02/02/2012 09:52 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

Stories of Forgiveness

For some reason -- Jung called it synchronicity -- it seems like things align to make us aware and awake to a reality we might have known but now see, or that we had seen but suddenly care about. Or there are things or people we cared about and then we forgot or then we got distracted by the inconvenience of it, or the noise from our daily lives.

Ever since I can remember, I have opposed capital punishment, mostly on grounds that people -- many, many people -- can change, and that to kill a murderer seemed to me to be doing the same thing but in cold blood. It was a subject discussed at a clinical conference a year ago and then I felt it re-emerge as I read the article, "The Caging of America", in the New Yorker (Jan. 30, 2012) by Adam Gopnik. I recommend it for a sober review of our prison system.

It is an article that deserves attention, for its sober and somber view of our prison system. And then there was a report by Jamie Fellnor who was a guest on The Leonard Lopate Show on the topic "Aging in Prison," based on her report for Human Rights Watch. But then, quite dramatically, another story crossed my mind, my media screen, my consciousness. It felt way more urgent, in that it had to do with a human being on death row who was in fact to be executed by lethal injection just yesterday. His name is Nicholas Tate and he had pleaded guilty to the murder of a mother and a toddler in 2001. At basically the last minute (hours before his expected execution) he/his lawyers asked for a stay.

Apparently, according to of Atlanta, Tate, on Jan. 20, 2012, had said he didn't want a life without parole. And it is not clear to me at this time how he feels about some of the outside and family (a brother) support he seems to be getting. There is, of course, for me, the brutality (unless there is never to be ever ever any change that makes a convicted criminal "safe" or changed) in the notion of parole without any chance of freedom. Fellnor was apt in her comments about the need for parole, the need for hope and the fact of change being possible and usually possible to evaluate.

It is not really my right to pass judgment on someone like Nicholas Tate, whose actions, prison term, sentence of execution and whose deepest feelings are complex and deserve a lack of quickness to summarize. Yes he committed violent crimes and yes it is counterintuitive perhaps to even perceive clemency as favorable. However I wonder what all of this -- including the life without parole (a potential possibility) -- says about us as a society, and as individuals who likely see ourselves as too busy to preoccupy ourselves with something that seems indubitably savage.

But then, what role do forgiveness, compassion and humility play in our lives and what role do we want them to play? If we go on sites looking up forgiveness, and especially on religious sites, we will see the celebration of the healing of heart and mind by relinquishing the role of revenge and hatred. We see widespread suggestion that closure comes best with grief and not with violence. I agree -- even though my own rage would be hyperactive if I or a loved one was violated -- I still agree that killing for killing's sake does not bring a person back, and who is to say that it does justice if it enmeshes us forever in a cycle of violence?

In terms of our maturity as a nation, and as individuals, part of growing is to be willing to see reality, including that there are certain things we will never change. However we can find out what helps children grow and what cripples them, and if we read about the background of Nicholas Tate, we can clearly see he had the latter. And yes, I hear the answer that difficult childhoods don't justify murder. I am not saying they do, but I'm seeking to understand what is. For example, conditions of war which include increasing supplies of adrenalin, fear, trauma, rage, etc. can foment into a gang mentality of cruelty that has beset Iraq, Afghanistan, and wars before it. We can say it's just a few "bad apples" or we can hear from our soldiers of the crimes they committed whether or not they are brought to legal action.

I worry about a society that sees leaders who apologize or compromise with other countries, as weak. I worry that we won't learn a thing from history if we need to oversimplify -- to always come out on the winning or the justified side.

Perhaps the most inconvenient truths for all of us are the ones that make us feel really uncomfortable, not the ones that make us want to take to the streets and sing freedom songs or go to houses or worship to sing hymns of mercy. They will reach us only if we let in the human stories, and have our emotional core recognize the similarities we have to all who are human. So it is, that selfishly if I have to be honest, I hope Nicholas Tate decides to appeal, and to share his story, and I hope we can learn from it as from other inmates on death row or in the deadly space of our prisons, in the arid classrooms of our ghettoes; they are our neighbors.

I also hope it changes in Tate's lifetime, in my own. I hope compassion becomes so "in," it can actually be considered part of a family values agenda.