groups for other grieving loved ones, and Central American migrants fleeing poverty and violence to ride freight trains fifteen hundred miles to the U.S. border. In my twenties, I spent almost two years living in Guatemala and reporting on the ways people were trying to remake their lives after a thirty-six-year civil war.
By the time I met Azim, my penchant for indignant anger and even blame hadn’t faded. In fact, I was more pissed off than ever.
At thirty-three, I was trying to earn a living as a freelancer in Denver, Colorado. While my friends were buying houses and getting married, I was receiving rejections from editors and stocking my cupboards with beans and canned tuna fish. I’d arrived in Denver after working for several years for a newspaper in Dallas. While I enjoyed the job, I grew up in the Mountain West, a devotee of forests and ski trails and alpine streams, and I felt like a dying aspen tree amid Dallas’s concrete and shopping malls. By 2010, most journalism jobs had dried up, which fueled my general bitterness. Unable to imagine staying in Texas any longer, I made the impulsive decision to move back to Colorado and try my luck freelancing. I published some well-received magazine feature articles, moonlighted as a part-time professor, and launched a new Web site with a professional head shot and a respectable portfolio. But I was also accruing credit card debt and borrowing money from my parents, which I considered a blazing sign of failure, and most of my story ideas were rejected with notes like, This sounds like a powerful story, Megan, but we’re going to pass. If you want to find out just how angry and disillusioned you can get, try a career like acting or writing that has you squaring off against rejection at every turn. You’ll quickly plumb the depths of your capacity for discomfort.
In the winter of 2011, after months of rejection notes, I was finally assigned a profile of an outdoorsy software engineer who created skiing apps, but the assignment evaporated when a larger company bought the engineer’s firm and said they didn’t want to be featured in a publication alongside ads for local head shops. Probably because it was a near-success after traversing what felt like a desert of failure, it undid me. I broke down on the floor of my apartment, sobbing into the carpet next to my bed.
I felt ridiculous. My father, a physician, and my mother, a psychologist, had worked their entire lives, doing what they loved and providing me and my sister with a comfortable life and myriad opportunities. They’d given me everything, and here I was, floundering. The shame. I blamed myself for choosing so fickle a profession and for not being great enough at it to make more money. I blamed editors for not assigning stories or for failing to hire me. I even blamed my parents, for “letting” me pursue such an unstable profession. Even as I told myself to get up and get over it, I became immobilized by the racked sobs of a hyperventilating toddler throwing a tantrum. I spotted a stack of magazines nearby and snatched one. Without thinking, I ripped it up. I did the same with the rest, tearing them up one by one. I found the methodical ripping somewhat comforting. When they were gone, I lay, quiet and spent, in the sea of shredded paper.
Since such moments always seem to come in twos or threes, my relationship with the man I was dating soon unraveled in spectacular—and dramatically public—fashion. Instead of the private fight that heralds most breakups, this death knell tolled in the form of an improv show called Blind Date.
We were there with two other couples. There was my longtime friend Lara, a tall strawberry blond attorney whose sunny disposition makes her seem an unlikely prosecutor; my friend Rachael, a pilot and former model; and their boyfriends. When we walked into the bar outside the theater, the improv star was working the crowd. She would choose a man from the audience to play her date onstage—for a whopping ninety minutes. Lara and Rachael’s boyfriends defined their strategies quickly: They would be quiet and nonresponsive, rude even, to avoid getting picked. My boyfriend didn’t take that route. No, when the actress turned to him, he continued to be his friendly, warm social self.
Her character name was Mimi, and her buxom figure was clothed in a tight red dress that emphasized her cleavage in a classic, decidedly non-trashy way. Speaking with a French accent, she introduced herself. Then she asked how long we’d been dating (ten months) and how we’d met (mutual friends). Mike returned her smile and shook her hand, and as the bar announced last call, the three of us chatted amiably. As we made our way into the darkened theater, Mimi asked if I would be okay with her choosing Mike as her date. “Sure,” I said. Sure, as if she were asking me if I take sugar with my tea. If it was a strange situation in which to find myself, I didn’t let on. I just flashed a steely smile and acted like it was the most normal thing in the world—just more amusing—for a sexy, flirtatious actress with a tight dress and a French accent to yank my boyfriend away for the evening.
Later, I would look back and wonder what the hell I had been thinking. Of course, I wasn’t thinking at all. I was reacting. And when it came to foreign or threatening situations, for as long as I could remember my reaction was to cling at all costs to the role of the Cool Girl, rolling with the punches, going with the flow, acting as if I could take it all in stride. Growing up skiing in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado, I knew that the moment you got scared and hesitated, you were liable to lose your balance and cartwheel into the air to land in a heap of wrecked bones and equipment. The way to traverse the rough patches was to grin and flex your muscles, to soldier through without letting on that that steep pitch was really freaking you out.
Of course, if I’d considered the analogy, I would have conceded that at a certain point, fear and the action it precipitates—say, roaring to a halt at the edge of a cliff—are lifesaving. But I didn’t. I responded to discomfort with a stiff smile, a laugh, or the occasional sarcastic zinger. Lascivious comments hurled by men twice my age received a half smile that said, “I heard you but I’m in no way affected by your idiocy.” The time my best friend and I rolled a car going eighty miles per hour and miraculously emerged with minor scrapes, I transformed into a congenial, plastic-faced talk show host on fast-forward, chirpily questioning the EMTs about their jobs and kids and hometowns as if I spent all of my days chatting with strangers while strapped to a gurney in the back of a speeding ambulance.
