When I was looking for nonfiction for a summer reading display at work last month, The Forgiveness Project caught my eye. The subtitle, Stories for a Vengeful Age, seemed very timely in a summer of violent act after violent act being beamed to us constantly. I read it this weekend and it is terrific.
Cantacuzino includes forewords by Desmond Tutu (longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of this prophet of our times), and Alexander McCall Smith, whose work I also admire. Tutu writes, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic; in my view it is the best form of self-interest. The process of forgiving does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. When I talk of forgiveness I mean the ability to let go of the right to revenge and to slip the chains of rage that bind you to the person who harmed you.”
McCall Smith notes that his interest in forgiveness came about from his work in criminal law, and later as he wrote novels featuring Precious Ramotswe, a lady detective in Botswana who would “often forgive those whose misdeeds she had unmasked.” He was surprised that readers did not seem to mind this, despite the fact that it was an unconventional approach to crime writing.
Cantacuzino explains in her introduction that she felt a need to make sense of the world in 2003, as Britain marched towards war in Iraq despite massive protests. Within a short time she saw a photo of an Iraqi boy shell shocked by the war (much like the photos we see now of Syrian children) and a man on television embrace and forgive the doctor whose mistake had killed his small daughter. It hit her, as a journalist, that people trying to deal with the former might really need stories like that of the former, of people who were overcoming pain and suffering by letting it go. She used her skills as a journalist to get to work gathering such stories.
When she was through she named her collection “The F Word,” because she found “forgiveness seemed to inspire and affront in equal measure.” She created an exhibit and showed it at a gallery in London. It was so successful it led to Cantacuzino’s nonprofit, The Forgiveness Project, and this book.
Each short chapter is someone’s first person story. Some were perpetrators of violence and hatred, some were victims. All had experienced the transformation brought on by forgiveness, whether granted informally, person to person, or through a reconciliation or restorative justice program. I was delighted to see stories from members of Combatants for Peace; I wrote in March 2009 about having gone to see two members of this group speak here in Concord. One of the men I heard speak, Bassam Aramin, is featured in The Forgiveness Project.
A man named Oshea Israel who was only 16 when he committed murder says “I have learnt that if you hold on to pain it grows and grows, but if you forgive you start to starve that pain and it dies. Forgiveness is pretty much saying I give up holding on to that pain. Hurt people usually haven’t forgiven and have so much pain they end up causing even greater pain.”
I’ll let you sit with that a moment.
I’m not sure what is most striking about this book. That there are so many people who are willing to undergo the process of trying to forgive, or that we almost never hear about it? That there are so many people who recognize that children are not born murderers or white supremacists or suicide bombers and that we therefore must learn what damaged them, or that damage of that nature continues to occur?
I think what’s really gripping is that there is no right answer anywhere here — Cantacuzino makes it clear that forgiveness isn’t neat or simple. The only universal is that it seems to radically change the people involved. I highly recommend this book, but I would advise you not take it all in at once like I did. Keep it around and dip into it. Discuss it with people you love, people you don’t know well, people you don’t get along with.