The Book of Forgiving (2014) is a practical guide to harnessing the power of forgiveness and healing in your own life. As humans, we will all experience hurt at some points in our lives. We’ll also harm other people, intentionally or not. Learning to both hold yourself and others accountable and forgive them for what they’ve done will transform your personal relationships and broader communities.
Motivation, Inspiration, Mindfulness, Happiness, Religion, Spirituality, Christian Living, Emotional Mental Health, Emotional Self Help, Spiritual Self-Help
Introduction: Discover the healing power of forgiveness.
We all experience pain – that is, emotional pain, inflicted on us by others. It’s an inescapable part of being human. Maybe you were bullied at school. Or betrayed by someone you loved.
As much as you may try to guard against these kinds of experiences, you can’t escape getting hurt at some stage of your life. What you can control, however, is how you respond to what happens to you.
Do you go baying for blood, looking for the mythical “eye for an eye,” or do you choose to forgive? No matter how difficult it might seem – that choice is always within reach.
But what does it mean, really, to forgive? Forgiveness is usually seen as a kind of saintly act, or perhaps a soft one: it’s seen as letting people off the hook, or failing to hold them accountable for their deeds. But that’s inaccurate. In fact, the primary reason you should forgive the person who hurt you is actually very selfish: it will set you free.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu knew more about forgiveness than most people on this planet. Being a victim of the apartheid regime himself, he later created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a restorative justice project in South Africa that invited perpetrators of terrible apartheid crimes to tell the truth about what happened and ask for forgiveness. And for the victims to have a place to share the enormous pain, grief and destruction that they experienced. The TRC is credited with allowing South Africa to transition to being the democracy it is today, without more violence.
In this summary, you’ll discover the Fourfold Path to forgiveness. This path is a practical four-step guide, created by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Andrea Tutu. It draws on their experiences and shows you how to harness the power of forgiveness in your own life. This summary contains four guided meditations. If you want to practice them at home, consider switching to the audio version.
The first step on the Fourfold Path to forgiveness is telling your story.
When Clara Walsh’s older sister died in a car accident when Clara herself was just 19, she was shattered. Losing her sister left an enormous hole in her life. But, after the funeral, no one talked about her sister ever again. It was as if she’d never existed. This was clearly a coping strategy for her family, but, for Clara, it didn’t work.
Decades after the accident, Clara suffered from anxiety and depression. She was terrified that something would happen to someone else she loved. Her marriage broke down, and she started using alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress. Clara had never been allowed to express what had happened to her.
She’d been prevented from the vital first step on the Fourfold Path to forgiveness: telling her story.
When you put your experiences into words, you are sharing your own perspective on what happened. Telling your story allows you to process the events, and integrate them. It also allows you to reclaim your dignity. You might have had no control over what happened, but you can create your own narrative of it.
It’s been scientifically proven that children become more resilient when they know their family stories. In the 1990s, researcher Marshall Duke created a questionnaire called “Do You Know?” It was given to a group of children who were instructed to find the answers to 20 questions about their family history. Follow-up studies showed that the children who filled in the questionnaire were happier and more resilient, and coped better with traumatic events such as the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. Just knowing about their family history – whether good or bad – enabled them to cope.
How can you begin to tell your own story as the first step on the pathway to forgiveness? First of all, give yourself some time. In the immediate aftermath of an upsetting or traumatic event, you probably won’t be able to make sense of what happened to you. Your experience may be fragmented or blurry as you’re recovering from the shock.
When you’re ready to talk about it, choose a trusted person to talk to. Perhaps that’s a family member, or a good friend, or trusted minister. Bear in mind that telling your story is an evolving practice. It will change over time, and maybe even in each telling. With time, you may remember new details. Or discover that some aspects of the story become less important.
It may feel important to you to tell your story to the perpetrator – the person who actually caused you harm. That can be a very powerful process, if the perpetrator is also willing to engage in that conversation. But remember that people are often defensive and scared, or otherwise unable to face up to what they’ve done. They may be more interested in defending themselves than really hearing what you have to say. If you do decide to talk to them, make sure to manage your expectations. You have no guarantee that they’ll respond well, but at least you can tell your story.
To get into the right mindset for this first step of the Fourfold Path to forgiveness, you can start with a guided meditation.
Get comfortable, and close your eyes. Imagine you are in a safe, relaxing place. It could be on a beach, basking in the sun. Or in your bedroom, cozy in bed as rain taps against your window. Let yourself fully inhabit your space. What sounds can you hear, as you sit there? What does it smell like?
Just then, you hear someone calling your name. Their voice is filled with love. You notice that their presence makes you feel even more relaxed and completely safe. Who are they? A good friend or family member? Or someone who inspires you from afar?
The person sits down in your space. You notice that in between you is an open box. You start telling them the story of what happened to you. Every detail. As you talk, you notice your words streaming into the open box. Your companion gives you their full and undivided attention. You feel complete trust. Once you’ve told them everything, you close the box.
Then you pick it up, and hold it in your hands. When you’re ready, you hand it over to your companion. You know that they will look after your story for you. You don’t have to carry it anymore.
The second step on the Fourfold Path to forgiveness is identifying where it hurts.
In the first step of the process, you started to articulate what happened to you. The next step of the process is to explicitly name how you have been hurt. This step moves past facts to the feelings behind them.
Are you ashamed? Or furious? Or wounded by a betrayal? When you don’t acknowledge these feelings, they fester. After all, you can’t let go of something you can’t identify. So, this step of the process is essential.
This is something that Mpho Tutu knows only too well through her work with survivors of sexual abuse. Often she meets young women who have been shamed or scared into keeping quiet about what happened to them. They’ve never had a chance to process their grief and rage. Only by being given the space to safely identify and experience those feelings can they begin the healing process.
By naming your hurts, you step into vulnerability. You may be used to dulling your feelings by drinking or other harmful activities. Maybe you’ve learned to disassociate from them altogether. Learning to connect to your emotions again may be uncomfortable. You might feel uneasy and raw. But those feelings actually show that you’re in the process of healing.
Remember, that there are no wrong feelings. Your process of healing won’t look like anybody else’s. Your only job is to identify the emotions that are real for you. Expect to feel grief in this process, and to pass through stages like denial and anger, before reaching acceptance.
Make sure you get support from someone who can listen openly and acknowledge your feelings without trying to fix the situation. Someone who understands that the only thing you need is someone to give you their complete attention.
To prepare you for this step of the process, you can do another meditation:
Go back to the safe space you inhabited with your trusted companion. Get comfortable, and then put one hand on your heart and the other on your stomach. Take several deep breaths in and out.
Now, allow yourself to fully feel the hurt. Notice which emotions come up for you. Breath them in, and allow yourself to fully experience how that emotion feels in your body. Share the feelings with your companion, and let them know how it is to carry around this hurt.
Listen to your companion echo back what you’ve said and acknowledge your feelings.
Then, close your eyes and allow yourself to rest and relax in your safe space. When you’re ready, you can get up and leave the room.
The third step is consciously choosing to forgive.
The third step on the Fourfold Path is a big one: granting forgiveness to the one who did you harm. Without this step in the process, you will be stuck in steps one and two. Being able to forgive can seem like a saintly quality that only special people possess. But that’s not true. In fact, it’s a practice.
We all practice forgiveness every day. Think about when your toddler hits you over the head with a wooden block. Your first instinct might be to wallop them right back. But, instead, you tell them that they hit you, and it was sore. And that you understand they didn’t mean to harm you, but they need to be more careful next time. You’ve just moved through a cycle of forgiveness.
The key to being able to forgive lies in remembering your motivation, which is to free yourself from a lifetime of victimhood. In the process of forgiving, you give yourself agency. And the space to tell a new story.
Kia Scherr’s daughter and husband were killed in a terrorist attack in Mumbai. She watched the coverage helplessly, across the world in the United States. When the TV showed a picture of the terrorist, she was startled to blurt out: “We need to forgive him.” The rest of the family thought she’d gone crazy. But Kia knew that that was the only way she could go on living. Otherwise, she would be consumed with just as much hatred as the terrorists.
She imagined the grief of their mothers, who had also lost children. She connected with their humanity, even in the midst of her own suffering. In that way, she says, she was able to keep her heart soft. And she could accept what had happened to her family.
Seeing the humanity in the person you’re forgiving is key to being able to forgive. When you start to see them as complicated humans instead of monsters, you will be able to empathize with them.
Forgiving someone doesn’t mean condoning their actions. It doesn’t mean you won’t hold them accountable. It simply means that you’ve decided to free yourself from staying bound to them, from staying a victim in the story. Forgiveness is a choice. And it’s one you will need to make again and again. The more you practice, the stronger your forgiveness muscles will become.
To help you with this step of the process, here is another meditation exercise.
Close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Allow yourself to think of an emotion that makes you feel good, like joy or peace, or a mixture of the two. Imagine that the emotion is filling you, and radiating outwards. This peaceful sensation is part of you. You can draw on it anytime you need it.
Now imagine the person you want to forgive. But instead of seeing them as an adult, picture them as a tiny baby you’re holding. They’re completely innocent. They haven’t harmed anyone yet. They’re just a baby, as you once were.
Can you direct some of your good feelings to them, and bless them?
The last step on the path to forgiveness is releasing or renewing the relationship.
The Fourfold Path is incomplete without the very last step: releasing or renewing the relationship with the perpetrator. In this part of the process, you decide whether you want to keep the person in your life, or send them on their way.
If you don’t know the person who harmed you, you may be thinking: “What relationship?” But the very act of being harmed has created a relationship between you. Every time you think about the perpetrator, they’re consuming your emotional energy and taking up space in your mind. The step of renewing or releasing the relationship is designed to free you.
Dan and Lynn Wagner’s teenage daughters were killed by a drunk driver who plowed into their car on the way back from a church event. They decided that to really find resolution, they needed to contact the woman who had killed their daughters. They needed to tell her what the loss had meant for them and how much they’d suffered. Dan and Lynn began sending letters to her in prison, and she responded. Eventually, they went to see her. Lynn had expected to feel angry, but when she saw the woman – Lisa – she just started hugging her, and crying.
Instead of being the opportunity they thought it would be to release the relationship, it actually became a renewal. Today, Lynn and Dan Wagner give public talks together with Lisa on healing and forgiveness. In the end, what makes the story so remarkable is not what happened, but how all three of them have responded to the terrible accident. Dan and Lynn Wagner, by demonstrating remarkable grace in forgiving Lisa. Lisa, by facing what she did unflinchingly and committing to making amends. That process took a very long time. But it resulted in a relationship that none of them could have previously imagined.
When you decide to renew a relationship you’re not trying to restore how it was before. Instead, you’re creating something new. It means that you have to think about what you need from that person in order to heal. Do you need them to be able to listen to you and acknowledge your pain, like Lynn and Dan Wagner needed Lisa to do? Do you need them to explain why they did it? Or do you need them to pay restitution or make some other form of amends? Asking for what you need is a powerful act. If the person can meet your needs, it could be the basis for a renewed relationship, made more resilient for what you’ve gone through together.
If the person isn’t able to listen, or take accountability, or if you don’t feel safe with them, then you may choose to release the relationship. That means that you choose to forgive them, and send them on their way to live their life with your blessings. You don’t have to tell them that explicitly. You can also do it in your mind.
As with all the steps on the Fourfold Path, this decision may take time. You don’t have to rush it. Only you will know when you’re at the stage when you’re ready to renew or release the relationship with the person or people who harmed you.
In order to really integrate the ideas in this last step, take a few minutes to do one, final meditation.
Get comfortable, and take a few deep breaths in and out.