So on that clear October night in 2011, as I took my seat in the theater and waited for my boyfriend to walk onstage with another woman in front of several hundred people, I stared straight ahead as my friends, on either side of me, cast questioning glances my way. I laughed. It’s fine. Life’s nothing if not an adventure, right?
The set was simple: a red-cloth-covered table set for two with a chandelier overhead. Mimi, in her formfitting scarlet dress and bright red lipstick, sat waiting. Mike stepped onto the stage. He mumbled an introduction, shook her hand, and sat down. Normally pale, he was now the color of a fluorescent glow-in-the-dark skeleton. Gone was his usual gregarious personality, his smiles and jokes. When vivacious Mimi asked him a series of get-to-know-you questions, he nearly whispered the answers. A pained silence settled over the crowd.
And then she asked the question.
“So, do you want kids?”
I felt an involuntary intake of breath, as if a ghost had jabbed me hard below the sternum. This was a point of contention. I’d always thought I wanted children, but as I advanced into my thirties and a decade of being single or in long-term relationships that didn’t stick stretched into fifteen years, I wondered if it was wise to want something that seemed so out of my control. Maybe I was mistaking the fear of running out of time for actual desire. And yet, his resistance deeply troubled me.
“I don’t think so,” he replied, still stiff and uneasy.
Every muscle in my body was suddenly on alert, coiled, tense. My jaw clamped as I gripped the sides of my chair.
Mimi looked surprised. “But how do you know for sure?” she asked.
“I don’t, but I’m leaning toward no.”
A tux-clad waiter appeared and took Mike’s order: whiskey on the rocks. He gulped it down and ordered another. This time the waiter returned with an entire bottle of Jack Daniels. As Mike drank, that wooden board of a man none of those in our group recognized loosened up and morphed back into the jovial guy we thought we knew. He even scored a few jokes. You could almost feel the audience breathing a collective sigh of relief.
Mimi invited him to her “flat,” and they mimed hopping into her car and driving across Paris, bouncing along in an imaginary vehicle rolling over imaginary cobblestones. Once they arrived—Mike taking large swigs from the bottle of liquor while seated in the imaginary car—they opened the pretend doors, climbed out, and sat down on an all-too-real velvet sofa on the edge of the stage. Mimi managed to extract from him the fact that he was a musician, and with the snap of the fingers she summoned her assistant. The actor who had played the waiter reappeared moments later, as if by magic, with a guitar. “Will you play me a song?” Mimi asked Mike, batting her eyelashes at him like a cartoon Bambi. He obliged, and as soon as he strummed the first few chords, my stomach churned. The guitar was badly out of tune, but I could hear well enough to identify the song as one he’d written after a breakup. Perfect. Now there were three people up there—him, a sultry French vamp, and an ex-girlfriend.
“Wow, you wrote that about a girl?” Mimi breathed, sidling closer to him on the sofa. Was it just me, or was the entire audience tense but pretending this was mildly entertaining? I could no longer tell where I ended and the rest of the crowd began. It felt like I was floating above the room, detached from my hammering heart, sliding up against the ceiling. Mimi leaned in for a kiss and Mike paused like a deer facing a pair of sun-sized headlights. Somewhere below me I heard my voice. “Bullshit!” I called, just as Mimi had instructed me to do if I felt overly uncomfortable. My voice rang through the darkened room, high and tinny, foreign, distorted.
Mimi addressed the audience and said she was pausing the skit. She looked out into the crowd and called to me from inside her spotlight bubble: “Megan, is it okay if we fast-forward to five years from now?” I nodded numbly.
The stage darkened and the lights came up to reveal a bedroom set. In this five-years-hence future, Mimi and Mike were married and shared a flat in Paris. Mike was a touring musician, and Mimi was . . . pregnant. Oh, dear God. She appeared on stage with a ball protruding from beneath her dress and waddled toward Mike. Wait a second. Wasn’t the first rule of improv that you empower whatever your partner comes up with? As in, if he says he’s a Purple People Eater or a pink elephant or a Maori warrior, you go right along with it and act as if he absolutely is that? And if he says he doesn’t want kids, you don’t emerge with a goddamned baby in your belly?
Mike, now dressed in a robe and clutching the half-empty bottle of Jack, wheeled to face her. He spotted the mound at her abdomen and his face turned to stone. “I told you on our first date that I didn’t want kids,” he said, his voice low, even, and cold as lead. “Remember?” The icy, razor-sharp resentment was as real as the bottle in his hand. Holy shit. I knew stay-at-home-daddy wasn’t on his bucket list, but where did Charles Manson come from?
“Well, yes,” Mimi stammered, taken aback but doing her best to remain the sweet, embattled French wife. “But then we got married, and, and now I’m pregnant . . .”
He cut her off, spitting out the words like bullets: “I’m gone all the time, the band isn’t doing great, and money’s tight. This is not good timing.”
