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How to really say you’re sorry

On August 12th, 2016

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Lynne

Not long ago, I attended a talk featuring a man who’d accidentally killed several people in a car accident through negligent driving – a case not unlike that of Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic champion convicted of accidently murdering his girlfriend. (I’m changing some of the particulars but staying with the real meaning of what happened there.)

The man – we’ll call him John Smith – was tried, convicted of negligent homicide and served his prison term, during which time he lost everything: his business, his house and all his savings.

After he came on he began addressing his downfall as something that could have happened to any of us. Ten minutes into this speech, he was so booed and interrupted that he was forced to abandon his talk, pull up a chair and just take questions.

 

 

Not long ago, I attended a talk featuring a man who’d accidentally killed several people in a car accident through negligent driving – a case not unlike that of Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic champion convicted of accidently murdering his girlfriend. (I’m changing some of the particulars but staying with the real meaning of what happened there.)

The man – we’ll call him John Smith – was tried, convicted of negligent homicide and served his prison term, during which time he lost everything: his business, his house and all his savings.

After he came on he began addressing his downfall as something that could have happened to any of us. Ten minutes into this speech, he was so booed and interrupted that he was forced to abandon his talk, pull up a chair and just take questions.

Some of the audience were sympathetic, curious about their own negative reactions to him and how they were ‘projecting’ onto him their own morality; the other half were clearly repulsed by his answers, which kept veering back to what he’d suffered through this ordeal and nothing much about the families of the victims.

Why did his presence spark such moral outrage? Is there such a thing as an appropriate moral response to this situation?

What is actually right and wrong?
In modern times there’s a tendency among the more urbane among us to adopt a relative moral position, the belief that the appropriate moral stance on any given issue depends upon the circumstances.

Stealing is wrong – except if your children are starving and you need to steal bread to feed them. Killing is wrong – unless you’re battling an enemy like IS.

As Joan Didion wrote in her famous essay ‘On Morality’: “‘I followed my own conscience, ‘I did what I thought was right.’ How many madmen have said it and meant it? How many murderers?’”

Didion takes the line that we have no way of knowing what is right and what is wrong except for one simple situation: our loyalty to each other.

Some of our audience must have felt that in his negligence, Smith failed in his primary duty to the social code: to keep his passengers safe.

But there was something more – something not dealt with at this public stoning.

I thought of the work of a German theologian named Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz and his book The Art of Forgiveness. Like so many post-war Germans, Müller-Fahrenholz grew up haunted by Germany’s terrible legacy of the Third Reich and so began to consider forgiveness from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator.

Mutual bondage
Müller-Fahrenholz believes that in our present culture, which largely deals with transgression by 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 requires that both victim and perpetrator learn to recognize each other’s pain or shame, and mutually liberate each other from hurt and guilt.

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 – 50 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.

Connecting to the pain
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.”

For the perpetrator, full disclosure is, 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.

And that was what was causing the anger in the audience. What we really wanted to hear from John Smith – what we still really want to hear from Oscar Pistorius – is a willingness to finally confront the truth about himself and also to feel the pain of loss on the other side. And at that point, our hearts will go out to him, and not just to his victims.

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