BY ZAHIRA ASMAL
In The Book of Forgiving, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu, guide readers towards forgiveness in a journey of healing that offers personal accounts, meditations, exercises and rituals.
As we mark 20 years of South Africa’s democracy, I have been preoccupied with thoughts of progress and healing. In my study of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the healing work that South Africans did in the early years of our democracy, I have noted the devastating affects that apartheid has had on the lives of millions of people in South Africa – socially, economically and spatially. I have learned that the devastation has left no person unaffected – victim, perpetrator or the privileged: we are all affected by crimes against humanity and other hurtful acts.
I have wondered if forgiveness could take different forms. There are small hurts, and cataclysmic ones. There are hurts that affect individuals. There are hurts that affect families or neighbourhoods. There are hurts that seem to harm nations for decades. How do people forgive these hurts and heal? I have also wondered whether we could skip forgiveness and simply get over the hurt and move on?
The Tutus are adamant that forgiveness is the only path worth taking. They state repeatedly in the book, “There is nothing that cannot be forgiven; and, there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.”
The Book of Forgiving states that numerous scientific studies indicate that forgiveness training has been shown to reduce depression, increase hopefulness, decrease anger, improve spiritual connection and increase emotional self-confidence.
The book also states there is no release from pain and anguish without forgiveness. The act of forgiveness acknowledges your own hurt and the hurt of others. “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us,” the Tutus write. “We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness.”
I have often wondered, in my own journey more recently — as past hurts surface in strange ways — how does one heal both on an individual level as well as on a collective one? How do we heal from personal heartbreak and how can we heal as a nation damaged by colonialism and apartheid? Forgiving a person is one thing – how do we forgive a government or an institution or a system of abuse? The Tutus seek to answer these difficult questions by taking us on their own personal journeys, sharing, too, the stories of people they have encountered — people who have been affected by sexual abuse, crime, terrorist activity, human rights violations. In each experience recounted, the depth and power of forgiveness is remarkable.
For the journey to self and universal healing, the Tutus have defined the “fourfold path” – which serves as a guide for any person or situation –
- Telling the story
- Naming the hurt
- Granting forgiveness
- Renewing or releasing the relationship
The Tutus argue that forgiveness is never a once-off act, but happens continuously – alongside compassion and empathy even if the perpetrator is not present or will not acknowledge your pain.
“If we look at any hurt, we can see a larger context in which the hurt happened,” they write. “If we look at any perpetrator, we can discover a story that tells us something about what led up to that person causing harm. It doesn’t justify the person’s actions; it does provide some context. We discover our shared humanity by seeing our connection rather than our separation… this does not excuse them; it helps explain them.”
From reading personal accounts of the Tutu family and others it is very clear that there is no distance between this wisdom and what has been experienced firsthand. The Archbishop Emeritus offers wisdom that stems from immense knowledge and experiences derived from his humanitarian work and heading the TRC. The Book of Forgiving offers insight for every plight and throughout this process of forgiveness, the reader is in good, gentle hands.