While the face of me-sitting-in-the-audience formed a frozen mask, me-on-the-ceiling noticed that sounds became muted, the lights and faces shimmering into a jumble of shapes. Far away on the stage, Mimi and Mike continued their argument, as Mimi tried to make it funny and save the show. Audience members booed and some called Mike a jerk—mostly men, it sounded like.
Mimi mimicked labor, her already-huge doe eyes growing wider and her red lips forming a circle. She lay on the bed, the waiter/assistant appeared in scrubs, and Mike crouched at the side of the bed to feign the reluctantly helpful husband. Finally, to the soundtrack of the audience’s cries and strained laughter, a baby doll shot out from under Mimi’s dress. Mike caught it. Then he stood up, stepped toward the edge of the stage, and hurled it into the crowd.
Afterward, at the bar next door, Mike looked at me, drunken sadness and fear etched into his features. His thirty-one-year-old face looked about twelve. “Are you okay?” he said. “Do we have to talk about anything?”
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” I replied, alcohol and digestive juices sloshing together in my stomach.
But the next day didn’t improve matters. It just so happened that the Denver Post theater critic had chosen that evening to review the play. He described Mike as “a caveman who just kept blurting out creepy, date-killing kinds of remarks that, in 99 percent of cases, would result in slapped cheeks.” The play served as a giant cosmic megaphone, announcing what I’d feared but resisted acknowledging—that Mike and I weren’t compatible. And yet, in spite of the growing evidence and the radiating ball of anxiety in my chest, I tried to convince myself otherwise. That meant sticking around for a few more months, hoping something would change. Have you ever been craving something you can’t quite identify, and even though there’s nothing in the refrigerator that qualifies, you stand there, staring at the nearly empty shelves and waiting in vain for something delicious to materialize? It was like that. And then, the day before Valentine’s Day, we took a walk in the park near my apartment.
The snow was white as a bone left out in the desert, so bright it hurt my eyes even though I wore sunglasses. The midday sun wrapped its harsh glare around us. “I’m just not life-partner material,” he kept saying. Um, okay. But couldn’t he have said that before? But of course, he had. In spite of insisting on numerous occasions that he was ready and committed, in spite of telling me he thought I had some sort of gift of enlightenment because I made all of the people around me want to be better—including him—and calling me “Bee,” because he said I was sweet like honey and always busy—in spite of all of that, he’d been giving lightning-bright signals that he was, in fact, not at all committed to the future I wanted. (He basically resisted any discussion of the future.) The play was just the most recent and glaring of those signals. Yet I still refused to accept it.
I stopped. Turned to him in the snow that crunched under my running shoes. Took off my sunglasses. “If that’s true,” I said, “then I want you to tell me you’re not in love with me.”
He turned. Slowly took off his shades. “I’m not in love with you.”
“Then there’s nothing left to say.” I walked away, my shoes making tracks in the white dusting over the grass.
At first, I was angry and bitter because I felt misled. Later, though, I would realize that more than anything, I was angry at myself for ignoring what deep down I knew to be true and lying to myself about it. I once read that self-betrayal is the worst kind, and I would have to agree. The most humiliating part was that I’d done it so many times before—tried to force something to work when it just wasn’t right. There was Ollie, the Norwegian tennis player who stood me up for the senior prom, Chris, my college boyfriend who called me selfish because I didn’t pay for his cocktails, and Ricardo, a man I managed to fall in love with in my early twenties despite the fact that he was a decade my senior, with a pending divorce and two kids. There were guys whom I worked with and admired, generous, wonderful souls whom I tried to love in spite of scant physical attraction, and there was the one who drank too much and once became physically violent. Now, as I trudged through the snow back to my apartment, I felt as if I were accompanied by at least a dozen ghosts of boyfriends past, the infuriating reminders of failures and disappointments billowing around me like smoke.
There’s a story about a baboon that Charles Darwin chronicled in 1871, after hearing about it from the zoologist who witnessed it:
At the Cape of Good Hope an officer had often plagued a certain baboon, and the animal, seeing him approaching one Sunday for parade, poured water into a hole and hastily made some thick mud, which he skillfully dashed over the officer as he passed by, to the amusement of many bystanders. For long afterwards the baboon rejoiced and triumphed whenever he saw his victim. (!)
By 2012, I may have been intrigued by forgiveness, but my tendencies still ran more in the direction of that baboon. I would have loved nothing more than to throw a bucket of shit in my ex-boyfriend’s face, cackling with glee. I was angry at him. I was angry at myself. I was angry at the economy and the so-called death of journalism.
Sometimes it takes a powerful story to take you out of your own and set you on a new, better path. For me, that story was Azim Khamisa’s. If forgiveness helped him, could it help me and others? Was there any scientific evidence that actually showed that it improved health and happiness? I did a few Internet searches and found that over the past twenty years, multiple studies have shown that forgiveness can indeed improve physical and emotional well-being, and that it may even be a crucial survival skill developed throughout human evolution. Wanting to learn more, I embarked on an inward and outward adventure.
I decided to travel throughout the United States and even to the heart of Africa to explore a series of questions: Is forgiveness merely altruistic and self-sacrificial, or is it also motivated by self-interest? Is forgiveness possible after the most extreme of offenses, such as genocide? Is forgiveness natural, and does it provide health benefits? What are the roles, and the importance, of apology and redemption? How does forgiveness help sustain interpersonal relationships? Is forgiveness a onetime event, or a habit? And, if individuals can practice forgiveness, what about communities and even nations?