Imagine you’re back in your safe space with your trusted, loving companion. Think about the person you’ve forgiven, and allow yourself to experience all the feelings that come up about the relationship. Are you anxious, sad, or hopeful?
Describe all your feelings and thoughts about the relationship to your companion. She will not offer an opinion or judgment. She’ll simply reflect back how you’re feeling. Allow yourself to fully experience your own inner wisdom, and see what choices feel authentic for you. When you feel at peace with what you’ve decided, you can leave the room.
Small acts of forgiveness make a big impact.
Even the smallest act of forgiveness can have an enormous impact in the world. The quality of human life on earth is made up of millions of small interactions between people. Whether those interactions lead to rupturing of relationships or harmony and renewal affects the very fabric of our societies.
Practicing forgiveness isn’t about being passive, or giving people who hurt you a free pass. On the contrary, it’s about learning to express your hurt, ask for what you need, and hold other people to account.
And if you know you’ve hurt someone, even in a small way, it’s about learning to become accountable for what you’ve done. To be able to hear their story without defensiveness, ask for forgiveness, and make amends.
There’s no act that can’t be forgiven, and no person unworthy of forgiveness. Often, the very first person you need to forgive is yourself.
Forgiveness is a choice that all of us make every day. And forgiveness is a selfish act: in choosing to forgive someone who harmed us, we’re actually freeing ourselves. In order to truly forgive it’s important to first tell your story, and identify the source of hurt and pain. Then you will be able to ask for what you need, and make a decision about whether to release or renew the relationship.
And here’s some more actionable advice: Keep a grief journal
Often our heads are very busy places, and it can be hard to think clearly, especially about fraught or emotional topics. As you’re on your own path to forgiveness, try keeping a grief journal where you’re free to write about all the feelings you’re experiencing in the journey. The journal will act as a guide as well as a record for you to look back on when you’re at a different place on the path to forgiveness.
About the author
Desmond Mpilo Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. In 1986 he was elected archbishop of Cape Town, the highest position in the Anglican Church in South Africa. In 1994, after the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela, Tutu was appointed as chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate apartheid-era crimes. His policy of forgiveness and reconciliation has become an international example of conflict resolution and a trusted method of postconflict reconstruction. He is currently the chair of The Elders, where he gives vocal defense of human rights and campaigns for the oppressed.
The Reverend Mpho A. Tutu is currently the executive director of The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Into Wholeness
Part One: UNDERSTANDING FORGIVENESS
1 Why Forgive?
2 What Forgiveness Is Not
3 Understanding the Fourfold Path
Part Two: THE FOURFOLD PATH
4 Telling the Story
5 Naming the Hurt
6 Granting Forgiveness
7 Renewing or Releasing the Relationship
Part Three: ALL CAN BE FORGIVEN
8 Needing Forgiveness
9 Forgiving Yourself
10 A World of Forgiveness
About the Authors
Also by Desmond Tutu
About the Publisher
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Chair of The Elders, and Chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, along with his daughter, the Reverend Mpho Tutu, offer a manual on the art of forgiveness—helping us to realize that we are all capable of healing and transformation.
Tutu’s role as the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission taught him much about forgiveness. If you asked anyone what they thought was going to happen to South Africa after apartheid, almost universally it was predicted that the country would be devastated by a comprehensive bloodbath. Yet, instead of revenge and retribution, this new nation chose to tread the difficult path of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Each of us has a deep need to forgive and to be forgiven. After much reflection on the process of forgiveness, Tutu has seen that there are four important steps to healing: Admitting the wrong and acknowledging the harm; Telling one’s story and witnessing the anguish; Asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness; and renewing or releasing the relationship. Forgiveness is hard work. Sometimes it even feels like an impossible task. But it is only through walking this fourfold path that Tutu says we can free ourselves of the endless and unyielding cycle of pain and retribution. The Book of Forgiving is both a touchstone and a tool, offering Tutu’s wise advice and showing the way to experience forgiveness. Ultimately, forgiving is the only means we have to heal ourselves and our aching world.
Video and Podcast
“A primer for not only finding the path for healing ourselves and the world, but for restoring balance in our biology, mind, and spirit.” – Deepak Chopra, author of What Are You Hungry For?
“Includes instructions on how to forgive, as well as scientific and moral reasons to do so. No one is unforgiveable; it takes a moral icon such as Tutu to credibly assert this. . . . This book belongs on nightstands, shelves, and altars everywhere.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“There is no one who embodies the virtue of forgiveness like Desmond Tutu. With this book, he and his daughter take forgiveness out of the realm of mystery and offer a handbook on forgiveness, revealing this most exacting and freeing of human capacities in all its complexity and transformative achievability.” – Krista Tippett, Host/Executive Producer of On Being
“What better guides and teachers on forgiveness than Bishop Tutu and his daughter who have lived faithfully through the hardest most demanding days of South Africa! This book meets an urgent need among us, and does so with wisdom, realism, and generosity.” – Walter Brueggemann, author of The Prophetic Imagination
“Desmond Tutu shows each of us how to transform our pain and sorrow into hope and confidence in the future. Whether you are the head of a country or the head of a household, you will cherish his words.” – Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize recipient
“For decades [Tutu] has been a moral titan―a voice of principle, an unrelenting champion of justice, and a dedicated peacemaker . . . an outspoken voice for freedom and justice in countries across the globe; a staunch defender of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.” – President Barack Obama
“[Tutu’s] unofficial legacy will be his life and the story of how this tiny pastor with a huge laugh from South Africa became our global guardian.” – TIME
“Archbishop Tutu has the ability to see our shared humanity in each person he meets, and to get us to do the same.” – Bill Clinton
“Archbishop Desmond Tutu, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, has offered us a luminous vision of love and hope. With his great warmth and compassion, Archbishop Tutu offers a spiritual message that if heeded can change lives as well as history.” – Jimmy Carter
“I have the highest regard for my good and trusted friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I admire him for the wonderful, warm person he is and especially for the human principles he upholds.” – His Holiness the Dalai Lama
“One thing I have learned from [Tutu] . . . is that he has that constant and persistent faith that things can be better and we can do something about it. We should not find excuses not to act or not to speak out.” – Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001
“Desmond Tutu has walked the talk all his adult life. We can all be grateful that, together with his daughter Mpho, he has now shared his secrets for why he has so much hope and joy.” – Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland
“I doubt there is anyone on this Earth with a deeper sense of God’s presence and goodness than Archbishop Tutu.” – Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization and The Gifts of the Jews.
“[Tutu] was not just an anti-apartheid worker. . . . He was somebody who had thought very deeply about spiritual values and had applied them to what he was doing. In some ways that reminded me of Gandhi.” – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
“Bishop Tutu and his daughter Mpho reveal groundbreaking insights as to how to acknowledge and resolve our lifelong burdens of anguish and pain towards a new paradigm of transformative healing.” – Annie Lennox
“I am lost for words to express my appreciation for this book … Desmond Tutu and his daughter show clearly that suffering, while always painful, need not destroy.” – Terry Waite, CBE
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview
How do I forgive?
Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu has witnessed some of the worst crimes people can inflict on others. So wherever he goes, he inevitably gets asked this question. This book is his answer. Writing with his daughter, Mpho, an Anglican priest, they lay out the simple but profound truths about the significance of forgiveness, how it works, why everyone needs to know how to grant it and receive it, and why granting forgiveness is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves when we have been wronged.
They explain the four-step process of forgiveness—Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship—as well as offer meditations, exercises, and prayers to guide the reader along the way.
“With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move toward wholeness,” they write. “Forgiveness is how we bring peace to ourselves and our world.”
Introduction Into Wholeness
“HE HAD MANY WOUNDS.” She spoke with the precision of a coroner. “In the upper abdomen were five wounds. These wounds indicated that different weapons were used to stab him, or a group of people stabbed him.” Mrs. Mhlawuli continued her harrowing testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She spoke about the disappearance and murder of her husband, Sicelo. “In the lower part, he also had wounds. In total, there were forty-three. They poured acid on his face. They chopped off his right hand just below the wrist. I don’t know what they did with that hand.” A wave of horror and nausea rose in me.
Now it was nineteen-year-old Babalwa’s turn to speak. She was eight when her father died. Her brother was only three. She described the grief, police harassment, and hardship in the years since her father’s death. And then she said, “I would love to know who killed my father. So would my brother.” Her next words stunned me and left me breathless. “We want to forgive them. We want to forgive, but we don’t know who to forgive.”
As chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I have often been asked how the people of South Africa were able to forgive the atrocities and injustices they suffered under apartheid. Our journey in South Africa was quite long and treacherous. Today it is hard to believe that, up until our first democratic election in 1994, ours was a country that institutionalized racism, in; equality, and oppression. In apartheid South Africa only white people could vote, earn a high-quality education, and expect advancement or opportunity. There were decades of protest and violence. Much blood was shed during our long march to freedom. When, at last, our leaders were released from prison, it was feared that our transition to democracy would become a bloodbath of revenge and retaliation. Miraculously we chose another future. We chose forgiveness. At the time, we knew that telling the truth and healing our history was the only way to save our country from certain destruction. We did not know where this choice would lead us. The process we embarked on through the TRC was, as all real growth proves to be, astoundingly painful and profoundly beautiful.
I have also been asked what I learned about forgiveness from that experience and from the many places I have visited during my life where there has been conflict and suffering, from Northern Ireland to Rwanda. This book is a response to this question. It is also an answer to the unspoken question that lies behind: How do we forgive? This book is written for those who need forgiveness, whether they want to forgive or to be forgiven.
There are days when I wish I could erase from my mind all the horrors I have witnessed. It seems there is no end to the creative ways we humans can find to hurt each other, and no end to the reasons we feel justified in doing so. There is also no end to the human capacity for healing. In each of us, there is an innate ability to create joy out of suffering, to find hope in the most hopeless of situations, and to heal any relationship in need of healing.
I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another—whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity—then you will know this to be true. I have often said that in South Africa there would have been no future without forgiveness. Our rage and our quest for revenge would have been our destruction. This is as true for us individually as it is for us globally.
There have been times when each and every one of us has needed to forgive. There have also been times when each and every one of us has needed to be forgiven. And there will be many times again. In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again.
Whether it is the tormentor who tortured me brutally, the spouse who betrayed me, the boss who passed me over for a promotion, or the driver who cut me off during my morning commute, I face the same choice: to forgive or to seek revenge. We face this choice of whether or not to forgive as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a deeply connected world.
The quality of human life on our planet is nothing more than the sum total of our daily interactions with one another. Each time we help, and each time we harm, we have a dramatic impact on our world. Because we are human, some of our interactions will go wrong, and then we will hurt or be hurt, or both. It is the nature of being human, and it is unavoidable. Forgiveness is the way we set those interactions right. It is the way we mend tears in the social fabric. It is the way we stop our human community from unraveling.
There are countless studies that enumerate the social, spiritual, psychological, and even physiological benefits of forgiveness. The actual process of forgiveness, however, has often been left a mystery. Yes, it is good and helpful to let go of resentment, but how do we let go of resentment when we have been harmed? Of course it is better not to exact retribution, but how can we forgo retribution when what has been taken from us cannot be restored? And is it even possible to forgive and still pursue justice? What steps must we follow to achieve forgiveness? How do we heal all the holes in our hearts that come with being the fragile creatures we are?
