In December 2021, just as I was about to send the final draft of my book on forgiveness to the publishers, The Forgiveness Project’s founding patron, Archbishop Demond Tutu, died. This was followed a month later by the death of the Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Both men had been courageous and radical peace activists, renowned for being visionary leaders. It felt like the world had lost two moral giants.
Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh were also two of the people who most inspired me to spend nearly two decades of my life exploring the complex geography of forgiveness. I appreciated them particularly as they were able to speak beyond the boundaries of religion and, despite having witnessed suffering on a global scale, were able to help people address all the familiar harms and resentments of their everyday lives.
Desmond Tutu would often dispel the commonly held notion that forgiveness means reconciliation. He once explained that if someone is constantly abusing you, being ready to forgive doesn’t mean you have to be a masochist and hang on in there. In fact, it is far better to release the relationship than to renew it. In other words, you can turn your back on toxic relationships and still forgive. He also often spoke about forgiveness being the best form of self-interest, a kind of self-preservation, counselling people to forgive not because those who have hurt you deserve forgiveness, ‘but because you deserve peace’.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s life of reflection led him to believe that forgiveness was the key to creating a peaceful, just and sustainable world, and he maintained that ‘only when compassion is born in your heart, is it possible to forgive.’ In the film The Power of Forgiveness he recites a meditation for the ‘many angry sons and daughters’ who cannot make peace with their parents. In a soft, measured voice you can hear him instructing a room full of people with the words: ‘breathing in I see myself as a 5-year-old child; breathing out I hold that 5-year-old child with tenderness. Breathing in I see my father as a 5-year-old boy; breathing out I smile to my father as a 5-year-old boy.’ The point he is making is that only when you are able to visualise your cruel father or mean mother as a fragile and vulnerable 5-year-old, can you begin to understand and feel compassion for the person they have become.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s process to soothe the wounded hearts of adult children may not be easy but it has been adapted in multiple settings.
So many people who have shared their forgiveness journeys with me, have managed to free themselves from mental angst and bondage. Forgiveness is a virtue based on the ability to love when others are not loving you. Only then will a shift or transformation take place; only then can relationships be rebuilt and restored.