These questions led me to a series of people, from a burn surgeon in Louisiana to a recovering alcoholic in Arizona. I talked to scientists, therapists, and trauma survivors; I interviewed people about forgiving parents and sought the wisdom of happy couples on the role of forgiveness in romance. I observed programs that facilitate forgiveness in schools, including one that’s nearly eradicated fighting in a tough Baltimore neighborhood and another that mediates bullying in suburban New Jersey. In Rwanda, I met an extraordinary woman with one of the most moving tales of survival and triumph I have ever heard, and at a mountain summer camp in New Mexico, I watched as Israeli and Palestinian teens came together to confront the judgments they held of one another and the humanity they shared. I also attended a forgiveness ceremony, experimented with how forgiveness relates to mindfulness meditation, and mined my own past to make peace with a dark chapter.
This book is about the discoveries I made, the captivating people I met along the way, and how they changed my life. Throughout, I was constantly aware of the absurdity of comparing my own experiences to those of someone like Azim. How can you equate a breakup or professional struggle to the loss of a child? You can’t. Yet ultimately, I would conclude that in light of how Azim and the other extraordinary people in this book responded to tragedy—and the possibilities their responses have created—the rest of us have a moral obligation to examine their choices, reflect upon our own, and give forgiveness a try. Because, as I would discover, through developing our innate ability to seek and grant forgiveness, we can bolster our health and happiness, improve our relationships, and maybe even make the world a more peaceful place.
It turns out that forgiveness isn’t what I thought it was. Thank God.
The Heart of Darkness: How Two Lives Were Taken and Two Friends Were Made
On the morning of January 22, 1995, Azim Khamisa was standing in the kitchen of his La Jolla, California, townhouse in his nightshirt when his phone rang. He’d returned from a business trip to Mexico the night before and was enjoying a relaxing Sunday morning, sipping tea and looking out the window at the fountain in his courtyard as he answered the phone. The words sounded jumbled and incomprehensible: “Your son . . . shot . . . dead . . .”
He was sure it was a mistake. He hurried the detective off the phone and dialed twenty-year-old Tariq’s number, but there was no answer. He then called Tariq’s fiancée, Jennifer, and when she picked up the phone, she was crying so hard that she could barely speak. As he listened to her choking out the words to confirm the news, the truth suddenly registered throughout his body. Azim’s knees buckled. He fell backward, hitting his head on the refrigerator, and as the phone crashed to the floor, he was enveloped by a shattering, all-encompassing pain that he would forever describe as “a nuclear bomb detonating” in his heart.
Soon after, a close friend arrived to comfort him and they sat in a daze together at his dining room table. The artwork around them—a painting of an elephant called the Lone Tusker that reminded Azim of his native Kenya; another of a skier gliding down a snow-covered mountain that evoked memories of teaching Tariq to ski—suddenly seemed like artifacts from a past life. A detective came over and told him that witnesses reported four teens running from the car where Tariq, felled by a single bullet that tore through his heart and lungs, drowned in his own blood after a botched robbery. The police were still searching for the teenagers. After the investigator left, Azim’s friend shook his head. “I hope they find those bastards and fry them,” he said. He was thinking of his own son, who was twelve, and how he would feel if anyone harmed him.
Azim was slow to respond, but what he said was startling.
“I don’t feel that way,” he said. “There were victims at both ends of that gun.”
The words rolled out of his mouth and when he heard them, the meaning rang true. He felt they came from God.
The next morning, Ples Felix sat in his car outside a modest apartment building in the middle-class San Diego neighborhood of North Park, fifteen miles southeast of La Jolla. Minutes earlier, he’d called the police to report that his fourteen-year-old grandson, Tony Hicks, had run away and was holed up here, inside the apartment where the boy’s friend Hakeem lived with his mother. Before watching the officers disappear through the front door, Ples warned them that there were probably gang members inside. He didn’t know that the officers were pursuing his grandson for something exponentially more serious than merely running away.
Tony had recently stopped doing his homework and started ditching school. Ples, whom Tony called “Daddy,” had tried to talk sense into his grandson, but over the weekend he’d returned home to find the teenager gone. A brief note read, “Daddy, I love you. But I’ve run away.” By Monday, Ples had been able to track him to this apartment complex.
Now, as he sat across the street, Ples prayed things would go smoothly. Like many people from South Central Los Angeles, he’d grown up amid unsettling violence and hardship, and at age sixteen, he had fathered a child—his daughter, Loeta. When Loeta was sixteen, she gave birth to Tony, who spent his first eight years living in gang-ridden chaos, which included witnessing his favorite cousin being gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Loeta thought Tony would stand a better chance under the wing of his grandfather, so she shipped him off to the comparatively gentle environs of San Diego. With Ples’s guidance and structure, Tony went from well behind grade-level to earning Bs in school—until adolescence, when the rigid household rules began to grate and the approval of Tony’s homies took precedence over grades and family.
Ples’s prayers were interrupted when the San Diego PD reappeared. As an officer led Tony in cuffs to a police cruiser, Ples took one last look and drove to work.