The path of forgiveness is not an easy one. On this path, we must walk through the muddy shoals of hatred and anger and make our way through grief and loss to find the acceptance that is the hallmark of forgiveness. While it would be much easier to make this journey if the route were marked clearly, it is not. The boundary line between those who have caused harm and those who have been harmed is not clear either. Each of us stands at one moment as the one who has been hurt, and at the next moment as the one who is inflicting the hurt. And in the next moment we straddle the boundary, lashing out in pain and rage. We all cross these lines often. Wherever you stand, whatever you have done, whatever has been done to you, we hope this book will help you.
Together, we will explore each aspect of the Fourfold Path of forgiving: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. We invite you to join us on this healing, transformational journey. It doesn’t matter whether you are having trouble moving forward from the wrongs that were done to you, or whether you need the courage to admit the wrongs you have done. Forgiveness is nothing less than the way we heal the world. We heal the world by healing each and every one of our hearts. The process is simple, but it is not easy.
I am writing this book with my daughter, Mpho, who is a fellow priest. Mpho has worked deeply with parishioners and pilgrims in their search for forgiveness and healing. She is pursuing a doctorate on the subject of forgiveness and brings a wealth of knowledge to this collaboration. She also brings a very personal story of her own journey along the Fourfold Path, and shares her struggle to understand and forgive.
This book is an invitation for you to walk with us on the path of forgiveness. In it, we will share our personal stories, along with the stories of others who have inspired us, and what we have learned about the process of forgiving. We have seen this process work to transform situations and restore relationships among family, friends, strangers, and enemies alike. We have seen it drain the venom from the small, everyday slights we can carelessly inflict on one another, and bring healing in the wake of the most brutal acts of cruelty imaginable. It is our most cherished belief that there is no one who is irredeemable, no situation that is without hope, and no crime that cannot be forgiven.
If you are seeking to forgive, we hope to point the way to freedom. We will show you how you can release a perpetrator’s hold on you, and free yourself from the biting chains of resentment and anger that bind you to your experience.
If you are in need of forgiveness, it is our hope that this book will show you a clear path to freeing yourself from the shackles of your past, and help you to move forward in your life. When we witness the anguish and harm we have caused, when we ask others to forgive us and make restitution, when we forgive and restore our relationships, we return to our inherent nature.
Our nature is goodness. Yes, we do much that is bad, but our essential nature is good. If it were not, then we would not be shocked and dismayed when we harm one another. When someone does something ghastly, it makes the news because it is the exception to the rule. We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable. Forgiveness is the way we return what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost. With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move toward wholeness. Forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world.
The Book of Forgiving is written, first and foremost, for those who need to forgive. We have done so because even those who need forgiveness must also forgive the harm that was done to them. This is not an excuse or a justification for what we have done, just recognition of the harm that gets passed along from hand to hand and generation to generation. No one is born a criminal; no one is born cruel. Each of us is born whole, but that wholeness can so easily be shattered.
In South Africa, we chose to seek forgiveness rather than revenge. That choice averted a bloodbath. For every injustice, there is a choice. As we have said, you can choose forgiveness or revenge, but revenge is always costly. Choosing forgiveness rather than retaliation ultimately serves to make you a stronger and freer person. Peace always comes to those who choose to forgive. While both Mpho and I have seen the effects of drinking the bitter poison of anger and resentment—seen how it corrodes and destroys from the inside out—we have also seen the sweet balm of forgiveness soothe and transform even the most virulent situations. This is why we can say there is hope.
We do not enter onto the path of forgiving blithely, nor do we travel without some trepidation that it may not go as planned. Forgiveness is a conversation, and like most important conversations, it needs a language that is clear and honest and sincere. This book will help you learn the language of forgiveness. Along the way, we will offer meditations, exercises, and rituals to guide and help you as you walk along the path. Some of the exercises will, we hope, offer comfort and solace, as well as inspire your compassion. We imagine that some of the exercises will also challenge you.
We would be guilty of false advertising if we didn’t tell you that, like all conversations, the outcome of the forgiveness process cannot be known in advance. This book is not a cure-all or a panacea. It is our hope, however, that these pages will guide you to the outcome you seek. We trust that in these pages you can learn the skills and disposition of heart you will need to repair your relationships and, in some important way, contribute to repairing our world.
In South Africa, Ubuntu is our way of making sense of the world. The word literally means “humanity.” It is the philosophy and belief that a person is only a person through other people. In other words, we are human only in relation to other humans. Our humanity is bound up in one another, and any tear in the fabric of connection between us must be repaired for us all to be made whole. This interconnectedness is the very root of who we are.
To walk the path of forgiveness is to recognize that your crimes harm you as they harm me. To walk the path of forgiveness is to recognize that my dignity is bound up in your dignity, and every wrongdoing hurts us all.
Even when we recognize our interconnectedness, forgiveness can still be a difficult path to walk. Some days it will seem as if for every one step forward we take two steps back. It is a journey. And before the beginning of any new journey, big or small, there must be the willingness to take that first tentative step forward. There is a Gaelic proverb which states “Nothing is easy for the unwilling.” Without willingness, this journey will be impossible. Before compassion comes the willingness to feel compassion. Before transformation there must be the belief that transformation is possible, and the willingness to be transformed. Before forgiveness there must be the willingness to consider forgiving.
We will take this journey with you. Even if you believe there is no way you could ever forgive, or you believe that what you have done is so heinous you could never be forgiven, we will walk with you. If you are afraid or unsure or doubt that your situation could be transformed, we invite you to try. If you are without hope, paralyzed by guilt, drowning in grief, or full of anger, we invite you to come with us. We walk this path with you because we believe it is a path that will offer healing and transformation. We invite you to take this journey with us not because it will be easy but because, in the end, the path of forgiving is the only path worth taking.
Prayer Before the Prayer
I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready
I am not yet ready for my heart to soften
I am not yet ready to be vulnerable again
Not yet ready to see that there is humanity in my tormentor’s eyes
Or that the one who hurt me may also have cried
I am not yet ready for the journey
I am not yet interested in the path
I am at the prayer before the prayer of forgiveness
Grant me the will to want to forgive
Grant it to me not yet but soon
Can I even form the words
Dare I even look?
Do I dare to see the hurt I have caused?
I can glimpse all the shattered pieces of that fragile thing
That soul trying to rise on the broken wings of hope
But only out of the corner of my eye
I am afraid of it
And if I am afraid to see
How can I not be afraid to say
Is there a place where we can meet?
You and me
The place in the middle
The no man’s land
Where we straddle the lines
Where you are right
And I am right too
And both of us are wrong and wronged
Can we meet there?
And look for the place where the path begins
The path that ends when we forgive
* * *
Supplies for the Journey
All journeys must be provisioned. Your journey requires two objects to support your healing:
Please get a private journal that you will use to complete the writing exercises given in each chapter. This will be your own personal “book of forgiving.” It can be a plain notebook or a special journal you purchase just for this work. Only you will read this journal, and in it you should feel free and safe to record your thoughts, emotions, ideas, and progress along the Fourfold Path.
Please go out and find a stone that appeals to you on some level. It can be beautiful or ugly. It shouldn’t be a pebble, nor should it be a boulder. Find a stone with some weight to it. It should be small enough to carry in the palm of your hand and large enough that you won’t lose it. Note in your journal exactly where you found the stone and what it was about the stone that appealed to you.
Welcome. You have begun to walk the Fourfold Path.
* * *
Part One UNDERSTANDING FORGIVENESS
Chapter 1 Why Forgive?
THERE WERE SO MANY NIGHTS when I, as a young boy, had to watch helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child. If I dwell in those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother, and in ways of which I was incapable as a small boy. I see my mother’s face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted upon her.
When I recall this story, I realize how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.
Are you hurt and suffering? Is the injury new, or is it an old unhealed wound? Know that what was done to you was wrong, unfair, and undeserved. You are right to be outraged. And it is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness as to the fact you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.
Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness; that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberators. We don’t forgive to help the other person. We don’t forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest. This is true both spiritually and scientifically.
The Science of Forgiveness
During the past decade there has been more and more research into forgiveness. Whereas previously the discussion of forgiveness was left to the religious, it is now gaining attention as an academic discipline studied not only by philosophers and theologians, but also by psychologists and physicians. There are hundreds of research projects on forgiveness taking place at universities around the world. The Campaign for Forgiveness Research, with funding from the Templeton Foundation, has forty-six different research projects on forgiveness alone.1 Even neuroscientists are studying the biology of forgiveness and exploring evolutionary barriers in the brain that hinder the act of forgiving. Some are even looking to see if there might be a forgiveness gene somewhere in our DNA.
As modern forgiveness research evolves, the findings clearly show that forgiving transforms people mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. In Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, psychologist Fred Luskin writes, “In careful scientific studies, forgiveness training has been shown to reduce depression, increase hopefulness, decrease anger, improve spiritual connection, [and] increase emotional self-confidence.”2 These are just some of the very real and concrete psychological benefits. Research also shows that people who are more forgiving report fewer health and mental problems, and fewer physical symptoms of stress.
As more and more scientists document the healing power of forgiveness, they also look at the mentally and physically corrosive effects of not forgiving. Hanging on to anger and resentment, living in a constant state of stress, can damage the heart as well as the soul. In fact, research has shown that failure to forgive may be a risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure, and a score of other chronic stress-related illnesses.3 Medical and psychological studies have also shown that a person holding on to anger and resentment is at an increased risk for anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and is more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, ulcers, migraines, backaches, heart attack, and even cancer. The reverse is also true. Genuine forgiveness can transform these ailments. When stress, anxiety, and depression are reduced, so are the accompanying physical disorders.
Studies will continue to measure the heart rate, blood pressure, and longevity of those who forgive and those who don’t. Journal articles will be written and, in the end, science will prove what people have known for millennia: forgiving is good for you. Health benefits are only the beginning. To forgive is also to release yourself from whatever trauma and hardship you have experienced and reclaim your life as your own.
Healing the Whole
What the medical and psychological fields cannot study, quantify, or dissect under a microscope is the deep connection we have with one another and the drive within each of us to live in harmony.
Science is perhaps beginning to recognize what we in Africa have long known, that we are truly interdependent, even though science cannot yet fully explain our need of each other. Dr. Lisa Berkman, chair of the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health, studied seven thousand men and women. According to her findings, people who were socially isolated were three times more likely to die prematurely than those who had a strong social web. Even more astonishing to the researchers, those who had a strong social circle and unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those who had a weak social circle but a healthy lifestyle.4 A separate article in the journal Science concluded that loneliness was a greater risk factor for disease and death than smoking.5 In other words, loneliness can kill you faster than cigarettes. We are deeply connected to one another whether we recognize it or not. We need each other. We evolved this way, and our survival still depends upon it.
When we are uncaring, when we lack compassion, when we are unforgiving, we will always pay the price for it. It is not, however, we alone who suffer. Our whole community suffers, and ultimately our whole world suffers. We are made to exist in a delicate network of interdependence. We are sisters and brothers, whether we like it or not. To treat anyone as if they were less than human, less than a brother or a sister, no matter what they have done, is to contravene the very laws of our humanity. And those who shred the web of interconnectedness cannot escape the consequences of their actions.
In my own family, sibling squabbles have spilled into intergenerational alienations. When adult siblings refuse to speak to each other because of some offense, recent or long past, their children and grandchildren can lose out on the joy of strong family relationships. The children and grandchildren may never know what occasioned the freeze. They know only that “We don’t visit this aunt” or “We don’t really know those cousins.” Forgiveness among the members of older generations could open the door to healthy and supportive relationships among younger generations.
If your own well-being—your physical, emotional, and mental health—is not enough, if your life and your future are not enough, then perhaps you will forgive for the benefit of those you love, the family that is precious to you. Anger and bitterness do not just poison you, they poison all your relationships, including those with your children.
