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Facts, fiction, or freedom? | Deborah Johnson | TEDxBerkeley

Facts, fiction, or freedom? | Deborah Johnson | TEDxBerkeley


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven I was in prison. I’d been in Pleasant Valley State Prison,
Fresno, California, many times before. This particular time, I was there
for an interfaith celebration sponsored by the Muslim American Society. We’re in D yard, visiting room, approximately 200 African American
men that were there. And one of them came up to me and was thanking me for all of the work that my prison outreach team
had been doing through the years. He actually had been watching me
for about five years, but had never spoken. He was getting out in two weeks,
and he wanted to make a connection. So as I’m congratulating him
on his release, he just as-a-matter-of-factly says, “Yeah, they just found out
that I was innocent.” And I froze. “You’re innocent?” “Yes, ma’am.” I hesitated to ask the next question. He appeared to be
about as old as I was, which would have meant that he would have been in prison
for a very long time. African American men generally
don’t go to prison middle-aged. I took a deep breath, and I said, “How long have you been locked up?” “Twenty-six years.” “Twenty-six years! You have been locked up
for twenty-six years and you’re innocent?” “Yes, ma’am.” And then he goes on,
just as matter-of-factly, he’s telling me this story about how this other inmate had
just been up for parole not too long ago, and during his hearing, the other guy mentioned
that somebody else “went down with them” that had nothing to do with it. So the people from the other panel
looked up, and sure enough, everything that was needed
to exonerate the guy standing before me had been in the file all along. I was livid. I was so upset, and I just couldn’t figure out how is this injustice
going to be rectified? Fuming. About 30 days later, I get this call. It’s him. He’s been out about two weeks. And he’s just going on and on about all these wonderful things
that are happening in his life. He’s at home – about two, three minute walk from where my home is in Los Angeles, my childhood home. And he’s just talking
and talking and talking, and not a word in the conversation
about incarceration. Okay. About three, four weeks later,
he calls me again. And he is so absolutely chipper, and he’s just talking
about all these things. I can’t stand it. His peace is disturbing me. (Laughter) So I finally just said, “You know,
let me just ask you something. Aren’t you like, I don’t know,
maybe a little bit mad?” (Laughter) “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Mad? Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Reverend, I’m as mad
as I’m ever going to be in life. Ha ha ha ha ha. Man, I’m free! Ha ha ha ha ha. Why would I waste another minute
of my life being mad? Ha ha ha ha ha ha. I’m free. I’m free.” And I realized in that moment that I was witnessing
the very face of forgiveness, the very face of forgiveness. I have told that story many times. I never heard from him again. Last May, the phone rings. I don’t even know his name,
and I hear this voice: “Remember me?” (Laughter) “I said are you the guy
that did 26 and was innocent?” “Yes, ma’am.” And he goes on and he tells me
about his wife and his children and all these wonderful things
that he is doing; it was unbelievable. So about 30 days after that, last June, I’m telling the story to another ex-lifer,
who’s done 28, Paul – a guy I’ve worked with for many years
in and out of prison. And as I’m telling Paul this story, and right do I get to the point
of asking about being mad, Paul laughs at me. And I said, “That’s just what he did.” And then Paul reminded me of what he had said
to the congregation the day before. He said, “Freedom and anger
cannot occupy the same space. Freedom isn’t a matter of geography;
freedom is in the mind.” Freedom and anger
cannot occupy the same space. We mistakenly think that forgiveness
is something to do with the other person, and then we think
that we have to try to figure out if they deserve our forgiveness. But that’s not what it’s about, that we do this litmus test, we have all of these things
going on in our mind: how bad was it? how many times does it happen? who’s involved? were there alternatives? And then maybe we put
these things on the scale, and maybe, if it tilts
towards forgiveness, we’ll think about forgiving. But we’re asking the wrong questions. We’re asking, Do they
deserve our forgiveness? when the real question is, Will we, will we
allow ourselves to be free? That’s the real question. Just how willing are we to be free? Forgiveness does not change
what’s happened. What forgiveness does is that it shifts
our relationship to what has happened. The bell cannot be unrung. We can’t undo what’s already done, but what we can do is decide
how it’s going to impact us. Why? Because our experience
is not what happens; our experience
is how we name what happens. Let me give you an example. How many of you in the room
grew up with siblings? Have you ever wondered if you
were actually raised in the same house? (Laughter) You know, do you even have
the same parents? Because different interpretations
of the same circumstances creates completely different experiences. New science tells us
that every time we think a thought, a chemical reaction happens in our brain, and the thoughts
that fire together wire together, creating very intricate
neurosynapatic connectivity. And if the thought is repeated, that connectivity expands
into greater and greater networks. If we want to have a new experience, then we have to infuse those receptors
in our brains that have already fused. We must infuse them with new information. We have to create a new story. We have to create
a new narrative for our lives. Ultimately, whenever you have
a recovery process, that’s all that we’re really doing. And the recovery process is that we are reaffirming
something within us that is beyond the injury. Whatever it is that we don’t forgive looms over us, and we allow it to define us, we allow it to tell us our possibilities. Forgiveness is a choice; it is a conscious decision. It is a conscious decision
to reclaim our power so that we have a sense of agency that enables us
to have self-determination. You can’t have self-determination if you don’t know that you have
some kind of control over your life. Forgiveness is just as important