That afternoon, he was sitting at his desk in downtown San Diego, where he worked as a city planner, when a homicide detective called. Tony wasn’t merely being held as a runaway; he was a prime suspect in a murder investigation. A tipster had led police to Tony and his friends, who apparently had dubbed themselves “The Black Mob.” The facts would soon fall into place: After fleeing his home on Saturday, Tony spent the day with Hakeem and the gang’s ringleader, Antoine “Q-Tip” Pittman, playing video games and smoking weed. Later that evening, they called in an order to a nearby pizzeria, with the intent to rob the deliveryman.
Tony, who’d been bestowed the nickname “Bone” by the group, slipped a stolen nine-millimeter semiautomatic handgun into his waistband and walked with Q-Tip and two other teen gang members to a Louisiana Street apartment complex, where the pizza was being delivered. When they arrived, Tariq Khamisa—a college student who’d recently taken a part-time job at DiMille’s Italian Restaurant to earn spending money—was leaving the building, still carrying the pizza. As the group demanded that Tariq hand over the pizza, Tony drew his gun. Tariq refused, and clambered into his white eighties-model Volkswagen.
“Bust him, Bone!” Q-Tip shouted, as Tariq attempted to pull away. Tony aimed and squeezed. The car rolled to a stop. The boys ran. As the blood drained from Tariq’s body, a father and grandfather were unknowingly being drawn into a future that they never could have imagined.
Azim and Ples, both in their late forties at the time, were unlikely ever to cross paths. Azim was the son of educated Persian merchants who settled in Kenya and practiced Sufi Islam, while Ples was born to a blue-collar black family in Los Angeles and raised Baptist. Azim studied in London and became an international investment banker; Ples studied in New York and became an urban planner.
Yet their lives show striking similarities: as a young man, Azim fled feared persecution in Kenya at the hands of the Idi Amin regime in neighboring Uganda, eventually settling in the United States; Ples left South Central LA by joining the United States Army and served two tours in Vietnam before forgoing a military career to attend college and pursue a civilian profession. Both men turned their backs on violence. On separate continents, they both learned to meditate—Azim from a Sufi friend in Africa, Ples from a monk in Vietnam—each making it a lifelong daily practice.
These similarities would enable both men to respond in extraordinary ways after Ples’s only grandson murdered Azim’s only son.
The day Azim and his family buried Tariq in Vancouver, where both sets of Tariq’s grandparents lived, it was cold and rainy. Azim chanted prayers in a mosque with hundreds of worshippers. In accordance with tradition, he climbed down into the grave, muddy from the rain, to receive his son’s body. A group of men lowered Tariq down, and Azim, rain pouring over his head, held his son for the last time, saying goodbye again and again.
In the weeks that followed, Azim contemplated suicide. Just months before, he’d been going from one international business trip to the next and working hundred-hour weeks; now he could barely rise from bed. Things like showering and eating lunch felt like enormous tasks. He couldn’t sleep, so he’d begun meditating for four hours a day instead of his usual one. On a chilly day three months after Tariq’s death, Azim drove to a cabin near California’s Mammoth Mountain. He hoped a few days away might help break the grief that seemed to be drowning him.
When he arrived he built a fire, and as he gazed into the flames memories began to surface: Tariq collecting stones at the beach; Tariq laughing at some clever joke, his joy contagious and in contrast with his father’s serious mien; Tariq asking for help balancing his checkbook. Azim had always loved numbers, acing accounting and preparing to run his father’s Peugeot dealership in his twenties. But Tariq had little interest in business; his real loves were music and art. Their differences caused friction, but the last time they saw each other, over breakfast at a popular San Diego spot called the Hob Nob, less than two weeks before the murder, they amiably traded stories about their divergent interests. Tariq said his recent trip to Kenya to visit family had strengthened his resolve to become a National Geographic photographer, and that he and his fiancée, Jennifer—both art majors at San Diego State—were considering moving to New York.
Mostly, in the quiet of the cabin, Azim felt sadness, but anger, too—anger that he wasn’t somehow able to protect Tariq; anger that his son had been killed over something as trivial as a pizza; anger, most pointedly, at his adopted country. How absurd that he’d left the chaos and violence of Africa only to see his son slain on the streets of America! While Azim had set the intention to forgive months earlier, merely setting that goal couldn’t replace the natural process of grieving. The intention to forgive, he was learning, was only the beginning. Amid his feelings of anger and devastation, Azim considered how, before Tariq died, news of shootings seemed faraway and inconsequential, but now he applied his business mind to sociology, obsessively studying the dire statistics of America’s street wars. His son and the boy who killed him were victims of something dark and sinister, a cycle of violence for which he felt every American—including himself—was responsible.
Maybe this was what that Sufi teacher had meant. Weeks before Azim undertook his mountain retreat, a family friend and spiritual guide had told him that a soul was earthbound for forty days before departing to a new level of consciousness. But the journey, he said, could be hindered by the unreconciled feelings of loved ones who remain behind.
“I recommend you break the paralysis of grief and find a good deed to do in Tariq’s name,” the teacher told him. “Compassionate acts undertaken in the name of the departed are spiritual currency, which will transfer to Tariq’s soul and help speed his journey.”
