The concept of forgiveness can easily stray into the polemic. Since working in this field I’ve tried to bypass pious sounding statements about the power of forgiveness. I don’t want to express it in a sanitised or spiritualised way, or as some magical key to serenity, or as any kind of obligation or moral imperative. It is, after all, a highly nuanced concept, meaning many things to many people. In my ten years as founder and director of The Forgiveness Project I’ve come to one conclusion only – that forgiveness is a word no one can agree on!
Over the past ten years academic research into forgiveness has proliferated, the great bulk of which has come out of America, almost always from researchers with a pro-forgiveness bias – whether explicitly or covertly expressed. Much of this research looks at process, analysing personal experiences of forgiveness to map out key stages of development.
I used to try and avoid the drive to pin down the meaning of forgiveness or analyse the practice, but as I came across more and more victims and perpetrators of extreme violence, there was no avoiding the fact that many of these forgiveness narratives shared key components, with almost all victims eventually emerging (whether after weeks, years or decades) from the trauma with resilience and hope. Some had experienced life-changing encounters which had shifted their consciousness and attitudes, while others had come to the decision to forgive through a long and difficult process of pain and hatred which had left them spent and looking for another way forward. Bud Welch, for instance, whose daughter was killed in the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 describes how after a year of visiting the bomb site every day, and with his life falling apart, he decides, “I have to do something different because what I’m doing isn’t working”. What he does different is line himself up for forgiveness – a key feature of which is humanising the ‘other’ through empathy. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow puts it so well:
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
Forgiveness is dynamic and personal. Each of us puts our own limitations on the concept. For some it may be conditional on the offender’s apology and remorse, for others it will depend on the gravity of the offence. Gill Hicks who lost both her legs in the London bombings, describes that shift as recognising she had a future by drawing a line in the sand between Life 1 and Life 2. Former gang member turned peace advocate, Aqeela Sherrills, whose son was murdered in 2004 in a random act of gang violence, has come to believe in the concept that “where the wounds are, the gift lies.”
In an attempt to look at the process of forgiveness, I have assisted Dr Masi Noor, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University in England, in creating a Forgiveness Toolbox which underlines the notion that forgiveness does not happen in mysterious ways. Instead, it reinforces the notion that the practice of forgiveness can be learnt by acquiring a set of skills which are based on the actual experiences of individuals who have succeeded in liberating themselves from the debilitating power of victimhood.
The skills were extracted by analysing some of the real life political violence narratives from The Forgiveness Project, experiences of people who have struggled with trauma, loss, resentment and even thoughts of revenge. Knowing that these skills had transformed these individuals to act in ways that have allowed them to discover and embrace “the gift in the wound”, we wanted to look more closely at how.
The list of skills is not exhaustive nor prescriptive and we refrained from outlining a process which may be suggestive of a specific sequence through which the skills should be explored because there may be numerous different processes and paths. Ultimately, these skills aim to enable individuals and groups to re-gain their diminished sense of agency following victimhood experiences, transform the impact of harm and violence, and to find ‘the gifts in their own wounds’.