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Essay: If We Can Forgive

Scott Olson
Getty Images News
A message is displayed from the roof of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin during a vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of the shooting at the temple August 5, 2013 in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Essayist Arno Michaelis is a former white supremacist from Milwaukee and the co-author of The Gift of Our Wounds, along with Pardeep Sing Kaleka - the current executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. They've both worked together through the organization Serve 2 Unite to divert young people from violent extremist ideologies, gun violence, school shooting, bullying, and other forms of self harm.

READ: Molson Coors Shooting: Interfaith Leader Pardeep Singh Kaleka Reflects
In the wake of the Molson Coors shooting here in Milwaukee, Michaelis shares his essay, “If We Can Forgive:”

What does hate look like?

Hate looks like the body of a devoted mother of two teenage boys, crumpled inelegantly on a cold tile floor near the altar where she had been praying moments before her death. It looks like a young husband and father the way his little girl last saw him—his face ravaged by the fatal bullet that ripped through his eye and blew his head apart. And the revered holy man who lay in a vegetative state, while his wife and children sat at his bedside praying for a miracle, all the way until he finally passed on 7 years later. And the tortured expression of a leader, mortally wounded, as he tried but failed to save his flock and himself.

Hate looks like the bullet hole in the doorframe leading into the prayer room at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin—a vestige of the carnage that took place there on August 5, 2012, when a troubled man with a distorted view of what America should look like executed peaceful people inside.

Life goes on. Services still take place at the same time every Sunday. Congregants continue to worship in the prayer room. All people are welcome to the langar hall for the free communal meal. Families who lost loved ones persevere as they continue to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

The bullet hole remains, now enshrined with a tiny plaque inscribed with the messagewe are one.

The victims were devout souls who strived to follow the tenets of their Sikh faith, to live a meritorious life of honest hard work, and service to others, and to God. Spiritual beings who graced this earth with love, inspiration, and Chardi Kala. Translated from Punjabi, the language of the region in India where the Sikh religion was founded, Chardi Kala means “relentless optimism.”

So why would anyone seek to harm these good people? Why would someone take the lives of his fellow human beings with such senseless cruelty?

Because hurt people hurt people. Because when suffering isn’t treated with compassion, it seethes and spreads. Because when fear isn’t met with courage, it deceives and disconnects humans from humanity. When ignorance isn’t countered with wisdom, it festers and takes root in the hearts of the fearful. When hatred isn’t cradled with kindness, it can corrupt the beauty of existence to the extreme that causing suffering is the only thing that makes sense anymore.

The killer, once as innocent and lovely a child as any other, became mired in a cycle of misery that ended in tragedy at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

. . . And brought us together.

Rather than cultivate hatred with vengeance, we choose to commemorate our lost loved ones with the glory and grace of our common humanity. We choose to sow seeds of kindness, and compassion.

Monsters are not created by God. They are shaped by the society we live in. By us. The ingredients that make monsters are hatred, suffering, isolation, and rejection. Now, right people have died, including the shooter, because one man’s untreated suffering was inflamed by fear, ignorance, and rage. What if, instead, it had been met with compassion, courage, and wisdom?

If we can find the strength to forgive the one who took the others, we can answer tragedy with unconditional love for the entire human race. We can address conflict with care and cooperation. We can meet fear, ignorance, and hatred with simple, universal truth. We can shape the reality we create collaboratively to be one of uplift and healing.

We can live in honor of Baba Punjab Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh Khattra, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, Sita Singh, and Satwant Singh Kaleka; in honor of the lives lost in Oklahoma City, and at Columbine, Sandy Hook, the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the Boston Marathon, the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the bicycle path in New York City; the lives lost at Molson Coors, and of the people dying violently on the north side of Milwaukee, and on the South Side of Chicago, and in Syria, Afghanistan, the Holy Land, Mexico, Africa . . .

We can find the gift in the wound

. . . if we can forgive 

. . . with vengeance 

. . . with purpose

. . . with love.

Lake Effect essayist Arno Michaelis is a former white supremacist from Milwaukee and the author of My Life After Hate.

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