on a societal level as it is on a personal level. In fact, social justice work
is built on forgiveness. All of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates, from Nelson Mandela and de Klerk, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Mother Theresa – all of them are understanding
this very thing about forgiveness. Malala Yousafzai, the newest and the youngest
of the Nobel Peace laureates, laughed also when Oprah asked her if she was angry at the Taliban
for having shot her in the face. She says, “I don’t have
any time to be angry. I can’t waste my energy on being angry. Angry cost us too much. It cost us our freedom; it cost us joy; it cost us peace. We have to be willing to let it go.” Will we not fan the flames of anger and, instead, stand
into our possibilities. Are we willing to do that
in order so that we can be free? So that we can break the cycles of abuse. Because what happens
when we do not forgive – we remain frozen in time. To not forgive is a choice that says that I am never going to be
informed by anything else ever in life. Let us not short ourselves. Let us unleash all of our power
and our productivity so that we can step
into a brand new day with a brand new story
about our possibilities. So I have enlisted someone
to help us figure this out. Because you ask, well,
What exactly is forgiveness anyway? We don’t know really what it is, but we know a little bit
about how it works. We don’t know what anything really is. What is life? What is love? What is joy? What is it? We know it when we see it. And it’s apparent to us
when it appears to be missing. So, I have asked
my alter ego, Wilhelmina, to help us figure this out. Now, Wilhelmina has
three very basic questions. Her questions are, Why I got to forgive? Why I got to forgive? And why I got to forgive? Inquiring minds want to know. Why I got to forgive? Can’t I just live with the truth
of my own sleuth? Why I got to forgive? Can’t I just draw lines in the sand
and stand just wherever they land? Why I got to forgive? Can’t I just give back
as good as I’ve gotten and, well, let’s just say, call it even? Why I got to practice forgiveness? Ain’t nobody’s business
what I harbor in my heart. Why even start to open doors
that can’t be reclosed? How am I supposed to deal
with all the commotion, the explosion my emotions
going to go through, huh? And what’s it to you? Why are you preachers always
got to go talking about forgiveness? Like it’s really something
that can be done. Ha! I tried it once or twice. Actually, kind of nice. But then the memories
just kept dancing on through, prancing around like they own my mind, trancing my compassion to sleep. This stuff is deep, y’all, I mean deep down in the selves that rebel at the very thought of releasing what they
are such experts at holding onto. My ego don’t know what to do
with all this forgiveness stuff. Where does it leave me? Inside, all I want to do is fight. Hide my inability to rewrite the past that lasts, frankly, longer
than my willingness to forgive. Chilling paralysis, ceaseless analysis. Just how many times, overt or sublime, can the same crime be tried
in somebody’s mind? All this forgiveness? It just confuses folks
about what’s the right thing to do. You don’t seem to understand
how important it is to be right. I would rather be right
about having been wronged than to sing a new song for my story, whose only glory is in being sung. It may not be that much fun, but when I’m the victim,
there’s nothing to be done. But to tell everybody else
what they need to do, go through, show you, undo, redo. Helplessness is so seductive. And I really, really like being seduced. My story and I
are so close and so intimate you can hardly tell us apart. My story needs me. If I don’t tell it, who will? Without our stories,
what’s the proof that we even existed? Yeah, it may be drama, but it beats the trauma
of not ever being seen. So why I got to forgive? I’m doing quite fine. In fact, I have had the same
experience so many times, I’m actually quite good at it. So why you going to go ruin a good thing? What’s forgiveness going to do anyway? What’s done is done. Besides, if you go around telling people
how good they can be, they’ll never know how bad they’ve been. They will never know
how they have ruined everything if life just moves on, un huh. I’m going to stay strong
in my resolve to resent because they have not accepted
enough responsibility for my unhappiness yet. Let the record stand for itself;
leave the evidence alone. Don’t go changing, rearrange anything
with all this forgiveness mess. That’s just letting people off the hook, and I’ve got it all right here in my book,
who’s innocent and who’s a crook. Got to keep a constant look. We’ve got to stay strong in what’s wrong. We can’t move on
till the next one’s coming along, memorize our memories. Long live our view;
we won’t learn anything new, and I am through with you. Even if I do forgive,
I ain’t never going to forget. Un huh. I am not going to neglect my responsibility to keep me
playing it in my mind. Constant rewind is the only
protection against that kind. So, you never want to experience it again? Then just keep replaying in your mind
what already has been. So, why I got to forgive? I ain’t got no heaven or hell
to put anybody in. Will somebody even just begin
to tell me why I got to forgive? What difference does it make what I think? Wilhelmina, shh, shh. Wilhelmina, forgiveness is the link that reconnects the fragmented
pieces of our lives; it’s the thread that weaves us
back into wholeness. Without forgiveness,
life just simply unravels. The tear that starts one place
just spreads every place. Forgiveness emancipates us
from the prisons of our own perceptions. So, what are you going to choose? The facts, your fiction or freedom? What are you going to choose? Oh, oh, it’s like that. Okay. (Laughter) You want me to keep it real. Okay. Constipation, liberation. The choice is always yours. So, why you got to forgive? (Laughter) To live, baby. That’s all. Just to live. (Applause) (Cheering)

Comments (5)

  1. Rev. Does it again!

  2. Great talk, and so true.

  3. Such a powerful message and presented in a remarkable and entertaining manner! Thanks!!!

  4. Awesome message, I love it, and Wilhelmina that was me for years until recently, i am standing firm so i can live!!!!

  5. Thanks @DeborahJohnson

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