How to forgive your enemy: be vulnerable

Sep
18
2015
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Lynne McTaggart
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James O’Dea, former director of the Washington, D. C. office of Amnesty International and now co-director of the Social Healing Project, has spent many years smoothing the way for warring sides to reconcile and forgive. For many years he and Dr. Judith Thompson co-hosted “compassion and social healing” dialogues, in which members of highly divided social and political groups — Republican and loyalist Northern Irish, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Israelis and Palestinians — meet in an attempt to heal shared wounds.

In the dialogues, O’Dea and Thompson move the emphasis away from who is right and who is wrong, and toward who is wounded and how to heal. The aim is to help each party to recognize the other’s pain or shame and, in so doing, to liberate each other from hurt and guilt.

James O’Dea, former director of the Washington, D. C. office of Amnesty International and now co-director of the Social Healing Project, has spent many years smoothing the way for warring sides to reconcile and forgive. For many years he and Dr. Judith Thompson co-hosted “compassion and social healing” dialogues, in which members of highly divided social and political groups — Republican and loyalist Northern Irish, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Israelis and Palestinians — meet in an attempt to heal shared wounds.

In the dialogues, O’Dea and Thompson move the emphasis away from who is right and who is wrong, and toward who is wounded and how to heal. The aim is to help each party to recognize the other’s pain or shame and, in so doing, to liberate each other from hurt and guilt.

A mutual bondage

Their method draws upon the work of theologian Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz and his book The Art of Forgiveness. Born in 1940, Müller-Fahrenholz was too young to have any memory of the Third Reich or Hitler, but like so many post-war Germans, he grew up haunted by Germany’s terrible legacy and so began to consider forgiveness from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator.

Müller-Fahrenholz considers wrong-doing a mutual bondage. Any such act — including the most minor of transgressions — establishes a distorted relationship between two people. The perpetrator has stolen power, and the victim has had impotence thrust upon him. For the victim, hurt is an “impairment of the core of our personhood,” he writes

Forgiveness can never replace justice, but it can move us beyond it. In our present culture, which largely deals with transgression by punishment and imprisonment, both victim and perpetrator remain in bondage. The victim’s dignity and personhood (or goods) are not restored, and the perpetrator never fully truly comes to grips with what he has done.

An act of forgiveness, on the other hand, as philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, is a “constant mutual release.” Both victim and perpetrator learn to recognize each other’s pain or shame, and mutually liberate each other from hurt and guilt.

Making amends

Müller-Fahrenholz tells the story of a group of old Germans, who had fought in Belorussia as part of Hitler’s army during the Second World War. They decided to return to Belorussia in 1994 – fifty years later — in an attempt to make amends for what they’d done as young men.

Their visit occurred just after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, so they offered to build a home for children affected by the disaster. Toward the end of their stay, they visited a war memorial at Chatyn. That evening, full of the memories brought up by the visit, the Germans wanted to share the experience with their Belorussian hosts.

After a round of very personal toasts, one of the Germans, still clearly overcome by his visit to Chatyn, stood up in an attempt to talk about his own history as a young soldier. He began describing his own suffering while he had been in a Russian prison-of-war camp, but abruptly stopped. He excused himself, for a moment and then suddenly broke down. He said how deeply sorry he was for what he personally had done to the Russians and also apologized on behalf of his country.

He tried to say that it must never happen again, but his voice again broke, and he had to sit down because he was sobbing so hard. Everyone in the room — even the young people who had no experience of war — were weeping.

After a few moments, an old Belorussian woman of similar age, got up, crossed the room and kissed him.

At the moment of the German’s genuine act of confession, the full hurt was acknowledged and dignity of everyone in the room was restored. For the old woman, forgiveness was sparked by the sudden realization that the pain of others — even the pain of the perpetrator — was also her pain and that of every one of the victims.

This moment of connecting to the other’s pain is the transcendent aspect of any relationship, writes Müller-Fahrenholz, offering “a spark of courage to open up, that moment of daring and trusting which causes the heart to jump over the fence.” Ultimately it is this sudden merging that lays down “the dividing walls” between us.

The power of vulnerability

Deep truth and candid disclosure interrupts the cascade of denial, and, most importantly, reconnects the Bond by re-establishing the balance in the relationship — far more than does simply saying “sorry” or attempting to made amends. The story of the German soldier and the Belorussian woman shows that forgiveness is a restoration that corrects the distortion in the relationship. Through forgiveness, both parties are equals again.

For the perpetrator, vulnerability and full disclosure are, as Müller-Fahrenholz writes, an act of disarmament — a willingness to finally confront the truth about oneself. It shines light on the unspeakable aspects of a wrongdoing, which paves the way for atonement. The humanity of the other laid bare seems to spark responsibility in the listener and creates a catharsis and a way of moving forward.

Seen through this perspective, a disagreement or wrongdoing is an interrupted connection, and vulnerability, forgiveness and restitution a re-establishment of the connection. Transgression is, as Müller-Fahrenholz puts it, a “sin against the whole” and deep truth an end to the “war of the world with itself.”

Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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