“It’s not an easy journey, to get to a place where you forgive people. But it is such a powerful place, because it frees you.” ~ Tyler Perry
On September 8, 2016, the most successful franchise in entertainment history will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Spawning 13 feature films, 6 successful television series, fan clubs in more than 190 countries, and over a billion social media impressions every month, Star Trek will commemorate a half century of social, political, and interstellar explorations into “the final frontier.”
Created by Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), Star Trek’s first episode aired on Sept. 8, 1966, three years before American astronauts landed on the moon. The crew of the USS Enterprise, registry number NCC-1701, had a mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and civilizations, and boldly go where no one had gone before. For five decades, the Star Trek franchise has been winning new fans, inspiring real-world innovations, and an ever-growing constellation of books, games, comics, magazines, and documentaries. Although the original series aired for only three seasons, the starship’s once futuristic technologies no longer seem exotic. The creation of the flip phone, iPad, Bluetooth headset, tri-corder scanner, floppy disk, GPS, voice activation, and diagnostic medical bed have shifted the Enterprises’ technologies from future fantasy to present reality.
A new Star Trek series is scheduled to debut on the CBS All Access digital program in January 2017, only a few short months after the franchise’s 50th anniversary. While the original series focused on expressions of scientific, political and social progress, best exemplified in television’s first interracial kiss, later narratives invoked the philosophical typologies of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, and Sartre. In the end, Star Trek’s charm rests on the depiction of an optimistic future, artfully illustrated on the canvas of the heavens, in which humanity has overcome both technological hurdles and psychological frailties through the lens of sacrificial leadership. The command chair of such imposing aspirations requires an individual with epic qualities. According to Roddenberry, Captain Kirk is just such a man, “a colorful and complex personality, capable of action and decision which can verge on the heroic.”
Captain James Tiberius Kirk represents Star Trek’s primordial leader. He is the mythic intergalactic trailblazer that inspires confidence and has the capacity to overcome the galaxy’s unexpected challenges. His is the courageous personality humanity strives to develop – the one who, in his own words, refuses to believe in ”no-win scenarios!” Together with Mr. Spock, his Vulcan first officer, and Dr. McCoy, the crew’s medical officer, Kirk’s leadership style is inspired by Classical Greek thought that argue for the repression of irrational desires and the attainment of virtue.
Reminiscent of Plato’s leadership paradigm, Star Trek’s famous triumvirate stresses the need to dauntlessly use virtue to control humanity’s impulsive spirit. For Roddenberry, only when reason and high ideals are employed to overcome life’s difficulties can wisdom and justice be achieved. As such, Captain Kirk represents the balanced leader who uses virtue (spirit) to reconcile Spock’s logical and unemotional arguments (reason) with McCoy’s unbridled expressions of compassion (emotion).
Consequently, with all due respect to Roddenberry’s exhortation, forgiveness – not space – is the “final frontier.” Relational congruence and not galactic exploration is the foundation and fundamental longing of humanity. While the primary message of a hopeful future of technological refinements may, indeed, resonate and have popular appeal, viewers of all ages simultaneously recognize that interpersonal difficulties are often more difficult to surmount than black holes, Klingons, and the Borg.
Virtue’s dynamic calculus of spirit, reason, and compassion is best illustrated in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Universally regarded as the chef-d’oeuvre of the Star Trek movie series, The Wrath of Khan is a modern-day version of Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s masterpiece novel of revenge – the toxic polar opposite of forgiveness.
In the story, the now Admiral Kirk escapes the tedium of a desk job to join Spock and McCoy on an unexpected space rescue mission. Fatefully, the Enterprise crosses paths with Kirk’s old adversary, Khan Noonien Singh, the chief fictional villain in the entire Star Trek franchise, originally portrayed by Ricardo Montalbán. Khan, the malevolent protagonist who once controlled more than a quarter of the Earth during the fictional Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, first appeared in the original Star Trek episode “Space Seed” (1967). Revived from suspended animation in 2267 by the crew of the Enterprise, Khan attempts to capture the starship, but is thwarted by Kirk and exiled on the uninhabited planet to create a new society with his confidantes.
Khan is one of the most infamous scoundrels of cinematic history. In 2002, the Online Film Critics Society named the character the 10th Greatest Screen Villain of all time, comparable to Nietzsche’s concept of the “Übermensch” (superman or overman). Genetically engineered with superior strength and mental capabilities, Khan has spent the last 12 long years festering hatred against Kirk. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Star Trek’s most crazed Ahab, now decides to insinuate himself, and his near-savage group of space minions, in a despotic plot of vengeance.
Khan is the mirror image of Kirk. Older and melancholic, the film portrays both men as unable to appropriately manage the injustices of their respective pasts. While Khan laments the loss of political power and the death of his wife, Kirk muses over a life that “could have been and wasn’t.” Kirk misses the bridge of the Enterprise, but simultaneously realizes that his multi-year command left him a middle-aged lonely man. Having ruled Earth as a prince in the 1990s, Khan’s past, on the other hand, was much grander. Regrettably, his lust for vengeance now clouds his judgment and sets Khan on a collision course with Kirk. “To the last, I grapple with thee,” exclaims Kahn. “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” Consumed by his desire to avenge himself on Kirk, Kahn quotes Melville’s Ahab, “for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”
What can leaders do to avoid the toxic syndrome of revenge? After experiencing harm, damage, trauma, or injustice, what can they do to heal, replenish and restore their efficacy and resilience? How can contemporary leaders of all stripes avoid the destructive consequences of humanity’s most hazardous frontier?
