For our eighth Conversation on Forgiveness, Does knowing someone’s story make it harder to hate them?, Jo Berry and Pat Magee came together to discuss their experiences of building a relationship. Almost thirty years ago to the day, Jo’s father was killed when the IRA bombed the Grand Hotel Brighton and Pat was the IRA activist responsible. The two first met in 2000, following Pat’s release from prison under the Good Friday Agreement and have since met over 100 times. The conversation, was led by Roman Krznaric, philosopher, author and founding member of the School of Life.
Marina introduced the evening, saying it was a rare and precious thing to see people sitting together where harm has been done in the past. To hear Jo and Pat discuss the journey they had been on since the death of Jo’s father was a powerful example of what the South African psychologist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela, describes as “making public spaces intimate”. Roman opened the conversation with a discussion of empathy, describing it as something that has the potential to shift the social and political landscape. He spoke of it as an understanding of the position and thoughts of others, something often lacking in communities in conflict.
Jo spoke first, describing how two days after the attack she had decided that she wanted to try and make sense of the event through understanding the human face of the conflict. She spoke of wanting to ‘re-create’ herself, describing how she had not just lost her father but lost the person she had been before he died. When she first met Pat in 2000, her focus had therefore been on seeing him as a human being. The process of getting to know Pat helped her to get her humanity back. “When we empathise, we care about the other person’s needs and pain, it’s a desire to address their pain as you would your own.” Jo emphasised that this is not a static undertaking, it is an ongoing process which requires constant work.
Sometimes, she said, she felt the need to blame and judge but it was important to catch these feelings and understand where they come from.
She spoke of a shared responsibility for all of us to create peace and emphasised that we all have the capacity to do wrong. For her the idea that she could have made the same choices as Pat if she had grown up in a similar environment to him was very important. It is easy to blame and demonise someone, but the power that listening to someone’s story can have, acknowledging their emotions and really hearing them should not be underestimated.
For Jo, the idea of ‘forgiveness’ is a complex one. She described the strongest thought that she had experienced over the past ten years as being that of empathy, rather than forgiveness – this idea that there is no longer anything to forgive, only an understanding of the other’s experience. Forgiving does not mean you give up the right to be angry, rather you can learn to feel the anger whilst acknowledging the other person’s dignity. As one audience member put it, empathy is not tolerance, it is the willingness “to see the human rights of the other”.
Pat said he too had expected it to be simply a one off meeting and was not prepared for the level of intensity experienced. He recalled how they had spoken for three hours. Pat described how Jo listened intently, with no demonstration of anger, a radical contrast to the way in which he felt Republicans were usually stereotyped and demonised. He said “during all that time of conflict, it was she who gave my story more attention than anyone and I can only describe that experience as truly disarming.” Jo’s openness and willingness to listen to his story stimulated a realisation in Pat that he too was guilty of demonising the other, “being involved in the struggle I wasn’t seeing beyond the uniforms, beyond the ‘Tory’ label”. He movingly spoke about how meeting Jo allowed him to truly understand the measure of her loss.
Both Jo and Pat stressed that there was no end to the journey they were both on, it was very much an ongoing process, something which was fluid and constantly fluctuating. They also both expressed gratitude to the other for still agreeing to come and speak together, for still engaging in this process. It was clear from the conversation that the journey they had been on had not been easy or simple but the levels of trust that were displayed by their continuing engagement and dedication to building a relationship were a living testament to this important work.