After writing my blog post, “How can I forgive?” I found a book that explains exactly how, using a four-step process. I had to see it.
The authors are Desmond Tutu, who chaired South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and his daughter Mpho Tutu, who shares a traumatic experience. Editor Douglas Abrams was excellent in The Book of Joy, reviewed earlier. With those credentials I was very interested.
The first step to forgiveness is telling your story. That was new to me as part of forgiving, although I knew it as part of healing. In South Africa’s TRC, listening to the story was so important that victims could not be cross-examined. What a difference from the court system, which is sometimes said to re-victimize. You can tell your story to a kind listener, write it down secretly or even share it publicly. Tips for listeners are provided: don’t question facts, create a safe space, acknowledge what happened, and empathize with the pain.
It isn’t always advisable to tell your story to a perpetrator, but it can offer “a profound reclaiming of dignity and strength when you are able to stand in front of your abuser, stand in your truth, and speak of how that person hurt you.” The authors believe it is “the quickest way to find both peace and the will to forgive…. To work, the perpetrator has to be receptive, and you have to be sure they will not cause you more harm.” A good sign is if they have already shown remorse and are asking for forgiveness.
The second step is naming the hurt. Just naming a feeling can heal, as it can bring an emotion to light that has not been understood or has been kept under wraps. But even denial is forgiven -- of course, in a book on forgiveness! “It exists for a reason. Denial protects us from remembered pain and can serve to pace our grief. When a loss feels unbearable or overwhelming, denial can be a way of easing us into an acceptance of that loss.” But continued denial can lead to more problems. “I daresay that at the root of almost every addict’s or alcoholic’s struggle is the denial of pain.” I wondered if safely experiencing unresolved pain could be a powerful antidote to workaholism or other addictions.
The third step is actually granting forgiveness. It can help to see the other person as a flawed human just as we are. “Children do not dream of growing up to be rapists or murderers, and yet every rapist and every murderer was once a child.” In a very touching meditation, we are asked to imagine the person as a tiny baby in our arms, before they hurt us or anyone. I found it a striking image that could be used to send compassion even to dictators, past and present, as I wrote earlier in How to Survive Famine.
The fourth and final step is renewing or releasing the relationship. Where it is unsafe to continue contact, the relationship is best released. Sometimes the person has died or you don’t even know who they are. In these cases, we can ask others for what we need, such as empathy and space to tell our story.
If the relationship can be renewed, an amazing new story might be created. Many are shared in the book. Dan and Lynn Wagner met Lisa Cotter before her release on parole. Lisa had injured them and killed their two daughters in a motor vehicle collision when under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Although it was impossible for Lisa to return the lives that were lost, she wished to make amends. Together she and Lynn began to share their story in jails, churches and universities. Dan commented, “God does not waste his children’s pain.”
Amy Biehl’s family started a foundation in her name, employing the men who had brutally killed their daughter. Amy had travelled to South Africa on a scholarship working to end apartheid. The mob that attacked her were fired up after police had killed a young black boy. They saw Amy as another white person symbolizing their oppression. The parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, learned the circumstances at the TRC, where they agreed to grant amnesty. Forgiveness was not easy, and sometimes had to be renewed daily, but their story changed them from victims to heroes.
Bassam Aramin co-founded Combatants for Peace, and remained committed to nonviolence when his ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli soldier near her school. Aramin said, “After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”
Imagine the potential for peace when forgiveness is exercised at the national or international level. Rwanda moved from being “convulsed in genocidal violence to heal itself through reconciliation and forgiveness. More than twelve thousand community-based courts tried over 1.2 million cases throughout the country. The justice they sought was often restorative rather than punitive…. The goal was to rebuild the communities and the country, to heal and prevent further revenge and violence.”
Even if a relationship is released rather than renewed, we can create a powerful new story that brings meaning to past suffering. We can work to prevent similar harm to others. We can become more empathetic. “Only you can decide how to tell a new story. You are the author of your life, and only you can write your book of forgiving.”
Guidance is also provided on how to ask for forgiveness of another, and how to forgive ourselves. Meditations and journal exercises are offered to deepen the process. A short poem rounds out each chapter.
Eventually we can learn to forgive automatically. “There is a special kind of magic that happens when I become a more forgiving person.... What was once a grave affront melts into nothing more than a thoughtless or careless act. What was once a reason for rupture and alienation becomes an opportunity for repair and greater intimacy. A life that seemed littered with obstacles and antagonism is suddenly filled with opportunity and love.” Learning to love may be at the heart of forgiveness.
I’m going to get better at this. How about you? Do you struggle with forgiveness? Do you have a forgiveness story that you would be willing to share?
- Irene Plett
Details: Desmond and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path For Healing Ourselves and Our World, ed. Douglas C. Abrams (2014: HarperCollins, ISBN 978007512874, 231 pages). Quotations at pages 23, 35, 80-81, 102, 134, 152, 214, and 215-216.
Topics: forgiveness, inspiration, peace, reconciliation, Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu, Douglas Abrams, South Africa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Rwanda, Dan Wagner, Lynn Wagner, Lisa Cotter, Amy Biehl Foundation, Linda Biehl, Peter Biehl, Bassam Aramin, Combatants for Peace, Israel, Palestine, relationships, trauma