The Freedom of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. You can say, “I am willing to forgive you for stealing my pen, and after you give me my pen back, I shall forgive you.” This is the most familiar pattern of forgiveness. In this understanding, forgiveness is something we offer to another, a gift we bestow upon someone, but it is a gift that has strings attached.
The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us. Those are chains to which the perpetrator holds the key. We may set the conditions for granting our forgiveness, but the person who harmed us decides whether or not the conditions are too onerous to fulfill. We continue to be that person’s victim. “I will not speak to you until you say you are sorry!” my young granddaughter, Onalenna, will rage. Her older sister, thinking the demand unfair and unjustified, refuses to apologize. The two remain locked together in a battle of wills bound by mutual resentment. There are two routes out of the impasse: the older Nyaniso can apologize, or Onalenna can decide to forgo the apology and forgive unconditionally.
Unconditional forgiveness is a different model of forgiveness than the gift with strings. This is forgiveness as a grace, a free gift freely given. In this model, forgiveness frees the person who inflicted the harm from the weight of the victim’s whim—what the victim may demand in order to grant forgiveness—and the victim’s threat of vengeance. But it also frees the one who forgives. The one who offers forgiveness as a grace is immediately untethered from the yoke that bound him or her to the person who caused the harm. When you forgive, you are free to move on in life, to grow, to no longer be a victim. When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past.
In South Africa, the logic of apartheid created enmity among the races. Some of the poisonous effects of that system still linger. But forgiveness has opened the door to a different future for us, one that is not bound by the logic of our past. Earlier this year I sat in the sun enjoying the delighted shrieks of a gaggle of seven-year-old girls celebrating my granddaughter’s birthday. They represented every race of our rainbow nation. Their future is not determined by the logic of apartheid. Race is not the basis upon which they will choose their friends, build their families, select their careers, or decide where to live. Their future is being charted by the logic of a new South Africa and the grace of forgiveness. The new South Africa is a country that is being created because, laying down the burden of years of prejudice, oppression, brutality, and torture, some extraordinary ordinary people had the courage to forgive.
Our Shared Humanity
Ultimately, forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We all have made mistakes and harmed others. We will again. We find it easier to practice forgiveness when we can recognize that the roles could have been reversed. Each of us could have been the perpetrator rather than the victim. Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us. Although I might say, “I would never . . .” genuine humility will answer, “Never say never.” Rather say, “I hope that, given the same set of circumstances, I would not . . .” But can we ever really know?
As we explained in the introduction, we have written this book because, truthfully, this is not a dichotomy. No person will always stand in the camp of the perpetrator. No person will always be the one who is the victim. In some situations we have been harmed, and in others we have harmed. And sometimes we straddle both camps, as when, in the heat of a marital spat, we trade hurts with our partners. Not all harms are equivalent, but this is really not the issue. Those who wish to compare how much they have wronged to how much they have been wronged will find themselves drowning in a whirlpool of victimization and denial. Those who think they are beyond reproach have not taken an honest look in the mirror.
People are not born hating each other and wishing to cause harm. It is a learned condition. Children do not dream of growing up to be rapists or murderers, and yet every rapist and every murderer was once a child. And there are times when I look at some of those who are described as “monsters” and I honestly believe that there, but for the grace of God, go I. I do not say this because I am some singular saint. I say this because I have sat with condemned men on death row, I have spoken with former police officers who have admitted inflicting the cruelest torture, I have visited child soldiers who have committed acts of nauseating depravity, and I have recognized in each of them a depth of humanity that was a mirror of my own.
Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew. To not forgive leads to bitterness and hatred. Like self-hatred and self-contempt, hatred of others gnaws away at our vitals. Whether hatred is projected out or stuffed in, it is always corrosive to the human spirit.
Forgiveness Is Not a Luxury
Forgiveness is not some airy-fairy thing. It has to do with the real world. Healing and reconciliation are not magic spells. They do not erase the reality of an injury. To forgive is not to pretend that what happened did not happen. Healing does not draw a veil over the hurt. Rather, healing and reconciliation demand an honest reckoning. For Christians, Jesus Christ sets the pattern for forgiveness and reconciliation. He offered his betrayers forgiveness. Jesus, the Son of God, could erase the signs of leprosy; heal those broken in body, mind, or spirit; and restore sight to the blind. He must also have been able to obliterate the signs of the torture and death he endured. But he chose not to erase that evidence. After the resurrection, he appeared to his disciples. In most instances, he showed them his wounds and his scars. This is what healing demands. Behavior that is hurtful, shameful, abusive, or demeaning must be brought into the fierce light of truth. And truth can be brutal. In fact, truth may exacerbate the hurt; it might make things worse. But if we want real forgiveness and real healing, we must face the real injury.
The Invitation to Forgive
In the chapters that follow, we will take a deeper look at forgiveness. We will examine what it is not and what it truly is. For now, it is enough to say that the invitation to forgive is not an invitation to forget. Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really is. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not. It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.
The invitation to forgive is an invitation to find healing and peace. In my native language, Xhosa, one asks forgiveness by saying, “Ndicel’ uxolo” (I ask for peace). The locution is quite beautiful and deeply perceptive. Forgiveness opens the door to peace between people and opens the space for peace within each person. The victim cannot have peace without forgiving. The perpetrator will not have genuine peace while unforgiven. There cannot be peace between victim and perpetrator while the injury lies between them. The invitation to forgive is an invitation to search out the perpetrator’s humanity. When we forgive, we recognize the reality that there, but for the grace of God, go I.
If I traded lives with my father, if I had experienced the stresses and pressures my father faced, if I had to bear the burdens he bore, would I have behaved as he did? I do not know. I hope I would have been different, but I do not know.
My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. What would I say to him? I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me as my father, but then I would tell him that there was this one thing that hurt me very much. I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me.
Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still I would forgive him. Since I cannot speak to him, I have had to forgive him in my heart. If my father were here today, whether he asked for forgiveness or not, and even if he refused to admit that what he had done was wrong or could not explain why he had done what he did, I would still forgive him. Why would I do such a thing? I would walk the path of forgiveness with him because I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiving my father frees me. When I no longer hold his offenses against him, my memory of him no longer exerts any control over my moods or my disposition. His violence and my inability to protect my mother no longer define me. I am not the small boy cowering in fear of his drunken rage. I have a new and different story. Forgiveness has liberated both of us. We are free.
Forgiveness takes practice, honesty, open-mindedness, and a willingness (even if it is a weary willingness) to try. This healing journey is not a primer—a book that we must read and understand. This healing journey is a practice—something in which we must participate. It is our own path to forgiveness. To truly forgive, we must have a better understanding of forgiveness, but first we must understand what forgiveness is not. We will explore this in the next chapter.
Before we move on, let us pause to listen to what the heart hears.
I will forgive you
The words are so small
But there is a universe hidden in them
When I forgive you
All those cords of resentment pain and sadness that had wrapped themselves around my heart will be gone
When I forgive you
You will no longer define me
You measured me and assessed me and decided that you could hurt me
I didn’t count
But I will forgive you
Because I do count
I do matter
I am bigger than the image you have of me
I am stronger
I am more beautiful
And I am infinitely more precious than you thought me
I will forgive you
My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you
When I forgive you
My forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me
* * *
• Forgiveness is beneficial to our health.
• Forgiveness offers freedom from the past, from a perpetrator, from future victimization.
• Forgiveness heals families and communities.
• We forgive so we don’t suffer, physically or mentally, the corrosive effects of holding on to anger and resentment.
• We are all interconnected and have a shared humanity.
• Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves.
* * *
Opening to the Light
1. Close your eyes and follow your breath.
2. When you feel centered, imagine yourself in a safe place; this may be indoors or outdoors, whichever feels safest to you.
3. In the center of your safe space is a box with many drawers.
4. The drawers are labeled. The inscriptions show hurts you have yet to forgive.
5. Choose a drawer and open it. Rolled or folded or crumpled up inside it are all the thoughts and feelings the incident evokes.
6. You can choose to empty out this drawer.
7. Bring your hurt into the light and examine it.
8. Unfold the resentment you have felt and set it aside.
9. Smooth out the ache and let it drift up into the sunlight and disappear.
10. If any feeling seems too big or too unbearable, set it aside to look at later.
11. When the drawer is empty, sit for a moment with it on your lap.
12. Then remove the label from this drawer.
13. As the label comes off, you will see the drawer turn to sand. The wind will sweep it away. You don’t need it anymore.
14. There will be no space left for that hurt in the box. That space is not needed anymore.
15. If there are more drawers still to be emptied, you can repeat this meditation now or later.
* * *
Carrying the Stone
1. You will need your palm-size stone.
2. For the space of one morning (approximately six hours) hold the stone in your non-dominant hand. Do not set the stone down for any reason during this period.
3. At the end of six hours, proceed to the journal exercise.
* * *
1. What did you notice about carrying the stone?
2. When did you notice it the most?
3. Did it hinder any of your activities?
4. Was it ever useful?
5. In what ways was carrying the stone like carrying an unforgiven hurt?
6. Make a list of the people you need to forgive in your life.
7. Make another list of all those you would like to have forgive you.
* * *
Chapter 2 What Forgiveness Is Not
IN AN INSTANT, life can change. For Mpho, that instant was in April 2012:
I still can’t describe my own feelings fully. Nausea, disgust, fear, confusion, and grief overwhelmed me. Our housekeeper, Angela, lay on the floor of my daughter’s room. The blood from her brutalized body pooled around her. Yes, the medics confirmed shortly afterward, she was dead. She had been dead for some hours. The days and weeks that followed were a blur of a life upended. The blood and the body are gone, but the event continues to reverberate in our lives.
We miss her. In a few short months, she had made her mark on our lives. Her quirks and her kindness had become a part of our story and our family. Her laughter had filled our home. Her strange turns of phrase had become part of our language. Her absence is a sad, scary shadow. Weeping and nightmares, terrors and sleeplessness, brittle silences and nerve-shattering sounds—all of these have become a part of our new reality. The home we had shared is no longer home. We cannot live there. “Was anything stolen?” the young policeman asked. A life was stolen. No, more than one life was stolen. There was one dead body, but so many lives were changed irrevocably, snatched away, stolen. So many lives and one happy home gone. Sometimes I feel sad for the murderer, unutterably sad. At other times I feel angry. How could anyone be so vile? How could any person be so brutal? Why Angela? What harm had she done anyone? How dare anyone violate my home? There are moments when the anger turns to rage, and there are moments when I want to strike back!
In one unexpected act of violence and rage, we can experience horror and loss so great we don’t think we can survive. We see it on the evening news: children go missing, either never to be found or their bodies are found discarded like the day’s trash. We read about it in the newspaper: the torture and rape of women caught in the crossfire of civil war. We see it on the Internet: classrooms and movie theaters where innocent people are shot at indiscriminately, killed tragically, violently, and senselessly. We hear reports of drive-by shootings and home invasions, gangs retaliating against gangs, and deaths avenged by more deaths. We watch and read and listen, but we do all this from a distance and with a sad detachment at the horrors people are capable of inflicting upon one another.
Then it happens to us. And the horror we once watched from a distance, as if it were a movie or a play, is now in our homes and in our classrooms and in our neighborhoods.
In our own families.
There are times when Mpho cannot imagine ever forgiving the person who brought such horror into her home; the person who forever and indelibly marked her daughters’ psyches and childhoods with a singular and senseless act of brutality and bloodshed. I tell you this because even for people of faith, who believe in unconditional forgiveness, even for people like Mpho and me—people who dare to write books about forgiveness—forgiveness is not easy. It is not easy for Mpho. It is not easy for me. And it is understandable if forgiveness does not come easily for you.
