The Heart of the Matter

I was listening to another episode of the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain this morning and it rekindled something that often comes into my mind when tragic events happen and this the act of forgiveness.  This podcast was extremely interesting because they were talking with a researcher who was studying forgiveness by collecting data and interviewing people in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of their civil war.  It is a unique situation because after they democratically elected a new government people who were on separate sides of a conflict were in the same communities, and even neighbors.  You could be living next to somebody who cut off your hand, raped or killed a family member.  What happened in that country is truly horrific, and no side was necessarily worse than the other. People were allowed to go back to their lives unpunished by the new government (with perhaps the exception of certain leaders).  In the main story that they follow in the podcast the play excerpts of an interview with two men who were friends before the civil war and when one was captured by the rebels he was made to do horrific things. He came across his friend and the rebels wanted him beat his friend, and he would not do it, and so they shot at him injuring him and told them that if he didn’t he would be killed.  Fearing for his life he did as they asked, and then asked him to kill his friend’s father.  He also ended up doing that in fearing for his life.

I am going to stop there before I going into the aftermath.  Right now some of you are judging the friend harshly who killed his friend’s father.  Some of you feel extreme anger towards the adult rebels who would ask a youth to do this and some of you are just lost in sorry for the pain and anguish that both of these boys must have felt.  You are maybe thinking what you would do in the same situation.  You are thinking about it rationally and cooly.  Let me say first that whatever decision you are making right now, may not be the decision you would make in the moment.  And I think the most important thing that you should think about is that you never want to have to face this situation.  Fear, when facing our own depth makes us capable of much more than we think.  Sometimes horrific acts.

Now the question you have to ask yourself is how forgiving do you feel right now?  And if you can forgive, how much should we expect those who were in that particular situation to forgive?  The podcast asks the question, how does one move forward from such atrocities after neighbor has been set against neighbor?

The way Sierra Leone has dealt with this in trying to stitch their society back together is that all over the country they have reconciliation ceremonies in communities where people stand face to face with people who have done harm to them personally or friends or family members.  They confront each without physical violence.  There is confession and ask for forgiveness.  And forgiveness often happens, because those who are willing to take part in the ceremony want to be able to forgive.  When following up on those who had taken part in the ceremony and when forgiveness happened they found those people were more productive in their community.  They made friends easier, they helped others in their community, more participation in politics and ensuring a positive political future and were more conscious of social justice issues.  It all sounds pretty great.  Forgiveness is a powerful part of healing and there is no psychological study that I know of that recommends holding on to anger and exacting revenge.  Many think it will bring peace, but it does not.  But if forgiveness is the better way, why do we have such a hard time doing it?  Already there are a number of you who are thinking that you could not forgive in such situations as described earlier.

It turns out that the downside of these people who participate in these reconciliation ceremonies is that while society at large gains, the individual suffers.  The act of forgiveness requires a great deal of courage because in that confrontation with a person who caused you harm you must also confront your pain.  You must relive the trauma, the memories, and those horrific images.  Individuals report greater depression and other symptoms of PTSD.  The researcher’s recommendation is that the act of forgiveness needs to be followed by individualized mental health treatment.  It makes a lot of sense.  In addition to the obvious reminder about the importance of mental health it revealed to me that ultimately to truly overcome pain that we experience requires a confrontation within ourselves.  As hard as it may be for two people stand face-to-face in these reconciliation ceremonies, it’s even harder to face the pain with in us.  Perhaps this is why people choose not to forgive and seek external solutions so they don’t have to deal with that pain and never find that path to peace.  Anger, addiction, or just disciplined suppression are all hallmarks of those who cannot forgive and this generally leads to more pain for others and cycles of conflict and violence continue.  I say this without judgment, because no matter how rational my thought process is right now, I cannot know how I would react in the face of extreme fear, and extreme pain.  I find it hard to blame others for not being able to forgive, and I don’t blame people for being angry when they experienced trauma and pain.

