For the past 1.5 years I've been studying people who are victims of gun violence. After meeting them at the University of Pennsylvania's outpatient trauma clinic, I follow them around to learn about the many challenges that people face while trying to rebuild their lives.
Time and time again, I've come across individuals whose lives are disrupted in ways that exceed what most folks can even imagine. In addition to the psychological scars that remain long after a person leaves hospital care, people often live with chronic injuries that make even the most routine activities (e.g. sleeping, brushing teeth, laughing) tricky and often quite painful.
For instance, "David" is a 25-year old African American man who was in the peak of his physical life when he was nearly gunned down. One evening while walking home from a friend's house, he passed by a large group gathering inside of a high school's parking lot. As he ventured closer to see what was happening, he realized that two women were fighting each other. As he started walking away from the scene, someone in the crowd pulled out a 9mm and started firing shots into the crowd. David got hit twice: one bullet hit his leg, the other hit him just beneath his shoulder blade. The first bullet entered and exited his body cleanly. The second bullet, however, broke through the surface of a thick wall of muscle, zig-zagged around in his back for a bit, and then settled into a tuft of soft tissue just beneath his shoulder blade. In addition to making most physical activity requiring upper body strength painful, David fears yawning and laughing--two activities that cause the retained bullet to irritate the tissue in his back.
David's story is fairly common. Most gunshot victims live with a range of injuries that will never really go away. In this context, it's not hard to see why many victims (and their loved ones) have trouble forgiving those who were responsible for their injuries. In fact, during "life after the shooting" victims and their loved ones often fantasize about exacting revenge on the person who shot them. These fantasies range from Rambo-esque stories of victims going on a rampage guns-a-blazing, to more cold and calculated plans of staging a special ops-like ambush that ends with the shooter dying a slow and painful death in front of them.
On the other side of the coin, I have also stumbled across stories in which victims say that the only way to truly move past being a victim is to forgive the person responsible for your pain and suffering. For instance, I remember a story of a Rwandan woman who forgave the man responsible for killing her entire family with a machete. Now, she has him over for dinner from time to time. I also recently stumbled across an NPR story of a victims mother who has forgiven her son's killer. In addition to informally adopting him as her new surrogate son, the mother now lives next door to her son's killer, and says that she hopes her son's killer will graduate from college and get married--two events that she never got to experience with her biological son.
What do you all think? Is healing only possible when one forgives? Or, do violent fantasies--particularly those that leave us feeling empowered--have a role in healing as well?