Forgiving 

I’ve just finished Desmond and Mpho Tutu’s ‘The Book of Forgiving’, picked up (as all the best things are) at the local library. 

It’s a simple and powerful read, which is studded with some terrible stories of personal loss, sickening violence and genocide; and the remarkable power of forgiveness in the face of them.

The basic argument is forgiveness doesn’t excuse responsibility – it explicitly acknowledges and names it. Only once the ‘story’ is properly told, and the ‘hurt’ is ‘named’, is there the possibility to forgive. 

And doing so is the way to be freed from being a victim – including forgiving yourself if you were ever a perpetrator.

There is a straightforward path to forgiveness which helps people exit the alternative – a never-ending cycle of harm and revenge.

I saw this diagram the night before interviewing someone on a difficult HR standoff. It certainly helped me to listen for longer: to let the person ‘tell their story’ and ‘name their hurt’, which seemed to move things forward.

The final two steps – ‘granting forgiveness’ and ‘renewing or releasing the relationship’ are about seeing  ‘perpetrators’ as human beings – recognising none of us was born evil and we all have within us the capacity to do terrible things.

Easier said than done; but nobody said it was easy – and it’s the only path to forgiveness.

The ‘hurts’ Tutu has seen in South Africa and Rwanda – so many violent murders – seem too huge to ever forgive. But the Truth and Reconciliation commissions he oversaw all basically followed this fourfold path: tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness and renew or release the relationship.

As both he and the Dalai Lama have said: forgiveness is both a source and a sign of true personal strength, 

Confrontation and Compassion

Compassion came up a number of times this week – on Tuesday in the context of confrontation; and yesterday as a way to run an entire organisation. Of course the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu would argue (in the book I’m reading below) that compassion is what we should use to run the entire world.

Back to confrontation through – a colleague of mine was arguing for a ‘public hanging’ to show that the behaviour of some people will no longer be tolerated. I said I felt not; I was accused of appeasement. 

That stung a bit, but my considered counter was: when I’ve ‘gone to war’ with people at work all manner of ills have followed – for me, them and everyone around us. 

So I offered what The Book of Joy suggests instead:

“There is an important distinction between forgiveness and simply allowing others’ wrongdoing. Sometimes people misunderstand and think forgiveness means you accept or approve of wrongdoing. No, this is not the case. We must make an important distinction.” The Dalai Lama was speaking emphatically, striking on hand against the other. “The actor and the action, or the person and what he has done. Where the wrong action is concerned, it may be necessary to take appropriate counteraction to stop it. Towards the actor, or the person, however you can choose not to develop anger and hatred. This is where the power of forgiveness lies – not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness. 

This is easier to say than do – both ways. I sometimes find it hard to respond quickly to a ‘wrong’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ without drawing on anger; and once the incident has passed, it feels like I’ve missed the moment and the best thing is probably to move on. But the Dalai Lama invites me to do better: 

“We stand firm against the wrong not only to protect those who are being harmed but also to protect the person who is harming others, because eventually they, too, will suffer. So it’s out of a sense of concern for their own long term well-being that we stop their wrongdoing… We do not let anger and negative feelings develop, but we strongly oppose their actions.”

Desmond Tutu sets out the personal benefit of forgiveness, which I buy completely and have experienced fully in recent years: 

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the 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 feelings. We become our own liberator.”

The Dalai Lama picks up: 

“So it is totally wrong,” he said emphatically, cutting his hand sharply through the air, “to say that practice of tolerance and practice of forgiveness are signs of weakness. Totally wrong. Hundred percent wrong. Thousand percent wrong. Forgiveness is a sign of strength.”

The Archbishop adds with a laugh: 

“Those who say forgiveness is a sign of weakness haven’t tried it.”

Forgiveness I have largely cracked. Responding to ‘wrongs’ with ‘clarity and firmness’ but without hot or cold anger… that is a work in progress.

Joy

The rather wonderful Disney kids film ‘Inside Out’ suggests the eponymous ‘Joy’ (above) represents our original childlike state. In the film, the loss of ‘Joy’ deep into the vaults of memory is the bridge to the discovery of the more complex emotions of teen and adult years. 