That was it. Azim wouldn’t just study violence, he would return to San Diego, consult the best minds he knew, and devise a plan to change the status quo. Somehow, he also knew that if he didn’t reach out to the killer’s family and forgive them—maybe even invite them to join his crusade—he’d forever be a victim of his anguish. When, at the end of the weekend on Mammoth Mountain, he drove back toward the California coast, it was with a renewed sense of purpose.
While attorneys argued over whether Tony would be tried as an adult (a new state law subjected fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds to full adult felony charges), Ples prayed for a way to help Tariq’s family. Then, one day he received a call from Tony’s attorney, who said that Azim wanted to meet him. The invitation came at a particularly emotionally wrenching time. Many North Park residents wanted Tony to receive the maximum penalty, and some, upon learning that the accused killer’s grandfather was managing a local redevelopment effort, demanded the city fire him from the project. The mayor refused, but the verbal attacks, coupled with a probable life sentence for Tony, had taken a toll.
Ples wore a suit and tie on the day he met Azim at Tony’s attorney’s office. Azim arrived with prosecutor Peter Deddeh, who made the initial introduction. Ples had anticipated this moment for months. As he shook Azim’s hand he said, “If there’s anything I can do to be a support to you and your family, please call on me.” He added that Azim had been in his daily prayers and meditations.
Ples’s mention of meditation struck Azim as fortuitous, and he immediately felt close to this man. “We both lost a child,” he told Ples. Then he explained that he was launching the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, founded with the goal of preventing children from committing senseless violent crimes. He even invited Ples to attend upcoming meetings about the organization. Ples felt a weight start to lift.
A week later, Azim held one of the foundation’s first meetings at his townhouse. His parents had come in from Vancouver for the occasion. Also there were his ex-wife, Almas, and their daughter, Tariq’s sister, Tasreen. Ples imagined the grief he would walk into at that meeting, and prepared with more meditation than usual.
Inside, some fifty people were gathered, and Azim introduced Ples to his parents. His father was frail, but fixed Ples with a clear, steady gaze, accepting his condolences and placing a hand on his arm in welcome. Azim’s mother, a devout woman who for decades served tea daily during four a.m. prayers at her local mosque, said, “We’re glad you are with us.” Almas, Tariq’s mother, took Ples’s hand, and as he looked into her eyes he could feel her trembling. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” Ples said, feeling deep, heavy sadness and the sense that any words he might say were about as impactful as a few minuscule water droplets flung onto a raging fire. “I’ve been praying for your family.”
When he was invited to speak to the group en masse, Ples glanced at some notes he’d made, then folded and returned them to his pocket. Looking around, he saw people of all ages—Azim’s friends, colleagues, neighbors. He began by expressing his condolences for the loss of Tariq. He was unspeakably sorry that his grandson had been involved, he said, and thanked Azim for reaching out to him and inviting him to this meeting. As those gathered in the living room listened in silence, Ples said he was determined to help prevent the type of violence that claimed Tariq’s life and landed Tony in jail. He was committed, he told them, to “support anything that promotes the precious value of our future: our children.”
Unlike most victims’ families, who track a case’s every twist in pursuit of justice, Azim told the prosecuting attorney that he preferred to leave the legal maneuvering to the state and focus on violence prevention. Today, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation teaches the virtues of nonviolence to middle-schoolers in San Diego and young people nationwide. TKF raises $1.5 million annually for educational, mentoring, and community service programs that target at-risk youth. The centerpiece of the program features Azim and his surprise ally, Ples, sharing their story at school assemblies. Educators who have opened their doors to the duo say gang activity and discipline problems have dipped as a result. TKF has reached nearly one million kids in San Diego County through live presentations, plus another eight million through Azim and Ples’s visits to schools in Canada, Europe, and Australia, and broadcasts on Channel One News (broadcast in schools throughout the United States).
After launching TKF, Azim partnered with an Ohio-based nonprofit called the National Youth Advocate Program to create Constant and Never Ending Improvement, or CANEI, a program that teaches nonviolence and personal responsibility to young offenders and their families. As of this writing, it operates in seven cities. The concept of forgiveness is key to both programs, and in addition to lecturing on the topic in cities around the world, Azim leads two-day workshops for individuals, therapists, and community groups entitled “Forgiveness: The Crown Jewel of Personal Freedom.”
While Azim was laying the foundations for those programs, Tony’s case plodded forward. In May 1995, a judge ruled that Tony, then fifteen, would be tried as an adult. Tony’s attorney notified Ples and asked if he would talk to his grandson. While in custody, Tony was still posturing as street tough (during interrogations he’d referred to Tariq as a “stupid pizza man” who should have just handed over the food), which wouldn’t serve him well in court. He faced twenty-five years to life if, in advance of a trial, he pled guilty to first-degree murder, or forty-five years to life if he chose the trial route.
At juvenile hall, Tony sat sullenly, silent in a blue jumpsuit while his attorney laid out his options. The lawyer then left grandson and grandfather alone, and Tony’s hard exterior softened as Ples began to talk to him. He reminded the teenager of the pain Azim and his family endured as they faced this unforeseen world that no longer included their beloved son. He reminded Tony that in spite of this pain, Azim had managed to forgive him. He emphasized that just as Azim’s life would never be the same since Tariq died, so Tony’s life was also forever changed, and Azim felt sad about that. As Tony listened in silence, Ples handed him an orange.