shaw_trc_moyambaAs I’ve said to others in the past, the most powerful part of the message of Jesus Christ has always been about the power of forgiveness and that if there is something to believe in, it’s redemption.  The good news from the story told in the podcast is that those two men are once again friends.  I am sure there are times when it is not easy.  The one who killed his friend’s father helps the other plant his crops as he was injured during the civil war.  There are no quick solutions I am sure for them but both are clearly on a path to peace and healing and a chance for a new generation to not have to face the horrors they faced.  And maybe that’s the best reason to be courageous and forgive.  Maybe our own wounds will still burst open from time to time and cause us pain, but maybe we can keep that pain out of future generations.  Because when we act outwardly on our pain and harm others the suffering it causes as pain ripples outwards into their loved ones makes your wound everybody’s wound.  And in I’m not saying it’s all easy but as a people we need to get better about supporting paths that lead to peace.  Especially those of us who have been fortunate enough to not have such events happen in our lives. We need to help people confront the pain that tears through their soul and teach them how they can overcome it.  Forgiveness has value in the face of hurt and harm in whatever form it comes in.  We need to give compassion without judgment and replace despair with hope.

21 thoughts on “The Heart of the Matter

  1. “Forgiveness has value in the face of hurt and harm in whatever form it comes in. ”

    Yes, and through whatever means and for whatever reason. I was raised to believe true forgiveness, even the concept of grace, was found only in the triune Christian God because of his sacrifice. I think it’s fair to say that religious people of every stripe believe those without religion are incapable of offering, seeking, or even needing forgiveness. Thanks for reminding us that the concept and reality of forgiveness are universal human constructs, are very necessary, and do not rely on any particularly religious tenets.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Skirt. I’ve missed your posts and hope you are doing well. I do think having the ability to forgive is a virtue and like many virtues in life it is the harder and longer path. I think too often we don’t focus on what is good for us in the long term and default to short term gains.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Aw, thanks. I have lots of notes for posts that just haven’t made it online due to time, lack of urgency, procrastination, etc. The good part is, very slowly, I’m coming closer to “reconciling” my online non-theist persona with my real life. Like, sloth slow, but moving 😉 Meanwhile I “lurk and learn” on blogs like yours and Victoria’s. There are a handful who are encouraging to me – thank you for that!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hey no pressure. 🙂 We are all trying to learn and grow, some write, some read, some do both, and some have other ways that they get to where they need to be spiritually and emotionally. It sounds like you are making progress, and that’s what’s most important in my book. I look forward to reading about it whenever you have the inspiration to write it down. 🙂


  2. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” ~Dr. Ryan Howes

    Mental health professionals state that there is a difference between forgiving someone and reconciling, as in allowing the offender to be a part of your life. We can forgive, but it is not always advisable to reconcile. For example: I’ve been raped more than once. Reconciling with them was out of the question, though I eventually came to forgive them. When it comes to reconciliation, mental health experts tend to agree that it depends on the circumstances.


    “Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you.

    Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.” ~ Dr. Fred Luskin

    I remember when I had experienced identity theft/cyber fraud, which, as you know, caused me to lose my business and leaving me with no choice but to file bankruptcy. I was a Christian at the time. I sought Christian counseling and was told that I should forgive 70×7 and reconcile with the perpetrator—stay in contact with him while he’s in prison because god allowed this to happen—that he’s using me to bring the perpetrator into the fold. I was told to be the sacrificial lamb. I can’t tell you how much that fucked with my head.

    We can forgive—let go of resentment and a desire for revenge. We can find peace and move on without reconciliation.

    Swarn, thank you for yet another thought-provoking post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Victoria for your comment here. First for being so open about your experiences of rape. But then I guess most of us are pretty much aware that in our society it is such a common experience among women that it needs to be talked about more.