Forgiveness Is Not Weakness
We all aspire to be forgiving people. We admire and esteem those who find it in their hearts to forgive, even when they are betrayed, cheated, stolen from, lied to, or worse. The parents who forgive the person who murdered their child inspire in us something like awe. The woman who can forgive her rapist seems possessed of a special kind of courage. A man forgives the people who tortured him brutally, and we think his deed heroic. Do we see these people and these acts and think those who forgive are weak? We do not. Forgiveness is not weak. It is not passive. It is not for the faint of heart.
Forgiving does not mean being spineless, nor does it mean one doesn’t get angry. I get angry, mostly when I see others being harmed or when I see the rights of others being trampled underfoot. I have known people who have been able to be compassionate and forgiving, even under the most strenuous circumstances while undergoing the most horrific treatment. Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana is someone like that. Arrested as an anti-apartheid activist, he endured excruciating physical torture at the hands of the South African police. His experience renewed his commitment to anti-apartheid work. He did not work out of thirst for revenge. He told me that, in the midst of his torture, he had an astonishing insight: “These are God’s children and they are losing their humanity. We have to help them recover it.” It is a remarkable feat to be able to see past the inhumanity of the behavior and recognize the humanity of the person committing the atrocious acts. This is not weakness. This is heroic strength, the noblest strength of the human spirit.
At the age of twelve, Bassam Aramin watched as another boy his age was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier. In that moment, he felt a “deep need for revenge” and joined a group of freedom fighters in Hebron. Some called him a terrorist, but he felt he was fighting for his safety, his home, and his right to be free. At seventeen, he was caught planning an attack on Israeli troops and sentenced to seven years in prison. In prison, he only learned to hate more as he was stripped naked and beaten by his prison guards. “They were beating us without hatred, because for them this was just a training exercise and they saw us as objects.”
While in prison, Bassam engaged in a dialogue with his Israeli guard. Each thought the other was the “terrorist” and each equally denied being the “settler” in the land they shared. Through their conversations, they realized how much they had in common with the other. For Bassam, it was the first time he recalls feeling empathy in his life.
Seeing the transformation that took place between him and his captor, as they recognized their shared humanity, Bassam realized that violence could never bring peace. This realization changed his life.
In 2005, Bassam Aramin cofounded a group called Combatants for Peace. He has not picked up a weapon since, and for Bassam this is not a sign of weakness but of true strength. In 2007, Bassam’s ten-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli soldier as she stood outside her school. Bassam says, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and nonviolence. 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.”6
I say again, forgiveness is not weakness.
Forgiveness Is Not a Subversion of Justice
There are those who believe an injustice can be made right only when someone is made to pay for the harm they have caused. Forgiveness, they say, subverts the course of justice. The truth is that people will always live with the consequences of their actions. In some cases, the forgiveness offered by the injured party comes after the perpetrator has completed his or her penance. This was so in Northern Ireland. In 2006, the BBC aired a documentary series, Facing the Truth, that brought together victims and perpetrators of Northern Ireland’s violent conflict. What was remarkable about this process was that, unlike the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the series had no power to grant amnesty to the perpetrators. In fact, the perpetrators who came forward seeking forgiveness had already been tried and convicted for their crimes. They had already completed their prison sentences. But still they came. They did not come to change the past or to challenge justice. They came to seek forgiveness.
Even the Christian God does not subvert temporal justice to open the door to eternal forgiveness and peace. The thief who hung on the cross next to Jesus was the only person to be promised paradise. He died on a cross for his crimes. He lives in eternity for his repentance.
Even when perpetrators are granted amnesty and immunity from prosecution, as in South Africa’s TRC process, they cannot be considered to have “gotten away scot-free.” In standing before the commission to speak their deeds, they forever changed the status they held in their families and their communities. After years of hiding their activities, they had to stand up in a public place and tell the truth of their cruelty, callousness, and murderous actions. Yes, they were granted amnesty, but justice was not subverted in the hearts of the many victims and their families who needed to know the truth.
Often, even after “justice” is served, so many people find that the story hasn’t ended, and no one has found a route to a new beginning. Forgiveness is the only way out of the trap that injury creates.
Forgiveness Is Not Forgetting
Some find forgiveness difficult because they believe forgiving means forgetting the pain they have suffered. I can say unequivocally that forgiving does not mean forgetting the harm. It does not mean denying the harm. It does not mean pretending the harm did not happen or the injury was not as bad as it really was. Quite the opposite is true. The cycle of forgiveness can be activated and completed only in absolute truth and honesty.
Forgiving requires giving voice to the violations and naming the pains we have suffered. Forgiving does not require that we carry our suffering in silence or be martyrs on a cross of lies. Forgiveness does not mean that we pretend things are anything other than they are. I am hurt, we say. I am betrayed, we announce. I am in pain and grief. I have been treated unfairly. I am feeling ashamed. I am angry this has been done to me. I am sad and I am lost. I may never forget what you have done to me, but I will forgive. I will do everything in my power not to let you harm me again. I will not retaliate against you or against myself.
If there is a pattern of hurt from the perpetrator, then each instance of harm is not discrete. There is history, and we are not served by forgetting our history. There is always a risk when we forgive that everything will not turn out all right. Just as we take a leap of faith when we make a commitment to love someone and get married, we also take a leap of faith when we commit ourselves to a practice of forgiving. We do not forget or deny that we are always vulnerable to being hurt again, but we leap anyway.
Forgiveness Is Not Easy
Often when we are suffering from loss or harm of some kind, forgiving can seem too overwhelming, too complicated, to even consider. How do we forgive if there has been no apology or explanation for why someone has hurt us so? How do we think of forgiving when we feel the person has not done anything to “deserve” our forgiveness? Where do we even start?
The work of forgiveness is not easy. Perhaps you have already tried to forgive someone and just couldn’t do it. Perhaps you have forgiven and the person did not show remorse or change his or her behavior or own up to his or her offenses—and you find yourself unforgiving all over again.
Forgiveness is not an effortless act for any of us, and it does not serve anyone to minimize the complexity involved in the work of forgiving. It is best to break our forgiving down into bite-size pieces, and begin from wherever we are standing. Tell your story for as long as you need to. Name your hurts until they no longer pierce your heart. Grant forgiveness when you are ready to let go of a past that cannot be changed. Reconcile or release the relationship as you choose.
Forgiving is not easy, but it is the path to healing. It was not easy for Nelson Mandela to spend twenty-seven years in prison, but when people say to me what a waste it was, I say no, it was not a waste. It took twenty-seven years for him to be transformed from an angry, unforgiving young radical into an icon of reconciliation, forgiveness, and honor who could go on to lead a country back from the brink of civil war and self-destruction.
Our suffering, our pain, and our losses have the power to transform us. It does not always feel just, nor is it easy, but we have seen that, with time, great good can come from great sorrow. In the next chapter, we will begin to explore the Fourfold Path of forgiveness.
But first, let us pause to listen to what the heart hears.
God forgives unconditionally
So can we
The thief on the cross still dies on his cross
But forgiveness will set his spirit free
And what of you and me standing on the ground with our piles of hurts mounting so high
Will we die a thousand deaths before we die?
Yearning for revenge, will we die of that thirst?
Will the rage that fills us be the stake on which we burn?
Will we stumble over every resistance placed in our way?
And stay stuck in the misery of it all?
Or will we take the chance that we might break free by following this path where it leads
Past the whys and lies about how it cannot be
Here is our chance
Take this chance
* * *
What Forgiveness Is Not
• Forgiveness is not easy—it requires hard work and a consistent willingness.
• Forgiveness is not weakness—it requires courage and strength.
• Forgiveness does not subvert justice—it creates space for justice to be enacted with a purity of purpose that does not include revenge.
• Forgiveness is not forgetting—it requires a fearless remembering of hurt.
• Forgiveness is not quick—it can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.
* * *
Sitting in the Safe Space
Sometimes the work of forgiveness feels too much like work and all you want to do is be still and feel safe. For this meditation you will create a cloak of safety that will always be within reach.
1. Begin by sitting comfortably. If you choose, close your eyes lightly.
2. Pay attention to your breath. Don’t direct it. Follow it.
3. When you have settled into the rhythm of your breath, allow yourself to feel a cloak of safety surrounding you like a fabric.
4. What is the texture of this cloak? Does it have a color? Does it have a fragrance?
5. Settle into this cloak. Does it feel warm or cool?
6. Describe this cloak in your imagination as fully as you are able. Pull the cloak around you and settle into feeling safe.
7. When you feel the need for this cloak of safety, know it is always there and you can just reach for it.
* * *
Tracing the Myths
1. Take your stone. Set it on a sheet of paper in your journal and trace around it.
2. Make five tracings of your stone.
3. Inside each tracing write one thing that forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not:
4. For each of these myths about forgiveness, call to mind an instance where that myth is holding you back from granting forgiveness.
* * *
Forgiving is a process of letting go.
1. Think of the things you must give up or let go of in order to forgive.
2. The list might include things like the right to revenge or the expectation of an apology. It might even include having to give up an expectation that the person who hurt you will understand the pain they have caused.
3. As you jot down this list, pause with each item and offer thanks for the ability to let go of what you do not need in order to forgive.
* * *
Chapter 3 Understanding the Fourfold Path
MPHO MET HER IN THE HOSPITAL. She was a pretty girl, just into her teenage years. She had been found sleeping in the girls’ bathroom at her school. After days of sitting in stubborn silence, while the nurses plied her with candy and forbidden soft drinks, she started to speak. The story tumbled out over shards of rage, fear, and betrayal. After years alone, her mom had remarried. At first, the man was nice. He was nice to her mom. He was nice to her. And then he was too nice to her. And then it was just horrible. She tried to tell her mom. But her mom already knew. What would they live on if this man was imprisoned or gone?
“You can’t tell. Don’t dare tell.”
Fear and betrayal drove her out of her home. Rage shut her mouth and kept her locked in that stubborn silence. After the first telling, she retold the story again and again, speaking her pain and grief, wearing a path through her own fear. How could that man do this to her? How could her mother fail to protect her? At first, her feelings seemed to harden into a tight ball of hurt and anger. With time, as she talked, she seemed to look beyond her own rage and anguish and see her mother’s fear and shame. What the mother had endured didn’t make what the girl had suffered okay. But as she started to recognize something of her mother’s experience, the hard ball of rage began to soften and uncoil. She was beginning to forgive.
After understanding what forgiveness is not, we must look deeply at what forgiveness is and the actual process of forgiving. None of us wants to have our life story be the sum of all the ways we have been hurt. We are not created to live in suffering and isolation. We are created to live in love and connection with one another. When there is a break in that connection, we must have a method of repair.
The method we offer is what we call the Fourfold Path. The first step on the path is Telling the Story; then comes Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and finally, Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. Forgiveness is not new, and what we describe is what humans have been doing throughout history in every culture on the planet. The Fourfold Path probably goes back to Adam and Eve and that pesky apple. Yes, humans have been having to forgive each other for as long as we’ve been human.
Retaliate or Reconnect
Evolutionary biologists suggest that we are hardwired to seek revenge and hurt back when we are hurt. This is how our ancestors survived when confronted by a threat, and this is our nature now in response to a threat. What can we do but retaliate when it is in our genes? If we are hit hard, we must hit back harder. As Darwin said, it is survival of the fittest.
