This past week, the NYPD, the Catholic Church and the world lost a really good man. He was a saint.
Officer Steven MacDonald was just two years into his career with the NYPD when he was shot by a teenager in Central Park. Thirty years ago, on July 12, while my husband and I were dancing at our wedding reception, Officer MacDonald was fighting for his life with a bullet lodged in his spine. While I did not know him personally, our paths crossed at many church events in the 22 years my husband worked for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Steven MacDonald’s presence in a room was huge, even though his stature was smaller from his seated position in his wheelchair. He commanded respect and admiration because of all he endured from this tragic crime, but also because he lived what he preached.
Despite being disabled by this violent act, Detective MacDonald forgave his perpetrator and lived to preach about it. I was reminded of this magnanimous act just after his death was announced in the news. An article written by MacDonald entitled Why I Forgave was circulating on social media. I was glad to take the time to read it. You should too.
In his reflection, MacDonald shares that this tragic crime and his disabling condition following it served as a catalyst to a deeper conversion, which made a tremendous difference in his life and his family. He even went so far as to say his life was better for it.
“I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. I feel close to heaven today in a way I never knew before, and it makes me very happy. I know it may be hard to understand, but I would rather be like this and feel the way I do than go on living like I was before.”
I marveled at his words, even though I had heard them before, not only from Steven MacDonald but also from other people who have learned to forgive in the face of great offenses. I’ve met and known parents whose children were killed by acts of violence or by drunk drivers, and they have chosen to forgive their offenders. Time and again these testimonies point to an eternal truth, that forgiveness is a powerful tool for good. Forgiveness releases not only the ones who need to be forgiven but also the ones who choose to forgive.
Officer MacDonald knew intuitively and from painful experience that the desire for revenge consumes the human heart and spirit in a manner that is worse than even a severe spinal injury. Reading this witness again, I was struck by MacDonald’s honesty. Anger and resentment, like the disabilities and the pain, were struggles that he had to deal with every day. But unlike the physical struggles, forgiveness was a choice and he made it every day.
In the days since I read MacDonald’s words, I’ve been more mindful of little and big resentments in my own life. I’ve caught myself mumbling beneath my breath and complaining about people who offend me or struggles I endure. But instead of feeding the resentments by mulling over them in my mind, I remind myself of this brave man’s 30-year daily decision to forgive his perpetrator and God.
MacDonald’s choice to forgive allowed him to see beauty in these struggles. He wrote, “So God has turned something terrible into something beautiful. I think God wants to use both our abilities and our disabilities…..Forgiveness is really about our own healing. But in the end, it is our choice, and it is the survival of our own souls that is at stake.”
Forgiveness is never an easy choice. But sometimes it is easier than others. It’s easier to forgive someone who is rude to me at a store or cuts me off when I’m driving (although driving in Manhattan challenges me a little more.)
However, forgiving someone for offenses with life-altering consequences like job loss, disabilities or death require greater effort. Still, forgiveness comes down to a daily decision. Am I going to be in bondage to anger and resentments, or do I choose to forgive? If we choose the former, we get stuck. If we choose forgiveness, our lives have a chance to grow with even greater beauty.
Each one of us is presented with this same choice – to hold on to resentments and seek revenge, or to forgive and move on with our lives. Moving on with our lives after choosing to forgive doesn’t mean that the resentments melt away or the consequences of the offenses committed against us all of a sudden disappear. Rather, choosing forgiveness gives us a renewed perspective on life and it gives God the opportunity to turn “something terrible into something beautiful.”
Eileen Benthal is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a B.A. in Theology from Franciscan University. She is the author of Breathing Underwater: A Caregiver’s Journey of Hope.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children.
Eileen can be reached at CareforaCaregiver.com.