      And thank you for pointing out the difference between reconciliation and forgiveness, because it is important and I should have perhaps made that clearer. I think the situation in Sierra Leone is an extreme example in the sense that so many people from both sides of the conflict would be in the same community that a solution to try and stitch the people back together in the country was necessary. And certainly not everybody participated in such a ceremony either, and not everybody became friends afterwards. And I don’t think the two men featured in the story were as good a friends as they were before the civil war. Perhaps they will be again someday, but likely it will never be quite the same. They are both damaged. One of the things they noted in regards to differences between those who had taken part in the ceremony and those who did not, is that those who didn’t avoided many behaviors, many places that might put them in the same vicinity as that person who had harmed them making it harder for those people to resume some sort of normalcy in life. Perhaps that’s not really possible given what a lot of people had been through, but many tried given that I think everybody had enough of violence. It just seemed very interesting and I think morally proactive for the country to attempt this, and from what I gathered the impacts have been positive. I think one can see how easy it might be for that cycle of violence to continue if the country didn’t make a serious effort to try and resolve conflicts peacefully at the community level. Especially given the close proximity everybody was with each other.

      In your case I would agree that’s some pretty fucked up advice. And I think I too would have a harder time reconciling with someone who raped me over someone who killed my parent. Maybe that sounds strange, but there is just something about rape that strikes deeper and more personal almost than killing and murder. The situation in Sierra Leone sounds like absolute chaos and it is comforting to know that there might be a way out and a way to peace after so much violence and bloodshed, even if it is hard to imagine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Swarn, thank you for your compassion and understanding. What took place in Serra Leone is exemplary, and certainly something I think should take place more often throughout war-torn countries. Time does have a way of helping people heal from the impact of atrocities such as war. Even more so if their country goes out of their way to help in the healing process, as was evident with Serra Leone.

        The key, I think is to not pressure or guilt people into forgiving and reconciling, like Christianity did with me. In my years as a Christian, I remember hearing many teachings about forgiveness, but the focus was always on a type of guilting, e.g., ‘God forgave us for our sins, therefore we must forgive others who have trespassed against us.’

        This, in my opinion, is not true forgiveness, and deep down inside, I knew it wasn’t, because I didn’t have peace. But, then I was told and taught via scriptures that it is only by having the Holy Spirit, that you are able to forgive deep hurts. So then I prayed and prayed to experience authentic forgiveness, to no avail. That curtailed the healing process. It wasn’t until after I deconverted from Christianity that I was able to move forward and experience genuine peace.

        I began to do research about the impact the environment has on biology; about the causes of antisocial behavior; about mind-control techniques used by rulers and leaders, even religious leaders; about what goes on in boot camps, where soldiers are conditioned to dehumanize their “enemies”, etc.

        I spent countless hours, even years seeking my own type of reconciliation with my fellow human, replacing holy books with science book. When understanding came, forgiveness felt natural, authentic..Since then, I’ve invested a lot of time bringing my own findings to others via blogging and advocacy work. My search for authentic forgiveness helped me to fall in love with humanity. We are all born with goodness. Shit happens.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree. It doesn’t sounds like anybody is being pressure to go to a reconciliation ceremony here. It is voluntary. I would imagine that word spreads on its healing impact, and I imagine just attending those meetings could have a group therapy sort of effect and are very emotional in helping you working through some emotions even if you aren’t ready to confront those who have harmed, and I imagine in some cases those people aren’t present in the community and so there is no one to confront. I think there are plenty of people there who need individual counseling as well as that part isn’t being addressed real well right now. That of course is more expensive than these group events and I am sure that is a limiting factor as well.


