Early in the morning on October 2, 2006 in Dacula, Georgia, twenty-year-old Matt Swatzell was driving home from a twenty-four-hour shift as a firefighter and EMS and had had only 30 minutes of sleep. Less than four miles from his home he fell asleep at the wheel and collided with another car, killing thirty-year-old June who was driving and injuring her nineteen-month-old daughter, Faith.
It was in the hospital that Matt learned that June was pregnant and that both she and the baby did not make it.
June’s husband Erik Fitzgerald was heartbroken. He was a full-time pastor. Close family and friends stood with him as he grieved his wife’s death and that of his unborn child. One day, one of his students said that she couldn’t help but think of how the driver of the car was feeling. Eric immediately asked the group to pray for the driver of the car. With this simple prayer began a journey of forgiveness that has inspired hundreds of thousands. Their story was recounted in Today and People among other outlets.
In the face of the tragedy, Erik recalled a message he heard in a sermon: “In moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance. Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.”
To start, Erik attended Matt’s sentencing and extended his forgiveness. As a county officer, Matt was facing a felony and harsh time. But Fitzgerald pleaded for a lesser sentence.
“I didn’t see why this accident and tragedy needed to ruin any more lives,” said the pastor. Matt paid a fine and did community service.
Although Matt wanted to thank Erik for all he had done, he couldn’t legally speak with him during the two-year criminal investigation.
The day before the two-year anniversary of the accident, however, Matt went to the grocery store to purchase a card to send to Erik. When he returned to his car in the parking lot he was just about to turn on the engine when he saw Erik walking into the same store. Not sure what to expect, Matt approached Erik and introduced himself. Matt burst into tears and Erik told him that he forgave him.
“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgives me,” Matt recalled. “Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.”
Then Erik told him, “I have a desire to want to be in your life.”
“You forgive as you’ve been forgiven. It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”Erik Fitzgerald
The men stayed connected by meeting at least once every two weeks, attending church together and eating meals at the Waffle House and other restaurants, just the two of them.
“We recognized that when we first started meeting it was unusual. We knew it was God,” said Erik. “You forgive as you’ve been forgiven. It wasn’t an option. If you’ve been forgiven, then you need to extend that forgiveness.”
“Part of the draw I felt to befriend Matthew was he was a good guy. He wasn’t a convict or on drugs. He was just a guy who got off a shift,” said Erik. “I felt it was my responsibility to encourage him and see the big picture.”
So Erik was there for Matt when he married and at the birth of their first child, who shares a birthday with Erik’s own daughter. Matt’s anxiety and guilt were still so overwhelming that he feared something would happen to his wife and child. After many meetings with Erik and a counsellor, Matt was able to move past the hurt.
“I can honestly say that without this friendship I don’t know where I’d be,” said Matt. “I can’t say, ‘This is a beautiful story and it’s got a great ending.’ It doesn’t,” he told Today in an interview. “It’s nasty, it’s real, and it’s something that I’m going to struggle with for the rest of my life.”
A Process for Forgiveness
Forgiveness can be difficult, particularly when our inner resources are depleted. It’s difficult for anyone to rise above the pain of being hurt by another or the guilt we feel when we have hurt someone else. We feel we were justified. Or perhaps we can’t admit that we were responsible and that hanging on to being in the right is somehow hanging on to the last shred of our sense of self. Unforgiveness creates a tremendous weight of bitterness, rejection, and broken relationships.
When I am hurt I have trouble being near the person until I have worked through my anger and released them from my demands that they be different than who they are at this time. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or even pardoning an offense. It means changing our response to the offense. Some ways to practice what I call “everyday forgiveness” are: forgive yourself, forgive the “stupid stuff” that happens every day, forgive the people and institutions that have hurt us, forgive the unmerited suffering that seems so unfair like an illness or failure. Instead of bitterness, choose to offer compassion and empathy to the person or institution or event that wronged you.
People who forgive tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to have less depression, anxiety, stress, anger, and hostility. People who hang onto grudges, however, are more likely to experience severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other health conditions. That doesn’t mean that they can’t train themselves to act in healthier ways. Here is a method of forgiveness that you might try:
1.) Reflect and remember the event that has wronged you. How did you react? How did you feel? How has your anger and hurt affected you since?
2.) Empathize with the other person. Try to understand what could have led the other person to do what they did to hurt you. You may begin to realize that the one they are truly hurting is themselves. How much they must be suffering from their own negative behavior.
3.) Forgive deeply. We are not talking here about behavior that is abusive and destructive. Ultimately no one is perfect. In this exercise we are addressing how annoying, hurtful, broken people hurt us all the time. The choice to forgive is ultimately the choice to love and to release the other from the obligation to pay you back because of what they have done. It is a choice for your own happiness, when you let your grievances go.
4.) Let go of expectations. An apology may not change your relationship with the other person or elicit an apology from him or her. Forgiveness needs to be offered with no strings attached. It is a gift of compassion, offered because it is the right thing to do, because God has invited us to live in forgiveness, and because it makes us happy. If you don’t expect apologies or changed behavior, you won’t be disappointed.
5.) Decide to forgive. Once you make that choice, seal it with an action. If you don’t feel you can talk to the person who wronged you, write about your forgiveness in a journal or even talk about it to someone else in your life that you trust.
6.) Forgive God and forgive yourself. The act of forgiving includes forgiving God if you are angry with him for what happened and how your life has turned out because of the offense. We often need to forgive ourselves also for any way in which the wrong we have received has affected us or our other relationships.
Image Credit: Public Domain via Rawpixel