It’s a lovely film. From our family watching experience, it helps both kids and adults better understand their emotions and personalities.

Interesting then – at the other end of life – to read two famous eighty year olds advocating the same simple emotion. The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu invite us to do better than ‘happiness’: a rather stolid state of satisfaction; and aim for ‘joy’. 

So what makes for joy? Here’s what The Book of Joy says:

Our ability to cultivate joy has not been scientifically studied as thoroughly as out ability to cultivate happiness. In 1978 psychologists Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a landmark study that found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than those who had been paralysed in an accident. From this and subsequent work came the idea that have a “set point” that determines their happiness over the course of their life. In other words, we get accustomed to any new situation and inevitably return to our general state of happiness. 

I’ve read this before and there’s good and bad in it, I think. It helps with resilience as you know you’ll get through stuff, but doesn’t lead to much hope for joy; whatever you do you’ll just default back to ‘average’ happiness… But the next para is VERY encouraging:

However, more recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that perhaps only 50% of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament, our “set point.” The other half is decided by a combination of our circumstances, over which we may have very limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. According to Lyubomirsky, the three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: 

  1. Our ability to reframe our situation more positively
  2. Our ability to experience gratitude
  3. Our choice to be kind and generous

These are exactly the attitudes and actions that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop had already mentioned as central pillars of joy.

I realise looking at them that I really started making headway on the three factors in joy in my early forties – not the least through reading and blogging. 

As the saying goes ‘life begins at forty’. Perhaps if you’re lucky the rediscovery of ‘joy’ begins too.

Tutu

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Five years ago I had the privilege to sit within touching distance of Desmond Tutu, to hear him speak.

Small in stature, he seemed quite old and frail as he took slowly and carefully to the stage. But then he began his address, and the fire in his eyes and the warmth and wisdom in his words were undimmed.

At the end he told us an old proverb of an ugly bird brought up among chickens, who doesn’t realise he is an eagle until he jumps from a hilltop and flies. As Tutu ended his speech he invited us all to be eagles and he threw wide his arms and physically rose momentarily to exhort us to ‘FLY!’

And then he smiled his brilliant smile and looked at us with his burning bright eyes – before he turned to leave, and became a small, slightly frail old man again. Remarkable.

Equally remarkable is his article in The Guardian today. Simple, honest, unaffected and direct – like all the best thinkers, writers and great doers:

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 on 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 on her.

When I recall this story, I realise how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he himself 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.

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.

Why would I do such a thing? I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. 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. 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.

Forgiveness takes practice, honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness (even if it is a weary willingness) to try. It isn’t 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 behaviour or own up to his or her offences – and you find yourself unforgiving all over again. 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 over the fact that 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.

As a father myself, raising children has sometimes felt like training for a forgiveness marathon. Like other parents, my wife, Leah, and I could create a whole catalogue of the failures and irritations our children have served up. As infants, their loud squalls disturbed our slumber. Even as one or the other of us stumbled out of bed, the irritation at being woken and the thoughts of the fatigue that would lie like a pall over the coming day gave way to the simple acknowledgment that this was a baby. This is what babies do. The loving parent slides easily into the place of acceptance, even gratitude, for the helpless bundle of tears. Toddler tantrums might provoke an answering anger in a mother or father, but it will be quickly replaced by the understanding that a little person does not yet have the language to express the flood of feelings contained in his or her body. Acceptance comes.

As our own children grew, they found new (and remarkably creative) ways of testing our patience, our resolve and our rules and limits. We learned time and again to turn their transgressions into teaching moments. But mostly we learned to forgive them over and over again, and fold them back into our embrace. We know our children are so much more than the sum of everything they have done wrong. Their stories are more than rehearsals of their repeated need for forgiveness. We know that even the things they did wrong were opportunities for us to teach them to be citizens of the world. We have been able to forgive them because we have known their humanity. We have seen the good in them.

In the 1960s, South Africa was in the fierce grip of apartheid. 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 brain-washing that passed for education in South Africa. Instead, we enrolled our children in schools in neighbouring Swaziland. Six times each year we made the 3,000-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.