    2. Important clarification as usual, Victoria! Forgiveness doesn’t make it all go away. Forgiveness doesn’t fix the thing that got broken. And… holy cow…. being told you need reconcile and establish a positive relationship with some SOB who stole and then ruined your life? Fuck that! I’m so sorry, I had no idea you’ve been through so much!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you Skirt. You know, I owe a lot to my attorney who did give me wise counsel and clarity after the identity theft. The perpetrator was a Gulf War veteran, on disability for PTSD. I would later learn that he suffered from a traumatic brain injury in the prefrontal cortex caused by IEDs (improvised explosive devises). He did go to prison for close to a decade because, in the state he was convicted in, they did not take mental health issues into account if the person knew right from wrong.

        Since then, I have learned (via my own research) that damage to the prefontal cortex can lead to personality changes that manifest in impulsive and socially inappropriate behavior and violence.

        “Children who experience early damage in the prefrontal cortex never completely develop social or moral reasoning. As adults, even on an intellectual level, they cannot refer to such behavior because they have little concept of it. In contrast, individuals with adult-acquired damage are usually aware of proper social and moral conduct, but are unable to apply such behavior.”

        Now, imagine a world where we are all educated about the causes of antisocial behavior (not just from brain damage) and governments and communities did everything in their power to implement preventative measures. At least, for me, I was able to debunk the antiquated teachings of the causes of “evil”. That was very healing and opened the door to genuine forgiveness.


    3. While I certainly wish that quote was penned by me, the “…set a prisoner free…” statement actually belongs to my former professor and forgiveness pioneer Dr. Lewis Smedes. While he was a theologian, his book “Forgive and Forget” kicked off the slew of psychological research on forgiveness that continues today. I have written on the topic a bit, so I understand the confusion! Thanks for including me in your very important and vulnerable discussion. – Ryan

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Ryan, thanks so much for the clarification. My apologies for the oversight.

        In your Psychology Today article, Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation, you wrote:

        “In my model, forgiveness is an internal process where you work through the hurt, gain an understanding of what happened, rebuild a sense of safety, and let go of the grudge. The offending party is not necessarily a part of this process.

        On the other hand, reconciliation is an interpersonal process where you dialogue with the offender about what happened, exchange stories, express the hurt, listen for the remorse, and begin to reestablish trust. It’s a much more complicated, involved process that includes, but moves beyond forgiveness. Forgiveness is solo, reconciliation is a joint venture.”

        Delighted to make your acquaintance. -Victoria

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That was a fascinating piece. Who knows what any of us would do in those circumstances? It’s reminiscent of the Jews in nazi camps who tortured other Jews. Sure, they lived a slightly longer, slightly easier life, but died in the end. Kill or be killed? Most of us have a sense of self-preservation.
    And then, the forgiveness and/or reconciliation aspect. Many of us can’t even move on from personal arguments, a verbal or literal punch thrown in annoyance or anger. Or the slights we feel that have been done to us, let alone this scenario in SL.
    Many years ago I heard a fascinating series on (BBC) Radio 4. In each programme, it explored the situations of two people who had suffered similar damaging experiences, eg, sexual assault, burglary, even death of a loved one say, through drunk driving by someone else.
    The difference between the two people in each programme was that one forgave the perpetrator, the other didn’t, harboured resentment, and couldn’t move forward in life. Some of the ‘forgiving’ ones did indeed go to gaol to meet the person who had committed the crime. It was a very powerful series, and one that made a lasting impact on me – can’t remember whether it was 20 or 30 years ago.
    For me, it made me realise it is essential to forgive and not harbour resentment. Forgive, but not necessarily forget. Reconciliation? Depends on the scale of the harm done I suppose. We shouldn’t destroy our own lives though by dwelling on it. In one of the programmes, one participant who hadn’t forgiven and had let everything fester inside did say they had done the wrong thing, that by doing so, it had affected their life negatively and they had been unable to move on.
    My other thought, was more general. How on earth do we manage to be so horrific to each other, and also to other animals with whom we share this earth?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment Roughseas and adding to the conversation. I agree that perhaps the bigger question is, how can we do this to each other in the first place? In the end I guess all we can do is learn better ways to heal from the pain we inflict on each other so that we don’t cause more of it. But it is deeply sad that we ever let things get to the point where we have to move through such horribly traumatic events. Ultimately I think perhaps the answer to both abuse to humans or other animals stems from dehumanizing other people and animals to entities void of emotion and feeling, void of love, compassion and complex thoughts. I guess this is what drives a lot of my writing is trying to bring out the complexity and humanity in all walks of life, even the perpetrators of horrible acts deserve some investigation and understanding. I don’t believe anyone is born a monster, they are made and so we also have learn how to not make more. Accepting that the potential lies in all of us.