But is this true? There is no doubt that revenge is part of our evolutionary biology, but there is also no doubt that we are hardwired to forgive and reconnect. Primatologists show that even monkeys seek to make amends. They extend their hands to one another and become very agitated when the group is not in harmony. For humans, “sorry” joins “please” and “thank you” among the earliest additions to a child’s vocabulary. This thirst for harmony is why our hearts soar when we hear that someone who has been wronged has chosen to forgive. This is why the stories we have shared in this book resonate so deeply. Somewhere in our heart of hearts we know that forgiveness is truly the gateway to harmony and peace.
The fact that we have an impulse toward revenge does not equate to a moral justification to hurt back when we are hurt. Just because we have an action hardwired in our brains does not mean we are justified in indulging in this action. We have impulses for aggression in many contexts, but we know we must not act on them. We have impulses for sex, but we understand that acting on those impulses is not always appropriate, so we contain ourselves. Although we are hardwired for revenge and aggression, scientists have also shown that we are hardwired for connection. Our brains want us to connect with other people; indeed ostracism or shunning—a refusal to connect—has long been a form of punishment individuals and communities impose on those who arouse their ire. Scientists are now studying mirror neurons, the mechanisms in our brains that enable us to feel what others are feeling.7 We are social creatures, and our physical survival is just as dependent on happy relationships and social connections as it is on food, air, and water. Although this is all true, I recognize that this doesn’t make forgiving any easier when you’re miserable and in pain or when your world has been upended by a random and undeserved act of violence or cruelty.
Whenever we are injured, we face the choice of whether to retaliate or reconnect. When we seek retaliation or revenge, it does not satisfy us; in the sentiment of Mahatma Gandhi, when we practice the law of an eye for an eye, we all end up blind. If someone insults me and I, in turn, insult him, it does not give me satisfaction. As we’ve said earlier, retaliation does not lessen the sting of the first insult or take it away. A part of me knows this is not how I should respond, and it does not feel good when I respond in kind. There is a certain kind of dignity we admire, and to which we aspire, in the person who refuses to meet anger with anger, violence with violence, or hatred with hatred.
Let us try to understand how we get drawn into a cycle of revenge and rupture, and how we can instead choose a cycle of forgiveness and healing—what we call the Forgiveness Cycle. We have seen how these two impulses, one toward retaliation and the other toward reconnection, wrestle in our hearts. It may help for us to look in detail at this moment of choice, the instant in which we choose to either walk the path of revenge and be bound to suffering, or take the path of forgiveness and be freed into healing. Refer to the following diagram to see a visual portrayal of the process we are describing:
Inevitably, because we are fragile and vulnerable creatures, we experience some hurt, harm, or loss. The wound can be physical, emotional, or psychosocial. We can be hurt with a weapon or a word. We can be slighted, rejected, or betrayed. Donna Hicks, in her marvelous book Dignity, tells us that all of these harms are affronts to our physical, emotional, or social dignity. There is no way of living with other people without, at some point, being hurt. This hurt is what puts us on the cycle. I suppose God could have made us creatures who were indifferent to the actions of others, but that is not how we are. I suppose we could have evolved differently. We could need no one and care for no one, but this is not the path our evolution has taken.
The response to hurt is universal. Each of us will experience sadness, pain, anger, or shame, or a combination of any or all of these. Now comes the moment of choice, although for most of us our reactions are so habitual we don’t even realize we have a choice. What so often happens is that we step unawares into the Revenge Cycle. The affront is so painful, so intolerable, that we cannot accept it, and instead of placing our hands on our hearts and weeping for what we have lost, we point our fingers or shake our fists at the one who has harmed us. Instead of embracing our sadness, we stoke our anger. We feel compelled to restore our dignity by rejecting our pain and denying our grief. That rejection places us in the closed loop of the Revenge Cycle.
I have had this experience. A few years ago I was given an award by an American charity. The ceremony was held at a swanky Washington, DC, hotel. The emcee was a noted American actress. The morning after the event, I was sitting in the hotel lobby waiting for my hosts to usher me to a series of meetings. I was wearing my usual dark-suited clerical garb, including a purple shirt, clergy collar, and a pectoral cross. My signature Greek fisherman’s cap was in my hand. A young lad from the hotel bell-staff approached me: “Are you [Ms. Famous Emcee’s] driver?” Before I had a moment to fully register the question, I was taken aback. My thoughts rode the tide of feelings. Did the youth only take in that I was a black man of a certain age in a suit with a cap? Did it not occur to him that a chauffeur would wait outside near the car? Were I white and dressed the same way would he have posed the same question? My dignity was certainly assaulted. I wanted to strike back, haul this insolent boy to his manager, and take him down the peg or two he had taken me down. I wanted to push away my sense of affront. I didn’t want to admit to the sad, vulnerable place where the hurt had landed.
When we cannot admit our own woundedness, we cannot see the other as a wounded person who has harmed us out of his or her own ignorance, pain, or brokenness. We must reject our commonality. We move along the Revenge Cycle to rejecting our shared humanity. Without this recognition of our shared humanity, the bond between us frays and the social fabric tears. It is then a very short step to demanding revenge. To buy back our dignity, we think we must pay back in kind. We retaliate. Retaliation, in turn, leads to more hurt, more harm, and more loss, which keeps the Revenge Cycle going without end. There are families, tribes, and nations that have been trapped in this Revenge Cycle for generations.
While revenge may be a natural impulse, we do not have to follow its siren call. There is another way, which we call the Forgiveness Cycle. It begins after a hurt, harm, or loss at the same moment of sadness, anger, and shame we all experience. Instead of rejecting our pain and grief, in the Forgiveness Cycle we accept our pain and grief. If it is a small slight to our dignity or a small harm we have experienced from a spouse, this might be the end of it, and we might be able to forgive that person quite quickly and easily. However, if we have been hurt deeply or have lost someone or something that is precious to us, this part of the Forgiveness Cycle may be intense and long. In the coming chapters we will discuss the steps in this process in more detail.
As the young girl whose story opened this chapter discovered, by telling our stories and naming our hurt we are able to face our suffering. Rather than rejecting our pain and grief, as we did in the Revenge Cycle, we are able to acknowledge and accept these feelings. When the wound is deep, the space between our initial sadness and a full acceptance of our pain is a journey through the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. The stages of grief do not come in any prescribed order and often circle back on one another as we experience waves of loss and hurt. When we face into and accept our pain, we start to recognize that we don’t have to stay stuck in our story.
The person who injured us also has a story. They have wounded us because they have stood inside their own story and acted out of pain, shame, or ignorance. They have ignored our shared humanity. When we see pain in this way, we are able to see our common bond. We might even be able to empathize with the perpetrator. We can begin to let go of our identity as a victim and their identity as a perpetrator.
This was so for the girl Mpho met in the hospital; as she began to accept her pain, she started to see her mother’s pain and fear. It was so for me too; as I accepted the place in me left raw by the realities of racism and apartheid, I could see the visual shorthand that prompted the bellman’s mistake. It is so for both small slights and large hurts. When we accept our own pain, we can begin to see past it to the other person’s woundedness. We can begin to consider that if we were in their shoes, if we stood inside their story, we might have done to them, or to others, what they did to us. We may loathe and lament what they have done to us, or to those we love, but somehow we are able to separate the person from what he or she has done. In short, by accepting our vulnerability, we accept the perpetrator’s. By accepting our humanity, we accept the perpetrator’s.
When we can accept both our humanity and the perpetrator’s, we can write a new story, one in which we are no longer cast as a victim but as a survivor, even perhaps a hero. In this new story, we are able to learn and grow from what has happened to us. We may even be able to use our pain as an impulse to reduce the pain and suffering of others. This is when we know we are healed. Healing does not mean reversing. Healing does not mean that what happened will never again cause us to hurt. It does not mean we will never miss those who have been lost to us or that which was taken from us. Healing means that our dignity is restored and we are able to move forward in our lives.
How Long Does It Take to Forgive?
I wish I knew the answer to that question, but no one can answer it for anyone else. Forgiveness can be quite short, happening in a matter of minutes, or it can take years to travel the Fourfold Path. It very much depends on the nature of the hurt and the unique story of situation and emotion. No one has the right to tell you how quickly you should walk this path. All we can say is that the path awaits you when you are ready. In the coming chapters, we will discuss each of these vital four steps: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. For those who come to these pages because they need to be forgiven, chapter 8 will address the complementary steps for needing forgiveness from another. Yet, as we have said from the start, everyone who has harmed another has also been harmed. We strongly recommend that you first walk the Fourfold Path to find forgiveness in your heart for the people who have harmed you. As you walk the path with the intention to forgive, you will come to understand more deeply the gift you are asking of and bestowing upon another when you ask a person to forgive what you have done. The power of this practice, the power of this path, is that we heal both as we forgive and as we are forgiven. We heal as we forgive others and as we forgive ourselves.
Forgiveness feels as if a weight has been lifted off you and you are free to let go of the past and move forward in your life. It may not be found in a single act of grace or a simple string of words, but rather in a process of truth and reconciliation.
Linda Biehl, the mother of murdered Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, spoke of meeting and then working in the Amy Biehl Foundation with the men who killed her daughter. “I have forgiven them,” she says. “Every day I wake up and my daughter is dead. Most days I wake up and I have to face her killers. Some days I have to forgive them all over again.”
The Fourfold Path is a conversation that begins with a personal choice to heal and be free, a choice to seek peace and create a new story. We sit in the midst of our hurt and loss, and we face the choice of which path to take: retribution or reconciliation. We can choose to harm or we can choose to heal. It does not matter how long we have carried our suffering or how briefly. It does not matter whether the other person is contrite or remorseless. It does not matter if the one who harmed us does not acknowledge or admit the harm. It does not matter if we believe that person has not paid for his or her crimes against us, because, as we have said, forgiveness is not a choice you make for someone else; it is a choice you make for yourself.
In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I saw over and over again how people courageously, nobly, magnificently chose the path of forgiveness. Any of those victims could have chosen to continue the cycle of violence and retaliation, but instead they chose to seek the truth, face their grief, and recognize both their own humanity and that of the perpetrators who had so grievously harmed them. They chose the difficult path of forgiveness. Forgiveness is rarely easy, but it is always possible.
Are Some People Beyond Forgiveness?
What about evil, you may ask? Aren’t some people just evil, just monsters, and aren’t such people just unforgivable? I do believe there are monstrous and evil acts, but I do not believe those who commit such acts are monsters or evil. To relegate someone to the level of monster is to deny that person’s ability to change and to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions and behavior. In January 2012, in Modimolle, an agricultural town in Limpopo province, South Africa, a man named Johan Kotze committed acts of monstrous and evil proportions. Indeed, such was the horror of his acts, the newspapers and town dubbed him “The Monster of Modimolle.”
I was appalled at the story I read. We were all appalled. Johan Kotze was alleged to have forced three laborers at gunpoint to gang-rape and mutilate his estranged wife. He then tied her up and forced her to listen and watch as he shot and killed her son. Johan Kotze claimed he was driven to commit these horrific crimes because he saw his estranged wife with another man and, in his rage, he chose the path of revenge.
These are, without doubt, barbaric and dastardly deeds. They are acts so monstrous we are all quite right to condemn them. What shook me deeply as I read the media coverage of this case was that the righteous outrage at the alleged acts of Mr. Kotze had led journalists to call him a monster. In response, I wrote a letter to The Star newspaper. In it I argued that while he may indeed be guilty of inhuman, ghastly, and monstrous deeds, he is not a monster. We are actually letting him off lightly by calling him a monster, because monsters have no moral sense of right and wrong and therefore cannot be held morally culpable, cannot be regarded as morally blameworthy. This holds true for all those we wish to deem monsters. No, Mr. Johan Kotze remains a child of God with the capacity to become a saint.