During one of those trips, my father said he wanted to talk. I was exhausted. We were halfway home and had driven 10 hours to drop the children at school. Sleep beckoned. We still had another 15-hour drive back to our home in Alice. Driving through the Karoo – that vast expanse of semi-desert in the middle of South Africa – was always trying. I told my father I was tired and had a headache. “We’ll talk tomorrow, in the morning,” I said. We headed to Leah’s mother’s home half an hour away. The next morning, my niece came to wake us with the news: my father was dead.

I was grief-stricken. I loved my father very much and while his temper pained me greatly, there was so much about him that was loving, wise and witty. And then there was the guilt. With his sudden death I would never be able to hear what he had wanted to say. Was there some great stone on his heart that he had wanted to remove? Might he have wanted to apologise for the abuse he had inflicted on my mother when I was a boy? I will never know. It has taken me many, many years to forgive myself for my insensitivity, for not honouring my father one last time with the few moments he wanted to share with me. Honestly, the guilt still stings.

When I reflect back across the years to his drunken tirades, I realise now that it was not just with him that I was angry. I was angry with myself. Cowering in fear as a boy, I had not been able to stand up to my father or protect my mother. So many years later, I realise that I not only have to forgive my father, I have to forgive myself.

A human life is a great mixture of goodness, beauty, cruelty, heartbreak, indifference, love and so much more. All of us share the core qualities of our human nature and so sometimes we are generous and sometimes selfish. Sometimes we are thoughtful and other times thoughtless; sometimes we are kind and sometimes cruel. This is not a belief. This is a fact.

No one is born a liar or a rapist or a terrorist. No one is born full of hatred. No one is born full of violence. No one is born in any less glory or goodness than you or me. But on any given day, in any given situation, in any painful life experience, this glory and goodness can be forgotten, obscured or lost. We can easily be hurt and broken, and it is good to remember that we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and the breaking.

The simple truth is, we all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness. There is no magic wand we can wave to go back in time and change what has happened or undo the harm that has been done, but we can do everything in our power to set right what has been made wrong. We can endeavour to make sure the harm never happens again.

There are times when all of us have been thoughtless, selfish or cruel. But no act is unforgivable; no person is beyond redemption. Yet, it is not easy to admit one’s wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. “I am sorry” are perhaps the three hardest words to say. We can come up with all manner of justifications to excuse what we have done. When we are willing to let down our defences and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes we have made.

Blake’s Proverbs

William Blakes’ Proverbs of Hell are a bit like Jenny Holzer’s Truisms – some you get some you don’t, some resonate some clang. Still thinking about some of the things which I think constitute the good life, four of his proverbs capture something:

When thou seest an Eagle thou sees a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!

What is now proved was once only imagin’d

One thought fills immensity

The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship

Why these four? First I’ve noticed that ‘noticing’ enriches life immensely. One simple trick I’ve stumbled upon is to look up. It generally lifts the spirits. Today I looked up, sat in slow traffic, and saw a beautiful Victorian clock and frontage high above an otherwise grim discount store. There is a little spray of golden flowers and thistles on top of Big Ben which glints in the sun when I cycle past in a morning. I’ve noticed most old buildings have something special adorning their top storey. Look up and there’s light, clouds, planes, Eagles – you get the picture.

Second I’m reading the Greek myths at the moment and it is staggering, as with ancient philosophy and science, how much we knew then of people and their foibles, but how little we knew of science and how the world works. We all carry today an amazing storehouse of knowledge and ideas just because of the era we live in. It would have amazed the ancients.

How lucky we are. But despite all that knowledge there is still so much to learn and discover that one thought can still fill immensity. I learned yesterday we’ve only just discovered that dogs like cats don’t ladle water when they slop it up, they form a tube with their tongues and draw it up though pressure – it takes three laps to create a column of water in the dog’s tongue which connects water to mouth. Amazing. Not sure our old dog ever mastered it given the soggy mess he always made on the kitchen floor.

Finally friends. Aristotle triages them into three types: transactional, fun and friends in contemplation. The third are the very best, but, as I once heard Desmond Tutu say, there is no human without other humans – friends and other people are our human web.

Look up, imagine, think and talk with friends – four principles which, I think, work just as well today as in Aristotle or Blake’s days.