Karsten Mathiasen (Denmark)

“At first, I thought I was the great forgiver, but in the end I was the one to ask for forgiveness.”

Karsten Mathiasen is a Danish clown and storyteller who shares here his own personal story of healing and forgiveness after a bitter marital breakdown. Karsten is director of Cirkus Bella Donna, one of the smallest circuses in Denmark and uses the art of storytelling in peacebuilding and social work – tilgivelse.dk.

The catastrophe happened some years ago. I had travelled to Jutland to take my young Icelandic pony to train with a famous horse trainer. We’d had a few great days, but on the last evening, before returning home, the trainer and I watched the Twin Towers falling on TV. Little did I know that my own life was also about to collapse.

When I got home, my wife told me she had fallen in love with another man, and that she intended to see him once a week. Having grown up in the hippy era, I didn’t know how to stop her. I cried a lot, but tried not to make my young son and daughter feel even more insecure since they were already wondering why their mother wasn’t home every night.

One day, my wife said, ‘Do you want to hear the truth?’ ‘No!’, I answered, because I knew I couldn’t stand to hear it.

Things got worse, and at Christmas we had to tell the kids that their mother was leaving. I have never heard children cry in such a heartbreaking way. I went and told my closest neighbours about the divorce, and they told me a little story, ‘We know two couples who got divorced. The first couple separated peacefully, and became like a big family with their new partners and bonus kids. The other couple quarreled about everything, and lost a lot of money taking legal action against each other.’ I was in no doubt which was the better way.

In the New Year, my sorrow turned to anger. It wasn’t directed against my ex-wife, but against her new man, Torben, who I fantasized about killing. When I contacted a psychiatrist about these murderous thoughts he advised me to roll a blanket together and beat it with a stick, imagining I was beating Torben.

My desire to harm Torben grew. I wanted to really frighten him, and so one day I telephoned him and told him I wanted to kill him. He was very silent down the telephone. The following week I telephoned him again to say, ‘I won’t kill you but I feel like tearing one of your arms off! I am as sore as if I had been dragged on a rope behind a lorry!’ I hoped he would think that he was the person on the end of the rope.

By now my kids had been visiting their mother, and they told me Torben was a nice guy. So a week later I phoned him again and this time I told him, ‘I won’t harm you, but I’d love to come to your office and smash your computer with an axe.’ I imagined this with great pleasure. Still he didn’t say much on the phone.

A month later my anger started to dissipate and so I wrote him a letter promising I wouldn’t bother him anymore. This was a ceasefire, but not peace. And I found out how fragile the ceasefire was when Thanksgiving arrived. We had always celebrated Thanksgiving as a family with friends, but this year I couldn’t face seeing the lovebirds together. This made my seven-year-old daughter worried as she knew how much I loved these parties. Her concern made me phone Torben and invite him to meet me for coffee before the party.

He chose a café in Copenhagen and I was first to arrive. When I saw this man come through the door, I found him handsome and friendly.  He had a gypsy-like appearance, which I liked. I knew from that moment that we would become friends. At the Thanksgiving party we sat together and had a good conversation.

Next, I invited Torben to come to a garden party for my daughter’s birthday. Not only did he come, but he even brought his mother. That was a good way to start creating a bigger family!

My old neighbour got really soppy, saying, ‘Karsten, he who conquers himself is greater than he who conquers a town.’

Torben and I developed a great friendship. We spent hours drinking beer and talking together. And he even volunteered as webmaster for my website about forgiveness.

This story has several endings. Some years later, my daughter and I were walking in the woods when I noticed that she was angry. I asked why, and she replied: ‘I asked Mum how she could fell in love with another man, and she said it was because, when I was only one-year-old, you had an affair with another woman, and she promised herself not to hold herself back if she later had the chance of a love affair. How could you betray me, a little child, just one-year-old?’

This came like a hammer blow. I suddenly realized how much of a skeleton in the cupboard this old love affair of mine had been, even if my wife seemed to have forgiven me. How could I explain to a seventeen-year-old girl what lunacy can possess a man? We kept walking in silence. Then I asked, ‘Can you forgive me?’ ‘Yes,’ she replied, and we walked home hand in hand. At first, I thought I was the great forgiver, but in the end I was the one to ask for forgiveness!

We lived in peace with our extended family until Torben developed cancer. It was so hard to see this good and wise man shrink and fade away. At his deathbed, I sat and told him a story about forgiveness between a father and his son. I knew Torben had had a troubled relationship with his father. After the story, he squeezed my hand. That was the last time I saw him. When he went out of my world, I cried the way I did when he came into it.