This piece shocked many. But the world is filled with heartless sinners and criminals of all sorts who have transformed themselves and their lives. In the Christian tradition, we often recall the story of the repentant criminal who was crucified beside Jesus. He was a man who had committed crimes punishable by death. Jesus promised him that, because of his repentance, “this day we will see each other in paradise.” He was forgiven. The Bible is full of stories of reckless, immoral, and criminal people who transformed their lives, who became saints. Peter, the disciple who betrayed a friendship and denied Jesus—not once, but three times—was forgiven and became the chief of the apostles. Paul, the violent persecutor of those faithful to the fledgling Christian faith, became the sower who planted Christian communities in the gentile world.
Let us condemn ghastly acts, but let us never relinquish the hope that the doers of the most heinous deeds can and may change. In many ways, that was the basis of our truth-and-reconciliation process. The stories we heard at the TRC were horrific, some were bloodcurdling, yet we witnessed extraordinary acts of forgiveness as perpetrator and victim embraced and did so publicly. We believed then, and I still believe now, that it is possible for people to change for the better. It is more than just possible; it is in our nature . . . in each and every one of us.
In my plea for the people of Modimolle to stop calling Mr. Kotze a monster, I called on my Christian faith for the examples needed. But the ability to separate the sin from the sinner is not a matter of faith or religion; neither is forgiveness. The Forgiveness Cycle is a universal and nonsectarian cycle. Obviously, in Mpho’s faith and mine, our model of the ultimate example of forgiveness is Jesus Christ, who on the cross was able to ask for forgiveness for those who were torturing and ultimately killed him. But forgiveness does not require faith. For some people faith makes the process easier. But just as we do not forgive for others, we also do not forgive for God.
I have said before that given the same set of circumstances, under the same pressures and influences, I may have been a Hitler, or a Kotze. I would hope not. But I may have been. I will not label anyone beyond redemption, regardless of what that person has done. I have found that hope and goodness can sometimes emerge from even the unlikeliest of packages. As we have seen, forgiving does not condone an act. Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.
So when I am asked whether some people are beyond forgiveness, my answer is no. My heart has been broken a thousand times over at the cruelty and suffering I have seen human beings unjustly and mercilessly inflict upon one another. Yet still I know and believe that forgiveness is always called for, and reconciliation is always possible.
My words are not a magic eraser, able to wipe away the deep harm and suffering we may feel. True forgiveness is not superficial or glib. It is a deep and thorough look at the reality of a situation. It is an honest accounting of both actions and consequences. It is a conversation that is only done when it is done. It is a path as unique as the people who choose to walk it. My path may not be the same as yours. But the thing that makes us walk this path is the same. We all want to be free of the pain of living with a broken and unforgiving heart. We want to free ourselves of the corrosive emotions that threaten to burn away the love and joy residing in us. We want to heal our broken places. It would be wonderful if we lived in a world where there was no harm, no hurt, no violence, no cruelty. I have certainly not lived my life in such a world, but I do believe it to be possible. Surely he must be senile, you say. But these are not the fantastical beliefs of a man of advanced years. I know in my heart that peace is possible. I know it is possible in your life, and I know it is possible in mine. I know it is possible for our children, our grandchildren, and the generations that follow. But I also know that it is only possible if this peace begins with each of us. Peace is built with every small and large act of forgiveness.
We cannot walk the Fourfold Path in shame or silence. After all, the first step on the path is telling our stories. The process is not quiet, and it is not always pretty. It calls for a vulnerability that can be uncomfortable at best. It will ask much of you, sometimes more than you think you can give. However, the gifts and the freedom that will be returned to you are beyond measure.
We invite you to lay down your sorrows and trust that nothing will be asked of you that you are not able to give. Forgiving is always worthwhile in the end. To get to that end, we must make a beginning, a first step. The first step will be telling your truth. We begin by Telling the Story.
But first, let us pause to listen to what the heart hears.
You have stood at this junction before
You will stand at this junction again
And if you pause you can ask yourself
Which way to turn
You can turn away from your own sadness
And run the race named revenge
You will run that tired track again and again
Or you can admit your own pain
And walk the path that ends
In this direction lies freedom, my friend
I can show you where hope and wholeness make their homes
But you can’t push past your anguish on your way there
To find the path to peace
You will have to meet your pain
And speak its name
* * *
Understanding the Fourfold Path
• Nothing is unforgivable.
• There is no one who is beyond redemption, and to deem someone a monster is to take away that person’s accountability for his or her actions.
• We always have a choice whether to walk the Revenge Cycle or the Forgiveness Cycle.
• In the Revenge Cycle, we reject our pain and suffering and believe that by hurting the person who hurt us our pain will go away.
• In the Forgiveness Cycle, we face our pain and suffering and move toward acceptance and healing by walking the Fourfold Path.
• These are the steps of the Fourfold Path: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship.
* * *
Walking the Path
The following image is of a finger labyrinth, patterned after the walking labyrinth in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France. A finger labyrinth is “walked” by tracing the path with a finger of the non-dominant hand. The advantage of a finger labyrinth is its accessibility. It can be carried with you and used almost anywhere at any time.
1. For this meditation you will set your intention to remain open to the forgiveness journey before you enter this labyrinth.
2. As you follow the labyrinth path, notice the places where you lose your way, where you pause, where you meet resistance. Can you name what has been evoked in you?
3. At the center of the labyrinth, pause and ask for a blessing.
4. Follow the path back out.
5. As you exit the labyrinth, pause to offer thanks for this time of reflection.
You can turn to this labyrinth whenever you need to collect your thoughts along the Fourfold Path.
* * *
Marking the Path
1. Take your stone and trace around it four times in your journal, creating four circles.
2. In each circle, write the name of each step of the Fourfold Path:
a. Telling the Story
b. Naming the Hurt
c. Granting Forgiveness
d. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship
3. Write around each circle what resistances you notice as you consider walking the Fourfold Path.
4. Write down anything that is holding you back.
* * *
1. What would be the best outcome you could imagine, if you were to forgive?
2. How would your life be different?
3. How would your relationships be different—both your relationship to the one who harmed you and your relationships with others?
* * *
Part Two THE FOURFOLD PATH
Chapter 4 Telling the Story
IT WAS HOT.
During the day, the Karoo—that vast expanse of semi-desert in the middle of South Africa—is an oven. When we opened the car windows, the air rushed in as if from a blow-dryer set on high. The car windows were open; it was an act of desperate hope. We were sticky with sweat. We were tired. The children had started the backseat bickering that seems to come with fatigue and heat. We had been driving for hours, having left our home in Alice in the Eastern Cape before dawn. The whole family—four young children, Leah, and I—had piled into a station wagon for our trek to Swaziland.
In the 1960s, South Africa was in the fierce grip of apartheid. It was the reason for our trek. When the Bantu Education system of inferior education for black children was instituted by the government, Leah and I left the teaching profession in protest. We vowed we would do all in our power to ensure our children were never subjected to the brainwashing that passed for education in South Africa. Instead, we enrolled the children in schools in neighboring Swaziland. Naomi started boarding school at the tender age of six. Because of our three-year sojourn in England while I studied theology, Trevor and Thandi were older when they started to board. Six times each year we made the three-thousand-mile drive from Alice in the Eastern Cape to my parents’ home in Krugersdorp. After spending the night with them, we would drive five hours to Swaziland, drop off or pick up the children at their schools, and drive back to Krugersdorp to rest before the long drive home. There were no hotels or inns that would accommodate black guests at any price.
On that blistering day we were on our way to leave the children at school. It wasn’t the happy, chatty journey we had after picking them up. On those drives homeward the children were full of fun and news and the exciting prospect of holiday. This was the drop-off drive, and the coming farewells cast a slight pall over the mood of the family. The heat added another dimension to our despair. Up ahead, I saw a “Walls Ice Cream” sign. Our spirits lifted. I could almost taste the delicious, cold, sweet relief as I pulled up outside the shop.
We all clambered out of the car. I pushed open the door to the small store, which doubled as the local take-away, or carryout.
The boy behind the register looked up. He jerked his thumb. “Kaffirs must go to the window.”
I looked at the window in the wall from which the contents of the store were barely visible. No black man’s feet allowed on the hallowed ground of this dinky store. The only black people allowed inside were black women on their knees to scrub and sweep.
The rage seared me. The sadness of the impending separation from our children, the fatigue and frustration from the long, hot drive, the irritation with the children bickering in the backseat, and now this! I slammed my way out of the shop.
“Get back in the car!” I told everyone. They scrambled back, confusion creasing their faces, back into the angry heat. I was furious, and like so many frustrated parents, my temper flared. Underneath my temper, however, was a bright and burning wound.
It was such a small incident. It was nothing earth-shattering. No one had bled. No one had died. But even now, as I tell the story, I recall how deep and real the hurt felt. It was a stinging hurt heaped on all the other hurts that were commonplace in our daily lives under apartheid. We were so used to these incidents that, at the time, I didn’t consciously know I had to forgive the boy behind the register.
Stories are not always told from start to finish. Sometimes we don’t even know they are stories. We simply begin to assemble the pieces, to make sense out of our experiences. In the car, I wanted the children to understand what had just happened to us, but first I had to face my own feelings of hopelessness. Families must find shared stories of their experiences, or everyone is left to their private pain and each member of the family feels alone and isolated. This happens whenever there is a crisis or cruelty, and calls for meaning to be made.
I did not want my children to tell themselves the story of supposed inferiority and justified inequality that was the master narrative of those bygone days. Instead, I told them about dignity and how one can only be robbed of it if one hands it to a thief. This “teaching moment” was how I also came to terms with what had just happened to my family. Later that night, when we had dropped off the children at school and Leah and I were alone, I discussed it with Leah. She had been there and knew what had happened, but in our shared words we again retold the story, and in doing so began to accept the facts of what had happened.
We all experience pain. This is the inescapable part of being human. Hurt, insult, harm, and loss are inevitable aspects of our lives. Psychology calls it “trauma,” and it often leaves deep scars on our souls. However, it is not the trauma itself that defines us. It is the meaning we make of our experiences that defines both who we are and who we ultimately become. Walking away from the shop, even in anger, I was refusing to accept the valuation of myself as a second-class citizen undeserving of respect.
Every day we are faced with a possibility of being hurt by others; it is part and parcel of living and loving and being a member of the human family. Whether the harm is intentional or unintentional, the hurt is real. We may find ourselves the target of lies, betrayal, gossip, or even physical assault. Someone we love may reject us. Someone we trust may cheat us. Someone we consider a friend or someone we recognize as a stranger may insult us. Or we may find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and fall victim to random violence or a tragic accident. Loved ones may be hurt or even killed. In any given moment we may be harmed profoundly. It is not fair. It is not deserved.
And yet it happens.
It is what we do next that matters most. Each time we are injured, we stand at the same fork in the road and choose to travel either the path of forgiveness or the path of retaliation. Even in the midst of righteous anger or rage, even if we are blinded by grief and pain, even if our suffering feels so immense and so unfair, we always make a choice. We can lash out in retaliation, demanding an eye for an eye in the false belief that, somehow, this will undo the initial harm or provide balm for our wounds. Or we can step toward the place of acceptance. We can recognize that we must give up all belief that we can change the past. The journey to acceptance begins in pain and ends in hope.
If you are reading this book, you have made this choice and are already on your journey. What is it you need to forgive? What happened to cause your pain? How have you been hurt? Whatever it may be, whatever has been broken or lost, can only be repaired and found again by telling the story of what happened.