Revenge is the belief that one must strike back and teach the perpetrator a lesson or they will do it again. The urge to take revenge against those that have caused pain is one of the most deep-rooted and ancient of human patterns. The tendency to “settle the score” between individuals, families, and tribes created feuds, grudge wars, vendettas, retaliation, payback, and retribution. According to Khan, “revenge is a dish best served cold!” History has demonstrated, however, that while such a diet repeatedly prevails, the meal produces greater harm than it prevents.
Virtually every culture and religious tradition advocates the need to overcome injustice, resentment, and hatred with the influence of forgiveness. A countenance of love, forgiveness is universally considered a quality of maturity and the preeminent personal attribute of effective leadership. The Judeo-Christian tradition emphasizes the importance of forgiveness, considering it the primary act of sacrifice. The one who forgives is understood as sacrificing resentment and, thereby, renouncing something of great personal value.
According to Pope Francis, while forgiveness is an important affection of the Christian faith, “it is misunderstood in the modern world.” As he opened the Holy Door at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome on January 1, 2016 (inaugurating the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy that began December 2015 and will end on the Solemnity of Christ the King on November 20, 2016), the Catholic Pontiff lamented, that a person unable to forgive “has not yet known the fullness of love. Only one who truly loves is able to forgive and forget.”
For Francis, forgiveness is “the true antidote to the sadness caused by resentment and vengeance.” “Let us, then, pass through the Holy Door of Mercy,” the Holy Father exhorted, “opening wide the doors of our heart to the joy of forgiveness, conscious that we have been given new confidence and hope, and thus make our daily lives a humble instrument of God’s love.”
Echoing a similar message, the Orthodox Christian Church annually designates the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day on which the Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise – as Forgiveness Sunday. According to the Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann “at Vespers, after announcing and inaugurating Lent . . . worshipers are invited to ask forgiveness from each other in a rite of forgiveness and reconciliation.” The liturgical cycle of Lenten begins with forgiveness and reconciliation,” writes Schmemann, because “forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life. Because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness.”
While many have difficulty forgiving in the absence of apology or restitution, wise leaders honor justice and reinforce activities that help foster restoration for those harmed. Underscoring the sentiment of Pope Francis, the South African social rights activist, retired Anglican bishop, and Noble Peace Prize recipient, Archbishop Desmond Tutu insists that due to the “human condition, we will always need a process of forgiveness and reconciliation to deal with those unfortunate yet all too human breaches in relationships.” Tutu’s explanation of the peaceful transition in South Africa from conditions of inhumane oppression to freely offered forgiveness is a powerful illustration. The following lengthy passage from his book, No Future Without Forgiveness (1999) is a valuable exhortation for contemporary leaders and followers alike.
“Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. In forgiving, people are not asked to forget. On the contrary, it is important to remember, so that we should not let such atrocities happen again. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence . . . Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”
(See Link to Rolling Stone Magazine Article (July, 2016) of forgiveness: Tom Petty and Mudcrutch have teamed with Sean Penn and Anthony Hopkins for a powerful video (5.5 million views) for song “I Forgive It All” that contemplates poverty, wealth, aging and absolution.)
Apart from lyricists, philosophers, theologians, and political activists, medical professionals and investigative social scientists provide useful insights into the topic of forgiveness. All generally understand forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group that have created harm, regardless of whether they deserve to be forgiven or not.
Research has repeatedly demonstrated the psychological, physical, and social benefits of forgiveness. While learning to forgive improves emotional and physical wellbeing, harboring feelings of resentment or hurt disrupts personal and professional lives, leads to bad decision-making, and releases toxic stress chemicals. In addition, psychological instruments like the Transgression Narrative Test of Forgiveness (TNTF), developed by Berry, Worthington, O’Connor, and Wade (2001), and the Transgression Related Interpersonal Motivations Inventory (TRIM), McCullough, Worthington, and Rachal (1997), are useful tools for understanding the virtue’s characteristics.
Forgiveness is an important action that can lead to a place of greater healing and peace. Studies show that forgiveness and letting go of anger and resentment can benefit a person’s physical health resulting in lower stress hormones, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, and reduce gastrointestinal and other body pains. Forgiveness repairs relationships and restores inner peace. While forgiveness usually occurs in collaboration with other virtues such as compassion, humility, gratitude, hope, and love, it should be noted that it entails an intra (personal) as well as interpersonal (relational) dimension. It should not, however, be understood as requiring the abandoning, pardoning, or dismissing of anger or resentment towards an offense. On the contrary, it involves a process of accepting and reframing negative feelings and attitudes. As such, forgiveness requires strength, insight, and the ability to change.