  4. My comment will be an oversimplification of complex matters in Sierre Leone prior to March 1991, but helps nonetheless for a Western perspective I think…

    I was playing the final stages of my soccer career in Freetown, Sierre Leone in 1988 before my agent strongly recommended I get out by 1990 if not sooner. I did, but not before witnessing some unbelievable “social justice” by mob in the streets — one in particular was a literal stoning of a 15-year old boy who had stolen some soccer cleats from our team. One young aspiring goalkeeper and teenage boy and I became pen-pals. I later found out in 1992 from extended family that he and his siblings and parents were killed. Wrong place, wrong time — peaceful boy and family, bystanders who wouldn’t choose sides. This effected me deeply in many ways.

    As a foreigner there I saw two major problems/crisis. When asking natives why so many abandoned broken-down vehicles strewn along the sides of their dirt roads for miles throughout Freetown and the outskirts; why so many delapidated buildings gone unrepaired or rebuilt; WHY only one or two hours of electricity every night in the capitol Freetown of the 3 massive generators they had… the answers were essentially the same: the Western nations that provided all these “advancements” only sold them to the country, they did not educate anyone on how to maintain them or repair them. Those nations were mainly importers/exporters of diamonds. After 20-30 years of non-stop use, no maintenance, no repairs, and most critically NO higher education… by 1988 all technologies brought to Sierre Leone were useless and trash. Only one of the massive electric generators still worked — they were minimizing its use as much as possible until it too broke-down. What happened there afterwards is well known.

    Swarn, you’ve described poignantly the immense depth and courage of Leonian forgiveness after events which were life-threatening. The West had no real concept unless there in person and it was YOUR life, your family. I likened the West’s involvement there as selling young children cars and car keys, or firearms and ammunition then saying “Here. Now you are a civilized people like us” and leave with fatter bank accounts and no intention to ever return. In West Africa, including Liberia where I also played, most natives felt then that they, their people, and their rubber and diamonds were/are merely commodities to be used up and/or bardered for by the West. Being there for about 3-months as a foreigner, I couldn’t tell them otherwise — no Westerners from the 1970’s and 80’s stayed.

    A great post Swarn! Thank you. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much Professor for sharing this perspective. I don’t think I expected to have someone who had been in Sierra Leone read this piece! It is just utter horror to think about what went on there, and yes certainly a whole book (and I am sure many have) could be written on how the west has impoverished Africa and turned it into this politically unstable mess. I wanted to focus on the good, and what we can learn from the aftermath here, because I found it to be very inspirational, even though I find it hard to imagine sometimes how we could move forward after such atrocities. The fact is that it can be done, and that regardless of how hard these things are, it may be the only answer in breaking cycles of violence that seem to never end. Maybe it’s sad that such horror has to be experienced to learn how to make sure never to experience that again, but there are many lessons that can be taken from it so that hopefully we never have to face the same fate. Even at an individual level.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. From what I know of history and of people it seems that almost anyone is capable of almost anything. To be unwilling to forgive others is at some level saying that you yourself are unworthy of forgiveness.

    Perhaps that is why many people in Sierra Leone were able to forgive; they knew that they could have done the same thing in the same situation (because they’d lived through it). It’s very touching to hear about the reconciliation ceremonies.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Self-perception | roughseasinthemed

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