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Ree Varcoe Headshot

Fearless Forgiveness

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A few short weeks ago, the front page of our newspapers spelled out a story of tragedy. Lives had been lost through a moment of carelessness. Three vans full of college friends, mostly from the Boston area, were on their way to take part in a great adventure: New Zealand's Tongariro Alpine Crossing, one of the most renowned one-day treks in the world's oldest national park. Tragically, a young man named Stephen Houseman lost control of the vehicle he was driving, which flipped, resulting in the death of three friends. One of them was his best friend. Four others were seriously injured. And now this young man, who was on an exciting journey of exploration with friends, will probably live with this guilt for the rest of his life.

The headline that was featured in the New Zealand Waikato Times? "Forgiveness: 'It was an accident.'" Those were the words of the mother of one of the young victims who had just been taken off life support. At the time, this mother had no idea whether her daughter would ever truly be herself again, because she remained in critical condition. After reading her statement, I felt both tremendous sadness for her family and deep admiration for her fearlessness. This mother was able to reach outside of her own agony to forgive the driver and suggest that any of the students could have been at the wheel -- including her own daughter -- to cause the accident. In reading the story, one could sense this woman's strength and serenity. Because of her earnest belief that it was senseless to cast blame, she could concentrate on her daughter's recovery, while helping others to do the same. She fully understood that the road to recovery would be long and difficult for everyone and, at that moment, began the process of healing.

The power of forgiveness is such a beautiful thing. We have a chance to experience it in small ways every day, if we choose. Try not to make a negative comment as someone cuts in front of you. Take a moment to think about what you say in response to something unpleasant before spouting some "words of wisdom." Modest acts of forgiveness can help you prepare for a day when you might need courage to help yourself, or someone else, move forward from tragedy. The important thing to realize is, in some cases it doesn't matter what the reaction is from those we pardon -- they may not even acknowledge or accept it. True forgiveness eases some of the pain and anguish we're grasping so tightly.

We've read and seen movies about people who somehow summon the strength to do this. It may seem ludicrous to forgive a person when they don't seem at all remorseful. My father believed that for most of his life. He was happy to forgive those who had wronged him as long as they first said they were sorry. But by resisting forgiveness until he heard an apology, he was trying to hold on to what he imagined was some semblance of power. The real test of mettle is in setting others free, even when those who have wronged us don't ask for it. Luckily, Dad came to understand that before he died. My sister and I both witnessed a calmness in him that last year of his life. He was able to find peace. He admitted to me he wished he'd done it sooner. I think about that often, and try to apply forgiveness when I find myself holding on to anger and resentment. It's such a liberating feeling to find a way to let it go.

I believe we always have chances to start again in life. It's never too late to change the direction in which you're heading. Quite often I tell my children, when they've been particularly disagreeable or grumpy about nothing, "Hey guys, this very second you can choose to change your lives. Just stop, think about it and make a change right now." I believe this is true, whether you're talking about changing a bad mood or considering a life-altering mistake. I hope Stephen Houseman can find the courage to forgive himself, and that the families of those young students who died or were critically injured can forgive him too.

As journalist Norman Cousins wrote in the Saturday Review, "Life is an adventure in forgiveness."

We all have the power of forgiveness in us. We can make a choice to either live with guilt and blame or reach down into our hearts and find the grace to free ourselves from it.

Related on HuffPost: "Stephen Houseman, Boston University Student Van Driver, Remembers His 'Best Friend.'"

For more by Ree Varcoe, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.

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