Not long ago, a friend treated me in a way I found quite offensive and I let her know how hurtful she had been.
Instead of apologizing, she concocted a reason as to why I was at fault. When I refuted her logic, she e-mailed me a request for “forgiveness,” but attached to it a diatribe on what a difficult and nasty person I am. Horrified by her weird attitude, my angry response still sits in my outbox, unsent.
Which is why I was interested in Michael Henderson’s latest insights. The British author collects episodes of forgiveness like others collect seashells: Muslims vs. Hindus in Gujarat, India; Palestinians vs. Jews; Jews vs. Germans; Algerians vs. the French; whites vs. blacks in South Africa; and so on.
What Mr. Henderson chronicles is the individual details: the Palestinian who cradled his 10-year-old daughter, Abir, as she lay dying after being shot in the head by Israeli border guards; the Romanian woman who, as a 10-year-old, was part of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s gruesome medical experiments on Jewish twins; the American woman who traveled to Chechnya in 1997 to help traumatized children and ended up being imprisoned and repeatedly raped over a 14-month period.
These are gut-wrenching things I cannot imagine forgiving.
Mr. Henderson got into the forgiveness business as a child growing up in West London. His grandfather, an Anglo-Irish Protestant in Ireland, was told to leave the country within a few days, or be shot. This was in the early 1920s during the time of Irish independence. The family home was then burned to the ground.
Mr. Henderson only began coming to terms with this in 1947 when he and his family visited an international reconciliation center in Caux, Switzerland. After his mother reached out to an Irish-Catholic woman she met there and the two became friends, Mr. Henderson became enamored of the idea of international peacemaking. He has been involved in such efforts for 50 years and has written four books on the topic, his latest being “No Enemy to Conquer: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World.”
“Far from being a soft option, forgiveness is a vital ingredient in building trust,” he says. “Indeed, our chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, says that forgiveness is the single most important word in conflict resolution in the context of breaking the chain of hate and healing historical grievances. It means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability to live with the past without being held captive by it.”
I had a hard time with parts of the book where the people wronged came to peace with what had happened to them by trying to understand the people who attacked them. To me, that was reminiscent of the Stockholm syndrome. Mr. Henderson calls it “forgiveness with teeth.”
“In forgiveness, the person you are freeing is yourself,” he told me. “You’re not forgiving for the benefit of the other person. You become the free person. People think it’s a soft option and the other person is getting away with murder. That’s the bad reputation forgiveness has.
“But if you’ve been around people who don’t forgive, they become bitter and closed in on themselves. Some people want to become free of that sort of thing. They want to move on.”
So, should I delete the message in my outbox? I’m not able to. Not yet.
• Julia Duin’s “Stairway to Heaven” column runs Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at email@example.com.