Sometime back, I finished a numbing book, As We Forgive. The book is numbing because it recounts multiple episodes of atrocities during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.1 Remember it is estimated that over 500,000 people were slaughtered over several months. The attackers were often their own neighbors in this horrific ethnic violence. The survivors lost multiple loved ones and, more often than not, they were maimed themselves. Yet the survivors in this book were able to forgive their attackers.
This process of forgiveness was an exceedingly painful one over an extended period of time, using pastors and counselors. The process of forgiveness required that the attackers be a part of this reconciliation process.
This process of forgiveness was also a difficult one for the attackers (as those seeking forgiveness) because they had to work through all the issues associated with being involved in this genocide.
The book was also unsettling to me because I found myself asking – would I be able to do the same thing (extend forgiveness) after enduring such horrific events? When I truthfully answered myself, the answer was – I don’t know. I don’t know if I could reconcile with these assassins.
Yet, I’m convinced that one of my main purposes in life is to learn forgiveness, practice reconciliation, and do it in the context of my own family, my community, and the society in which I live. That process means doing the simple things like avoiding unnecessary confrontations, listening and thinking twice before speaking, and recognizing that I’m not always right (to name a few). That process also means doing the hard things like being able to engage in a positive way in difficult issues that are often highly emotionally charged and seem to be irreconcilable. These latter issues (like how to deal with racism, how to improve education, how to expand healthcare to all, or how to improve the emotional well-being of our children) require an incredible amount of energy, but it is crucial for us to recognize that forgiveness is essential to these processes if we want to make a positive difference.
What does forgiveness and public policy have to do with positive change? Actually, it has everything to do with change. We must recognize that we need to acknowledge past wrongs, listen to all sides and begin to formulate policy for the common good. I think our lack of forgiveness is one of the primary problems in the inability of our politicians to work together for positive change. Everyone is so entrenched in their views or their own political persuasion that they cannot really listen and move forward. The principles of forgiveness (extend forgiveness, accept forgiveness, and do it now) are lost in the shouting. The only way that we are able to improve our communities is to practice personal and social forgiveness in a calm manner. Debate and discussion are good but calm resolution of problems is much better. If folks with serious problems can resolve their differences (such as the survivors of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide), why can’t folks like us?
One of the subtitles in Dr. Fred Luskin’s book entitled Forgive for Good states that “holding a grudge is hazardous to your health.” 2A key component of forgiveness then is the ability to recognize that we must direct our energies toward positive change after a serious offense or series of offenses. Dr. Luskin reminds us that “a life well lived is [our] best revenge. Instead of focusing on [our] wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused [us] pain power over [us], learn to look for the love, beauty, and kindness around [us].” Holding a grudge does us no good except to take away our energy to improve ourselves and make things better.
If we already know all of the above, why do we still have such a hard time doing it? Why do we have such a hard time “moving on?” Because we have emotions and feelings that often times get in the way. These emotions and feelings are normal but need to be handled in a way to help us do positive things, not dwell on the problems of the past.3
Even when we know we should do something that doesn’t mean we will do it. For example, smokers often know that smoking is bad for their health, but they just can’t quit. We might know something in our “minds” that we should do but we can’t let our “hearts” do it. We are torn, and I think this is the real paradox that makes forgiveness so difficult and makes the attainment of true forgiveness a lifetime task.
While we often have a tough time dealing with forgiveness for painful issues (personal, business, social, or community), we can still move on making sure we don’t let our confusion cloud our actions. We must work together, taking communal responsibility, to improve the life of our community. Forgiveness will often take time and a lot of hard work. It is worth it.
- Larson CC: As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda. Zondervan, 2009. 284 pp.
- Luskin F: Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. HarperOne, 2016. 242 pp.
- Cantacuzino M, Tutu D, Smith AM. The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2015. 208 pp.