The boy soon began to cry—maybe because this reminded him of his grandfather’s ritual of talking while they shared some fruit, or perhaps because the gravity of his predicament had finally hit him. As if he were suddenly five again, he jumped into Ples’s lap. “Daddy, I’m so sorry for what I did,” he sobbed. “I never wanted to hurt anybody, I was just angry, stupid.” He grew quiet after a moment and returned to his seat. He took the orange, peeled it, and gave half to his grandfather. Then, his body trembling, he seemed to momentarily shrug off his childlike personality and calmly spoke like a man twice his age: “I have to take responsibility for what I did.”
Tony, the first juvenile to be prosecuted as an adult in California, took a plea bargain and was sentenced to twenty-five years to life. He won’t be eligible for parole until at least 2020.
The Sufi poet Rumi is one of Azim’s favorite writers, and in those first years after Tariq’s death, one line often thundered through his mind: “The cure for the pain is the pain.” Even as he spent his days meditating and building the foundation’s programs with his daughter, Tasreen, who became TKF’s executive director, he operated under a shroud of profound sadness. It permeated every waking moment, and most sleeping ones. How could he feel joy when Tariq was dead? It was impossible. And yet, one evening while out with friends, nearly four years after the murder, someone told a joke and he found himself laughing—for the first time since Tariq’s death.
In the spring of 2000, five years after the crime, Azim traveled to California State Prison near Sacramento for his first one-on-one encounter with Tony. He had spent countless hours meditating in preparation, but as he made his way through the prison’s maze of dim hallways and high walls topped with barbed wire, his heart pounded. He wondered how he would react to meeting his son’s killer, and thought about how cold and inhuman the prison felt. When he reached the visiting area, Ples was there to greet him, with Tony by his side. Azim shook the young man’s hand and looked into his eyes. The three of them made small talk about prison life and shared some candy, then Ples left them alone.
Tony was fidgety at first but grew more composed as they began to talk. He struck Azim as much more polite and well-spoken than he had expected. Tony told him that he was sorry for shooting Tariq and for causing Azim and his family so much pain. He said he had a lot of problems in his life, but that was no excuse for what he did. He said he should have listened to his grandfather, and he was sorry he didn’t. Could Azim ever forgive him? Azim replied that he forgave him with his whole heart. Then he told Tony that he wanted to hear about Tariq’s last moments. Tony said he didn’t recall Tariq saying anything. He described the scene and Q-Tip’s order to shoot. And then he said something strange. He said that as he squeezed the trigger, he saw a bright white light that came from the sky and illuminated only him and Tariq. He described it like a massive spotlight. Combined with the coroner’s description of the unlikely “perfect path” the single bullet took through Tariq’s vitals, this luminous vision reinforced Azim’s conviction that his son’s death was destiny and should serve a larger purpose.
Azim told Tony that he looked forward to his release from prison, expressed his hope that he would join Ples and him at the foundation, and hugged him goodbye.
Within a few months, Azim and Tony began writing to each other. Azim keeps their letters in a thick folder in his home office, where the walls are covered with framed photos (Tasreen’s wedding, Tariq on the African savannah) and award certificates, including the California Peace Prize and the National Crime Victims Special Community Service Award, presented to him by President Bill Clinton.
Azim’s letters are typed on his computer; Tony’s are written in looping cursive. Their correspondence touches on books, health, and family, with Azim commending Tony for completing his GED and starting college courses, and Tony wishing Azim a happy Father’s Day and congratulating him on becoming a grandfather. In one letter, Tony thanks Azim for keeping him informed about “the great work that you and my grandfather have turned this around to be.” In another, he describes Azim’s forgiveness as “a shock” that goes “against what I believed to be the natural order of things.”
In 2002, Tony got in trouble again and pled guilty to battery on a prison guard and weapons possession—a lapse that added ten years to his sentence and got him transferred to Salinas Valley State Prison, a level-four maximum-security facility.
Azim was saddened by the news of Tony’s backsliding, but he continued to correspond with him, and even lobby for his freedom. In 2005, he wrote to then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to request that Tony’s sentence be commuted. “With Tony outside the prison walls and helping the foundation,” Azim wrote, “the world will be safer than it is now.” He also proposed that fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds convicted of violent crimes in adult court be eligible for an earned gubernatorial commutation after ten years, arguing that lengthy prison terms for juveniles only increase their odds of continuing a life of crime if and when they’re released. The governor’s office responded with a form letter that acknowledged the plea without making any commitment to take action.
Azim remains unshakeable in his commitment to forgiveness as a way to heal and serve others. His foundation hires AmeriCorps volunteers to mentor high-risk middle school students in order to reduce misbehavior, since kids with attendance and discipline problems are more likely to be expelled for acting out in violence. A yearlong study of San Diego middle school students involved in TKF programs found that their number of disciplinary actions was cut by more than half.
