When I first founded The Forgiveness Project in 2004 as a means of collecting and sharing real stories of forgiveness I tried to avoid stories of everyday grievances, grudges and resentments. The reason was that I’d spent 15 years as a journalist specialising in so-called “human interest” stories and I was frustrated by the increasingly intrusive nature of this work as editors required ever more personal details of people’s lives.
This meant that when it came to collecting forgiveness narratives in the aftermath of the Iraq War I decided to concentrate on the more extreme stories of crime, violence, genocide and terrorism. Forgiving the unforgivable became my focus because I knew that these stories had the ability to shock and intrigue; the greater the offence the more astonishing the transformation. The purpose of the stories was to demonstrate how people could endure tragedy and atrocity without resorting to violence. I wanted to draw a line under the pervading dogma of vengeance.
Over the years I have been encouraged when people have said that although their own life experiences are nowhere near as dramatic as those on The Forgiveness Project website, still these stories have shed light on their own inner grievances and resentments, and provided a way forward.
In fact, even buried within the big forgiveness stories are smaller ones. For instance Judith Toy’s story may be about forgiving the brutal murder of three family members, but she also talks about an unrelated matter where she has practiced understanding and acceptance in a situation which for many would generate only anger.
‘I have a brother who doesn’t speak to me; we had a falling out’ she says. ‘I have reached out to him many times, but he is intractable. Reconciliation does not always flow, but I have learned to be patient.’
Magdelene Makola tells a story about being abducted in Scotland when she was working as a nurse, and of her efforts to forgive a fellow South-African for locking her in the boot of a car for ten days. Yet she concludes:
‘The saddest thing of all for me is that after my ordeal some of my friends seemed more interested in talking to the media than in my well-being. With one close friend in particular I have felt so betrayed and hurt. This did more damage than being locked in the boot of the car. I now have a problem with trust.’
This got me thinking that the so-called smaller, more common stories of estrangements, family rifts, bullying, neighbourly disputes and medical mishaps are actually no less important. This means that, 12 years later the focus of The Forgiveness Project’s stories is broadening, moving away from telling only the extreme and shocking stories and concentrating as well on the kind of unresolved hurts that fester within families, the grievances that rip friendships apart. For instance Mathew Shurka whose relationship with his father broke down completely when his father could not accept him for being gay.
From having spent over a decade exploring concepts of forgiveness, I know that to forgive is both a choice and a process. I have come to see it as an intention, a change of perspective, a direction to line yourself up for rather than a final and fixed destination. When it comes to considering forgiveness everyone has their limits, especially in the case of murder, genocide, rape, or violent extremism. However within normal, everyday relationships forgiveness begins to feel more like a necessity than a choice.
English poet and philosopher David Whyte believes that ‘all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.’ But there is one caveat; forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation. Desmond Tutu puts it best. ‘If someone is constantly abusing you… it is far better to release the relationship than to renew it,’ he warns. In other words, if forgiveness is about reconciliation, it doesn’t necessarily mean reconciling with the person who has hurt you but releasing and reconciling with the lingering resentment. Resentment has a tight grip in the same way as the more you focus on a problem the more ingrained you make it.
My interest lies in how forgiveness can ease what CS Lewis described as ‘the incessant provocations of daily life’, or what George Elliot referred to in Middlemarch as ‘the hideous fettering of domestic hate.’ In his CNN blog Patrick Wanis, a human behaviour and relationship expert, noted that, ‘the most common denominator of the pain, mental and emotional affliction that I see people suffer is the lack of forgiveness – the anger and pursuit of revenge against mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle or self for something that someone did or didn’t do.’
In his bestseller Forgive For Good forgiveness expert Fred Luskin asks: ‘How can we be hurt and not end up with a smouldering grievance?’ Luskin has spent decades researching and teaching the health benefits of forgiveness knowing that multiple clinical studies have demonstrated that forgiveness lowers your blood pressure, decreases depression and anxiety and improves personal relationships.
I would go as far as to say that forgiveness is the oil of personal relationships; in our most successful relationships we probably (unwittingly) do it many times a day. And just as with the bigger and more extreme stories on The Forgiveness Project website, forgiveness in daily life is an extraordinarily useful tool that has the ability to repair broken relationships.