In 1995, Azim Khamisa’s only son, 20-year-old Tariq, was killed delivering pizzas in San Diego. Azim, an investment banker, was sitting at his kitchen table one afternoon when the phone rang. He picked it up, and the voice on the other end of the line was a police officer telling him that his son was dead. The killer was a 14-year-old named Tony Hicks.
The father said he felt like he left his body; the pain was too much to bear. Over the next few weeks, Azim survived by turning to his faith and found forgiveness, ultimately reaching the conclusion that there were victims at both ends of the gun. Azim reached out to Plex Felix, the grandfather and guardian of Tony Hicks. The first time they met, Azim said he felt no animosity towards Felix’s grandson, Tony. Plex was quick to accept the offering of forgiveness. Now, both men give talks to schools about their story of forgiveness. Azim spends much of his time promoting the vision of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, an organization committed to stopping children from killing children.
What is Forgiveness?
Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. Perhaps a boss took credit for a project you worked on, your mother criticized your parenting skills, or your partner had an affair. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of resentment, anger, bitterness, or even vengeance.
Forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. In my practice, I tell my clients that in order to forgive, or give the one who hurt you the gift of empathy, one has to ask, How is holding onto this unforgiveness helping me get what I want?
Being in a state of unforgiveness is like being on a giant hook. Next to you is the person who hurt you. This hook is extremely painful. Wherever you go, so does the hook, and so does the offender. We have to let the offender off the hook first, so we can also get off the hook and start the process of forgiveness.
The Benefits of Forgiveness
When we offer forgiveness, and let go of bitterness and resentment, the benefits are physical, emotional, and mental. You have less anxiety, stress, hostility, and anger. Furthermore, research shows that mismanaged anger is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. With forgiveness comes a path to lower blood pressure and fewer symptoms of depression. You also have a stronger immune system and higher self-love.
The Steps to Forgiveness
Like I tell my clients, there is no magic forgiveness wand we can raise to eliminate all the negative feelings we might have towards others. Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. These nine steps, adapted from Frederick Luskin, PhD, with the Stanford Forgiveness Project, might help:
1. Know how you feel about the situation, and then be able to articulate what about it is not okay. Tell people close to you about your experience.
2. Consider what you have to gain by committing to forgiveness.
3. Forgiveness is for you, and not for anyone else. You must take the offender off the unforgiveness hook first. It does not mean reconciliation with the person who hurt you. It does mean peace and understanding. Try taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.
4. Get the right perspective on what is happening now. Your hurt feelings and thoughts are coming from a place right now, and not what offended you five minutes or five years ago.
5. At the moment you experience pain, whether it be emotional, physical or mental, practice grounding techniques to help soothe your body’s fight or flight response.
6. Get rid of expectations you have for people or for your life. Recognize the unenforceable rules you have for yourself, and for how others should behave.
7. Focus your energy into looking for positive ways to get your needs met instead of through past hurts. Rather than mentally replaying your hurt, seek out new ways to get what you want.
8. There’s satisfaction in knowing a life well-lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your pain, giving the person who offended you power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty, and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.
9. Re-write your grievance story to remind you of your heroic choice to forgive.
It may be that forgiveness is an analogous example of the ability to see things through a positive or healing lens. While there is a dearth of research, some studies do suggest that we can all benefit from training in managing life’s hurts and using forgiveness to make peace with life’s past. Ultimately, forgiveness may be, as many religious traditions of the world maintain, a solid path to greater peace and understanding with physiological and psychological benefits.
Azim Khamisa’s story is not about loss or blame and resentment. Instead, it is about what can be found when one follows the steps to forgiveness. Azim felt extrodinary grief at the loss of his only son, but he never once felt vengeance. The grieving father relied heavily on his Islamic Ismaili faith which told him that compassionate acts are “spiritual currency which speed the soul’s journey.” Azim knew he could not carry the burden of loss alone, and so the journey to healing began. He reached out to Ples Felix and asked for help with these words: “We both carry the burden of loss. Help me carry mine. Let me help carry yours.”