While TKF’s staffers embrace Azim’s message of forgiveness and discuss it as part of their mentoring curriculum, they admit that living it can be challenging—simple but not easy, as Ples often says. TKF’s mentorship supervisor, a thirty-three-year-old named Mayra Nunez, lost her older brother in a drive-by shooting when she was twelve. The shooter was never apprehended. When a guidance counselor took Nunez to see Azim speak a decade ago, she couldn’t understand his message. “This man’s nuts,” she said to herself. Yet she was curious, and she chatted with Azim afterward and wound up speaking at his Violence Impact Forums. “It took me ten years of working at TKF, but I can honestly say I forgive that person,” she says. “Part of that was being tired of living with hatred, anger, and [a desire for] revenge.” She echoes what Azim says—forgiveness doesn’t condone an act; it isn’t for the offender, but is “a gift you give yourself.”
Even Almas, Tariq’s mother, has found solace in participating in these school assemblies, though it took six years before she was willing to do it. At first, she couldn’t understand the way Azim was dealing with the loss of Tariq, mostly because it was so different from the way she was dealing with it. He was handling the worst event of their lives so publicly, and for her, it was so private. While Azim was in the process of launching TKF, Almas walked outside one morning to get her mail and a neighbor asked when Tariq was coming to visit. She could barely utter the words, “My son is dead.” Yet by 2005, she began participating in TKF’s events and talking about Tariq. “It was painful to talk about losing my son,” she told me over the phone. “But the reaction I got was healing. Students would come up and hug me, write letters, and say, ‘I promise I will never hold a gun or join a gang.’ That meant a lot to me.”
Contribution is integral to both TKF, where students participate in projects such as serving the homeless, and to CANEI, the program for juvenile offenders that Azim created with the National Youth Advocate Program. CANEI is based on restorative justice, an approach that strives to heal victims, rehabilitate offenders, and repair crime’s damage to communities. Participants are required to apologize to and ask forgiveness of their victims, then to repay their debt in some way, often through service. Rehabilitating prisoners—a task that the U.S. prison system fails to do in more than 80 percent of cases—is one of Azim’s greatest passions, one he often spoke about during our conversations in San Diego while I was profiling him for a magazine.
Instead of staying in a hotel while I interviewed Azim and attended his presentations at local schools, I opted to stay with my aunt, a restaurateur with a beautiful home in La Jolla, overlooking the ocean. I was thrilled to escape my lonely apartment with its stacks of bills and reminders of my breakup, including a pair of earrings, some photos, and a pile of notes and cards that I was considering throwing away.
I first met Azim on a mild April evening, at the restaurant at the La Jolla Sheraton, where he’s a regular. I walked into the dining room, set with glassware and crisp white tablecloths, and spotted Azim at a small table in the corner. Wearing a suit and tie, he rose to shake my hand. A warm smile crinkled the corners of his eyes, which were clear brown under thick arched brows. We made small talk and ordered wine and entrées.
Soon, he was sipping red wine and telling me about his son, the murder, and the work that he did now. He was the first person I’d met who referred to himself as lucky after having befallen such a painful misfortune. “I met a man the other day who said it took him twenty years to acknowledge that his son had died, to come out of denial,” he said. “I’m lucky that I made the choice that I did.” The choice to forgive and start TKF came not from his intellect or rational mind, he told me, but from his soul. “I went to good schools, but my degrees were useless when Tariq died,” he said. “The intellect can only solve so many things. But there are no problems that the soul cannot solve.”
Table of Contents
Introduction: How I Reluctantly Discovered Forgiveness and Why I Set Out to Explore It xiii
1 The Heart of Darkness: How Two Lives Were Taken and Two Friends Were Made 1
2 The Science: Is Forgiveness Natural, and Does It Provide Health Benefits? 23
3 Making Amends: The Role of Redemption 51
4 A Reckoning of Origins: Forgiving Our Parents 77
5 The Ecology of Trust: Forgiveness in Intimate Relationships 107
6 A Touch of Grace: Forgiveness as a Spiritual (and Secular) Practice 131
7 The Survivor: How One Woman Forgave the "Unforgivable" in Rwanda 155
8 Chain Reaction: The Institutional Habits That Spread Forgiveness in Schools and Communities 179
9 Living Peace: How Innovative International Programs Are Setting the Stage for Forgiveness Between Longtime Adversaries 201
10 Orange-Yellow Streams of Light: A Forgiveness Ceremony 221
Appendix: Forgiveness Practices 239
What People are Saying About This
I believe that it is vital for us allboth as individuals and as a societyto think deeply about the question of forgiveness and its power to transform. I delight in the amount of research that Megan Feldman Bettencourt has done here, and I welcome her book as an important contribution to our ongoing cultural conversation about this important topic. I hope it will lead many to reconsider their anger, their bitterness, and their resentments. --Liz Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
Forgiveness is the power of God at work in our hearts. Bravo to Megan Feldman Bettencourt for making the process more accessible, and thus the healing of the world more near. --Marianne Williamson, author of A Year of Miracles
Presenting scientific research alongside her own personal experiences, as well as fascinating insights into the stories and practices of others, Megan Feldman Bettencourt expertly demonstrates why forgiveness is so essential in our world today. --Marina Cantacuzino, founder of The Forgiveness Project
Triumph of the Heart skillfully explores forgiveness through many lenses. It is a compelling personal story interwoven with other narratives of forgiveness engagingly embedded in the research and science. --Fred Luskin, PhD, author of Forgive for Good