Reading to learn what forgiveness feels like (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu)

I don’t recall where this photo comes from, a walk somewhere, a pensive moment perhaps.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

I’ve finally finished Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. The selfish point of reading it was to discover how one develops the skills of forgiveness: how one goes from angry person to gentle compassionate soul, and what all of this really means.

And I’ve totally failed. I’m no longer even sure if forgiveness, as I originally understood it, is a thing. Mandela is so good at explaining why his opposition feel the way they do, even when they do something stupid that results in a tragedy. I suppose the word is wise. He was a wise man.

I’m not wise. I’m young, emotional and volatile. I take things personally and I don’t simply let go of my anger.

The dictionary gives me the definition that to forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake.

Personally, I want to add to ‘angry or resentful’ a third feeling: afraid.

My anger isn’t just that I’m annoyed by circumstances. It primarily comes from a terror that’s embedded deep inside me and which demonstrates its existence through defensive behaviour including being angry. (My friends have several eloquent ways of saying I can be a nightmare in more polite language.)

Anyway, as I understand it, dear Nelson may have been angry and resentful towards certain individuals, but he had a bigger understanding of the world. A bigger problem that he wanted to solve. And as much as he loved or hated individuals, they did not matter so much as making progress in the journey towards his goal: freedom.

In my deeply introspective regurgitation of ideas, this inevitably means I land right back where I started with selfishness. Mandela it seems could forgive, or at least deal with the horror and anger he must have felt, because he was striving forward. He had a purpose bigger than himself. He knew that his goal of freedom required him to have strong working relationships with people whose ideas and beliefs he was fundamentally opposed to. Freedom mattered more than ego.

So, I’m left with the conclusion that forgiveness can be achieved through a mixture of understanding, perspective, and the courage to push forward towards something greater.

Or if it’s not forgiveness, it’s at least something.

The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World by Archbishop Desmond Tutu

When I was travelling, and Long Walk to Freedom, was too heavy for my luggage, I read this book by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter.

“Forgiveness is truly the grace by which we enable another person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.”

I like this definition because it suggests action rather than a simple absence of anger. It’s nice to think of forgiveness as the loss of anger. However, is this really feasible?  You can repress anger, or it can disappear. But then, when triggered, it can resurface or reappear. I can think I’ve developed empathy and understanding, and that I have this time forgiven, and then someone says something, or nothing, and I . I’m afraid and before long I’m closing the door with force than necessary.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu headed The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa. Several of his stories are from this period.

“Behaviour 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.”

Forgiveness is not a weakness. One person told another person that I’d forgive them, because I always do. And I got the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they saw my acceptance and determination to continue to like people even when they hurt me as a weakness. I don’t believe it is. Forgiveness is not the weak scrubbing out one’s self-worth as to accept without reservation another’s story. Forgiveness is a gallant act. It’s empathising with those who have caused you pain, learning to understand why they hurt you, and taking this understanding as a tool for walking out of anger.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.

Nor is it pretending that hurt has not happened.

Forgiveness is not quick or easy. It takes a lot of effort and time to develop that empathy and understanding of a person who has caused you pain, shame and the subsequent fear and anger that come from feeling hurt.

The fourfold path

This route to forgiveness advocated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu isn’t a case of a strategy you can walk through once. Sometimes you must keep going back to the beginning and starting again. Some days you wake up still feeling an old pain that you imagined had left and must start again from the beginning.

  • Tell the story
  • Name the hurt
  • Grant forgiveness
  • Renew or release the relationship

I’m learning. And learning. Further book recommendations or ideas are always welcome.