According to Time Magazine, Robert Enright, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, is the leading authority in the scientific study of forgiveness, having tested his theories in extreme circumstances around the globe. In his new book, Eight Keys to Forgiveness (2015), Enright provides a hands-on guide to leaders seeking to learn how to utilize the influence of forgiveness in the personal as well as professional lives. His eight keys of forgiveness include:
- Knowing what forgiveness is and why it matters
- Becoming “forgivingly fit”
- Addressing inner pain
- Develop a forgiving mind through empathy
- Find meaning in suffering
- Calling upon other strengths to support forgiveness
- Forgive yourself
- Developing a forgiving heart
Like Enright, Frederic Luskin, a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University, advocates a structured multi-step process for experiencing the benefits of forgiveness. In his book, Forgive For Good (2003), Luskin outlines nine steps to experiencing complete forgiveness. The process was developed as the result of Luskin’s pervasive observations at the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, an ongoing series of workshops and research projects that investigate the effectiveness of his forgiveness methods on a variety of populations.
“Forgiveness,” notes Luskin, “is a complex experience that changes an offended person’s spiritual feelings, emotions, thoughts, actions, and self-confidence level. I believe learning to forgive the hurts and grudges of our life may be an important step for us to feel more hopeful and spiritually connected and less depressed.” Forgiveness is a decision and not an emotion. Suffers must, therefore, recognize that forgiveness does not occur quickly. It requires time for grieving. Accordingly, leaders who desire to overcome the toxic harm of resentment must pass through the following nine stages of Luskin’s research-based therapy.
- Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK.
- Make a commitment to yourself to feel better.
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning the action.
- Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what offended you or hurt you.
- At the moment you feel upset, practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight or flight response.
- Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you.
- Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you.
- Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, thereby giving power over you to the person who caused you pain, learn to look for love, beauty, and kindness around you.
- Amend the way you look at your past so you remind yourself of your heroic choice to forgive.
Apart from disclosing valuable therapeutic remedies, research has also identified three (3) broad categories of “forgiveness aversion.” The first block (unreadiness) may be defined as an inner state of unresolved emotional turmoil that can delay or derail forgiveness. The “unready” are stuck in a victim loop, ruminating on the wrongs done to them by another person or by life. These victims are unable to shift their perspective to a larger view of life that may help them find meaning, purpose, lessons, and possibilities for change from the original grievance.
Self-protection is the second block to forgiveness. It entails the fear, very often legitimate, that forgiveness will backfire and leave the person offering forgiveness vulnerable to further harm, aggression, violation of boundaries, or exploitation. The third and final block (face concerns) to forgiveness is the need to save face in front of other people and protect one’s public reputation and self-concept.
In his book, Forgive and Forget (1984), Lewis B. Smedes suggests several techniques for surmounting forgiveness blocks. Often credited as the catalyst for modern forgiveness research, Smedes cautions, however, that forgiveness should never be understood as being synonymous with lenience or tolerance of error. Forgiving mistakes does not mean excusing or lowering expectations. In fact, forgiveness should facilitate excellence and improvement rather than inhibiting it. As such, the prisoners of grievance are set free through virtuous actions that highlight, celebrate, and amplify structures, systems, and networks of forgiveness. In so doing, sufferers “set the prisoner free,” and thereby discover that the prisoner was actually themselves. In fostering and enabling such an attitude of forgiveness in themselves and others, the challenge for leaders is to provide meaning, vision, legitimacy, and support while not compromising high standards and values.
After a succession of epic battles, Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan culminates with the villain igniting the ultimate suicide bomb – the Genesis device. With the Enterprise’s engines crippled and no apparent way to escape Khan’s hatred, Mr. Spock undertakes his own suicidal mission. As the captain and crew prepare for the inevitable, Spock heroically enters the starship’s radiation chamber, restores the vessel’s warp drive, and thereby saves the lives of his comrades. Kirk arrives just in time to witness his best friend’s dying moments, during which Spock justifies his actions by quoting a Vulcan proverb, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
Star Trek is a series, franchise, a utopian idea and mythic vision of hope in humanity’s goodness. This, in the final analysis, is the explanation for the saga’s popularity and charm. The Wrath of Khan is merely a portrait of humanity’s heroic ability to express the sacrifices of love, compassion, and forgiveness. There is an undeniable logic at the heart of the Vulcan saying. The needs of the many should always outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Alternately, like Khan, those who attempt to subvert the group in favor of their personal needs and ambitions are typically regarded as tyrants. Forgiveness, not revenge, is the ultimate logic of life, if for no other reason, than a leader’s authentic desire to ensure the welfare of others.
Personal stories of grievance, like those of Khan, imprison. While such memories imprison leaders in the toxic loop of victimhood, forgiveness liberates individuals to reframe their personal stories of injustice in terms of courageous heroism. Leaders must become adept at fashioning narratives that characterize problems as challenges to overcame and not as stumbling blocks to personal, professional, and/or vocational achievement. Like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, leaders must view forgiveness as the virtue of the authentic hero capable of surmounting injustice and the complexities of the cosmos.
Understood in such a fashion, forgiveness is, indeed, the genesis of new worlds – the ultimate journey – the final frontier.