Why Tell the Story
Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed. It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting.
Neuroscientists tell us that we have two kinds of memories, explicit and implicit. When we remember an event and know what happened, we form explicit memories—we know explicitly that we are remembering something. That’s what most of us think memory is. But there is another kind. When we experience an event we are not consciously aware of, we form implicit memories. In other words, we don’t realize we are remembering something. When Mpho’s daughter Nyaniso was four she was attacked by a pair of Dobermans; the dogs were too big for their owner to control. For years, Nyaniso flinched whenever a dog approached. She didn’t have the explicit memory of being terrorized; she had an implicit memory that caused a reaction in her. It was only years later, in the course of sharing family stories, that Nyaniso was able to transform her implicit memory into an explicit memory. She was able to integrate her memories through the act of telling her story. This was an important part of how she began to heal from the trauma. This is so for all of us. Telling our stories helps us integrate our implicit memories and begin to heal from our traumas.
Knowing our stories and histories is vital for us at any age. Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University, began exploring resilience in children during the 1990s. He and a colleague developed a twenty-question survey called “Do You Know,” which they gave to children to find out the stories children knew about their families. It turned out that the more children knew the stories of their families’ history—the good, the bad, and the ugly—the more resilient the children turned out to be. Knowing their families’ stories turned out to be “the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.” It also turned out that in following up on these children after the September 11, 2001, terrorist act in New York City, the children who scored high on the scale, who best knew their families’ history—successes and failures—were most resilient in times of trauma or stress.8 These children were connected to a larger story about their lives, to a bigger picture and context of who they were.
Just as this scale predicted the future health and happiness of the children in this study, so does knowing and telling our own stories of harm predict our future health and happiness in recovering from that trauma. When we know our stories and make sense of what has happened, we get connected to the larger story of our lives and its meaning. We become more resilient, we are able to handle stress, and we heal. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel explains that the best predictor of how well a child will be attached to his or her parents—have positive, loving relationships—is whether the parents have a clear and coherent story about their lives and the traumas they have experienced. In other words, if you are able to talk about your life and the joys and sorrows you have experienced—if you know your story—you are much more likely to be a skillful parent. Your unhealed, unforgiven traumas will not rear their ugly heads, as our disowned experiences so often do. If we cannot seek forgiveness and healing for our own benefit, perhaps we can seek it for the sake of our children.
But how do we do this? How do we tell the story?
Tell the Truth
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was first and foremost a truth commission. There could be no reconciliation between South Africa’s past and South Africa’s future without the truth. It is the same for you and me. The truth prevents us from pretending that the things that happened did not happen. How we begin is by first letting the truth be heard in all its rawness, in all its ugliness, and in all its messiness. This is what we did in South Africa, this is what I did after that long-ago day in the Karoo, and this is what you must do for what has happened to you.
Start with the Facts
Telling the facts of your story is the most important element of this first step, and it is how you begin to take back what was taken from you. When you tell your story, it is as if you are putting the puzzle pieces back together again, one hesitant memory at a time. In the beginning, your memories and your facts, depending on what the trauma is and when it happened, may be fragmented and hard to articulate. They may not follow a chronological order or be told in a linear fashion. All of this is understandable. This is how it is for Mpho when she recalls the day of Angela’s murder:
Last week was the anniversary of Angela’s death. We went through the day, the girls and I, feeling out of sorts and not recognizing what was going on. At the end of the day we realized what it was that had been churning in us, that it was the anniversary of her death, and we felt this profound and renewed sadness. Nyaniso had a particularly hard time with Angela’s death. Angela was found in her room, but what she told me last week was that they had argued that morning. It was a silly argument over whether or not she had a school uniform to wear, but they had parted in sort of a bad space. I didn’t know this for a whole year. It was the first time I was hearing it. Even a year later we are still filling in holes in the story. There may be some pieces that we never know, like what exactly happened on that day. All I know is that so much was lost.
It was a usual morning, with me sort of flying about the house trying to pack and get the kids off to school. Angela always seemed to be a half step ahead of me. Angela knew how to handle Onalenna’s morning crankies and usher her into the day in a really sweet way, which is not a skill I have. For some reason that morning I remember I had done my makeup in the kitchen and had charged out the door in a big rush. Usually Angela would come rushing out after me, wanting to know what to make for dinner, but I don’t think she did that morning. In the first few months of working for us, I would go over step-by-step how to cook a meal, but now she had it down and I could just give her the menu and she would know what to do.
That day, for some reason, I had come back to the house after dropping the girls off. Angela was in the kitchen doing dishes when I got there. She didn’t say anything or indicate there was anything wrong, but I do remember she had an odd look on her face. I asked her if everything was okay and she said yes.
Onalenna had a swim class and I had to be in town that afternoon, so I asked my brother-in-law, Mthunzi, to pick up Onalenna and drop her off at home after school, where she could stay with Angela until it was time for swim class. When Mthunzi got to the house, he called me and said there was no answer from the house. We have a security gate that is operated from inside the house. I remember feeling a bit annoyed, a bit huffy. Angela knew the girls could be dropped off any time after two o’clock, and she was always there and always called me if she was going to be away from the house for more than five minutes. It was weird and it didn’t seem right. I tried to call the house. I tried to call her mobile phone. It was very unusual. I told Mthunzi to bring Onalenna to my office instead. I called the house over and over again throughout the afternoon. I kept calling and calling. No answer. I thought it was really strange and very unlike her to be so unreachable. I asked my mom to drive Onalenna to swim class, so on my way to my mom’s house to drop Onalenna off, I decided to stop by my house and see what had happened. Things seemed off. The garage door wouldn’t open. The back gate was open in a way it never was. I backed out of the driveway and drove to my mom’s to drop my daughter off. I knew that whatever I might find in the house I didn’t want to find it with Onalenna next to me.
I called Mthunzi and told him, “There is something that doesn’t feel right at the house.” I asked him to meet me there. We arrived back at the house at the same time and went in through the front door. Once inside the house, I knew immediately that something was wrong. I went to Angela’s room and the bed was unmade, which was very unusual for this time of day. We started walking back toward the bedrooms. I walked past my room and saw the basket of makeup I had left in the kitchen that morning on top of my bed. It seems such a small matter, but that’s when I really knew something was horribly wrong. Angela was very particular and would never put something on top of a bed she had already made up, and certainly not my makeup basket, which was full of powders that could mess up the bedcovers. We then turned down the hallway, and I noticed it was unusually dark and that Nyaniso’s bedroom door was closed. Once she had finished cleaning, which she would have done by this late in the day, Angela always left the bedroom doors open. I told Mthunzi this is not right. He opened the door to Nyaniso’s room and that’s when I saw her.
She was on the floor.
There was so much blood.
I asked him to check if she had a pulse. He said he didn’t think so.
At that point the neighborhood crime watch arrived and told us we needed to leave. Our home was now a crime scene. I didn’t know it at the time, but we would never be able to call it home again.
Mpho’s memories of the event are clear and explicit. The small and seemingly unrelated details come back to her as she remembers her makeup basket, the look on Angela’s face when she came back to the house, the certain knowledge that afternoon that something was wrong, and her instinct to shield Onalenna from whatever it might be. There is so much more to her story than the facts, but she must get the facts out first. Even the small details can be important. They are threads by which we make sense of what has happened. Just tell the story as you remember it.
The Cost of Not Telling
Even if intellectually I know that it is through my storytelling I will begin to heal from trauma, it is not always easy emotionally to take the first step. It can be a risky endeavor. There is the risk of being hurt again, of not being believed, of not being affirmed. But when we lock our stories inside us, the initial injury is often compounded. If I tuck my secrets and my stories away in shame or fear or silence, then I am bound to my victimhood and my trauma. If Mpho had never told the story of what happened on that day, she would have remained at the mercy of that tragic experience.
It is not always easy to tell your story, but it is the first critical step on the path to freedom and forgiveness. We saw this so palpably in the TRC, when the victims of apartheid were able to come forward to tell their stories. They were relieved to have a place of safety and affirmation in which to share their experiences. They were also relieved of the ongoing victimization they suffered from believing that no one would ever truly know what they had endured or believe the stories they had to tell. When you tell your story, you no longer have to carry your burden alone.
A young man, whom we will call Jeffrey, just celebrated his thirtieth birthday but has carried an untold story from when he was twelve. He is a large, imposing man with a deep voice. Yet when he speaks of what happened almost two decades earlier, he sounds like a small boy again—sad, lost, and alone. A teacher and coach—a man Jeffrey’s single mother had trusted to be a mentor and role model for her adolescent son—sexually molested Jeffrey at an after-school sporting event. Jeffrey never told his mother or anyone, afraid of bringing shame to his family, afraid of hurting his mother, afraid he had somehow done something wrong and caused this teacher to do what he had done. Unable to speak of it, Jeffrey became an angry, sullen teenager who didn’t trust anyone, especially adults. He dropped out of his after-school activities and avoided the teacher as much as possible. When they did run into each other, the man acted as if nothing had happened, which made Jeffrey question his own sanity. Jeffrey describes his life in terms of “before” and “after.” Before it happened, he had been a happy boy, confident, excited about the future and who he might become. After the incident, the world seemed bleak and unsafe. It wasn’t until Jeffrey met a woman and fell in love that he dared share the story of what had happened to him. The woman, whom he would later marry, encouraged him to forgive his teacher. She told Jeffrey that by not forgiving he had let this man continue to abuse him for almost two decades.
For Jeffrey, it took many years to find someone he felt safe with enough to tell his story: “I wasted so much of my life living in shame and guilt, feeling like I had done something wrong. When I told Eliza [not her real name] what had happened, I was so afraid she would look at me differently, that she would reject me and no longer love me. It was the thinking of a twelve-year-old boy, not a thirty-year-old man.” Trauma like Jeffrey’s can cause us to stay trapped in the painful times of our lives and limit ourselves in countless ways. The path of forgiveness leads back to where we were trapped, so we can rescue the parts of ourselves we have given up. Through sharing his story with his wife, Jeffrey was able to go back, with her support, and free that twelve-year-old boy who had done nothing wrong.
Once Jeffrey was able to tell the story, he said it was as if a weight was lifted off his chest. He felt as if he could take a deep breath for the first time in years. Jeffrey continued to tell his story, first to his mother and then, eventually, to other men who had also suffered in silence and shame after being sexually abused. “It wasn’t as if everything was made okay by telling my secret, and I lived happily ever after,” he says. “But it was as though I had been locked in a dungeon for years, only to discover that I had the key to get out all along. I was hard on myself about that as well and regretful of all the years I had wasted. Once I joined a group of other survivors and heard their stories and shared mine, it was somehow better. Each time I talked, it was easier. I was able to help other men who had similar experiences, and the more compassion I had for what they had experienced, the more compassion I had for my own twelve-year-old self. It’s hard to explain, but eventually I came to a place where I was okay with what happened because it gave me this empathy and ability to help people that I may never have had otherwise.”
As we will see and discuss in later chapters, this acceptance and recognition of the hidden gifts that suffering can bring is an important part of healing and forgiveness.
Deciding Whom to Tell
One of the most important decisions you will make is choosing whom to tell your story. Ideally, as we were able to do with the TRC, you can tell your story to the person who caused you harm. There is 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. I believe this is the quickest way to find both peace and the will to forgive. It is not, however, always possible or even practical. To work, the perpetrator has to be receptive, and you have to be sure they will not cause you more harm. Ideally, they have shown remorse, are asking for your forgiveness, and are willing to witness the pain they have caused by listening to your story. In the TRC, we did not allow any cross-examination or questioning of the story being told. Each individual was able to share