Clearing boulders: In our culture, forgiveness is a surprise ending

A Truly Counter-Cultural Story


“Sue the doctor!”

That’s what friends and family urged my father-in-law, Donald Bosserman, to do after we discovered a mistaken diagnosis would end his life. How could this happen!?! There was no way to save him now. We wanted revenge.

I know a lot about “Revenge,” the action of hurting another in return for the wrong done to me, and “Avenge,” the verb that describes inflicting retribution or exacting satisfaction in such cases. We all know those words, because they are the fuel of our popular culture.

In recent years, my book about the spiritual lessons behind Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels has taken me into discussion groups far and wide. My focus is on the way Fleming crafted the novels to portray his hero as pursuing the seven, modern, deadlier sins that Fleming was convinced posed the greatest evils in our age.

One night, following a talk on Fleming and Bond, a man came up to me and wisely observed, “I know your 007 book is based on Ian Fleming’s literary tales and not on the films, but have you noticed that the recent Bond films—and almost all action films these days—are rooted in one theme: revenge?”

He was spot on. We are hurt in so many ways, season after season, and our culture tells us: The solution is revenge.

But there is an alternative story—think of it as a possible surprise ending—after all the tales of vengeance on TV, at the movies and in the front-page headlines that dominate our culture.

In more than 30 years with my father-in-law, he taught me this lesson. First, Donald taught me about clearing boulders. In the latter years of his life, he and his wife lived in Pennsylvania on a wooded lot filled with trees and boulders—land that once was riddled by bullets and bombs in the pivotal battle of our Civil War. They lived less than a half mile from the Eternal Peace Light on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

Donald delighted in landscaping with trees, plants and boulders. He was always rearranging, and each time I visited, at least once a month, there were boulders to move—60, 100, 300 pound boulders. We strained, grunted, pushed, leveraged and laughed them to fit his new vision. Then we would sit on the boulders, sweating and drinking and talking about the ups and downs of our lives.

With refreshed energy, he then would jump up and say we needed to split and rack some wood for the fires, as fall was not far off.

The last months of Donald’s life were discouraging, difficult and degenerative. We were there every weekend as he declined in a nursing home. Donald’s doctor had misdiagnosed his illness as ulcers, not colon cancer. Once the correct diagnosis was made it was too late and the decline precipitous.

That’s when friends and family started talking about a lawsuit against the doctor.

I told Donald about this, but he wouldn’t stand for it. He called a couple of us to his bedside where he said unequivocally, “I will not rest peacefully in my grave if my family pursues any action against the doctor. He is human. He made a mistake. It was not intentional. I have forgiven him. If any of you continue to live with resentment or seek revenge, it will ruin your lives.”

And then he said, “Resentment is a closet full of rusty swords. If you don’t forgive; if you persist with resentment and think of vengeance, you will impale yourself on those rusty swords.”

Is it any wonder that I admired and loved him more deeply at that moment?

As Johann Christoph Arnold, the great peacemaker, puts it: “If I don’t forgive, I am a bound person. I am consumed by the person who has hurt me. I am consumed night and day by him. If I forgive, I let go of all that. I do myself a favor by forgiving.”

My father-in-law knew that. Yes, resentment is like a closet full of rusty swords.

Or, like a great big boulder we must clear to see life’s beauty again.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Pauline D Wade says

    I love the picture of the boulder at the edge of an Iowa field. To the left of that looks like a cross. One could look at this as the boulder rolled away from the tomb of Jesus.
    Ron passed away in November 2013 with the same situation. A missed diagnosis, we miss him every day.
    God Bless
    Pauline Wade

  2. Sue says

    Great article! Thank you. This should help many, many people who are experiencing how our medical profession is failing everyone, including doctors, because we are looking at people as pieces, rather than a whole person. No doctor, nurse, or caregiver wants to intentionally hurt their patient. I can only imagine the pain a doctor must suffer when he or she misses a diagnosis.

    Peace to everyone!