The horrors of the Holocaust. The cultural clashes in Northern Ireland. The massacres in Rwanda.
It's these types of unfathomable tragedies — broad, international issues — that people want to draw upon when they consider the concept of forgiveness, says Martin Doblmeier. But when he speaks with individuals after screenings of his 2008 PBS-released film, The Power of Forgiveness, he says what most people are actually thinking about is the concept on the most personal levels.
Individual tales play a prominent role in The Power of Forgiveness, one of more than 25 documentaries the award-winning, Virginia-based filmmaker — who holds degrees in both comparative religion and broadcast journalism — has made since founding the spiritually focused Journey Films in 1983.
The 75-minute collection of mini stories features spiritual and human rights leaders such as Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel, best-selling authors Thomas Moore and Marianne Williamson, and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. But it also carefully interweaves lesser- or unknown individuals and their very intimate experiences: for instance, three women who lost loved ones during 9/11, and a psychology professor who had been studying (and continues to research) the scientific connection between forgiveness and health when his mother was murdered.
In its simplest form, Doblmeier says, forgiveness is "the willingness to let go of the fact that someone has hurt you."
He emphasizes that letting go is very different from ignoring or accepting. Letting go is a choice, to not let the transgression be a burden or eat away at you.
"People will say that forgiveness is about helping the other person," Doblmeier notes, "but oftentimes, it's really about helping yourself."
Alexandra Asseily, a psychotherapist who lived through the Lebanese civil war, says in the film, "We can all be tolerant for a while, until something really pushes our buttons and then we get triggered back into a deeper memory. But forgiveness allows us to actually let go of the pain in the memory, and if we let go of the pain in the memory, we can have the memory but it doesn't control us."
During the filming of The Power of Forgiveness, in 2006, a man entered a one-room Amish community schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., shot 10 young girls, killing five, and then killed himself. Media reports were quick to show how the Amish families demonstrated acts of forgiveness: making statements to the press "to not think evil of this man," giving support to the killer's family, attending the killer's funeral.
Doblmeier responded quickly to work it all into his film, but says he continues to feel a disconnect as far as that story is concerned.
"That whole idea of, 'Oh, those people, what a great thing that they did by forgiving' — somehow whenever I've heard that kind of language, it always makes them sort of estranged," he says. "But they were human beings, just like us, who were forced by a tragedy that confronted them to make a decision about how they wanted to live through that tragedy.
"The country fell madly in love with the Amish for having done that, but I'm not sure that it necessarily translates into our cultural behavior in any way.
"There's nothing in our political system," adds Doblmeier, "that encourages our leaders to have any ounce of forgiveness and compassion. Everything that we call our leaders to do calls for instant, quick, thoughtless retaliation. Somewhere I think we have to get beyond that, maybe mature a little bit. ... The truth of the matter is, we as a country know that reckless response is not necessarily a sign of wisdom."