The Book of Forgiving
On Mother’s Day, I treated myself to dinner at the bookstore and something good to read. As I was parking the car in front of the Barnes & Noble at Edgewood in Atlanta—my bookstore—a rather random thought popped into my head: Why do they say “love and cherish” each other in marriage vows? Why not “love and cherish yourself”? I rolled that over a moment, as I was taking my keys out of the ignition and added “and forgive yourself.” Wouldn’t that be an incredible gift to give all of your loved ones?
Inside the bookstore café, I ordered a hot mozzarella and tomato sandwich with pesto and iced passion tea. As my sandwich was heating, I hit the shelves, something I do intuitively some days, breezing up and down the aisles and doing a light scan, inviting something to reach out to me like a fortune cookie. It may sound like a crap shoot, but sometimes it works.
And that’s how I found myself standing in front of the Christian section, a genre I typically visit only with a purpose, title in hand. There, on the bottom shelf, a little book with a red rose against a blue sky on the cover jumped out: The Book of Forgiving by the Most Reverend Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who witnessed some of the worst crimes against humanity, and his daughter, Anglican priest Mpho Tutu.
Over my Mother’s Day sandwich, I began slowly thumbing through the 229-page book, and quickly began mentally underlining the passages that I would commit to ink after I paid.
There is no one that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.
In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others.
Some background: In 1994 Archbishop Tutu was appointed chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the book opens during its activities:
“He had many wounds.” She spoke with the precision of a coroner. “In the upper abdomen were five wounds. These wouldn’t indicated that different weapons were used to stab him, or a group of people stabbed him.” Mrs. Mhlawuli continued her harrowing testimony to the Truth and Reconcilation Commission. She spoke about the disappearance and murder of her husband, Sicelo. “In the lower part, he also had wounds. In total, there were forty-three. They poured acid on his face. They chopped off his right hand just below the wrist. I don’t know what they did with that hand.” A wave of horror and nausea rose in me.
Now it was nineteen-year-old Babalwa’s turn to speak. She was eight when her father died. Her brother was only three. She described the grief, police harassment, and hardship in the years since her her father’s death. And then she said, “I would love to know who killed my father. So would my brother.” Her next words stunned me and left me breathless. “We want to forgive them. We want to forgive, but we don’t know who to forgive.”
Forgiveness, the book reminds us, is what the people of South Africa chose after apartheid instead of “a bloodbath of revenge and retaliation.”
Certainly compassion is a part of the unconditional forgiveness equation and letting go. Or as the authors state: “People are not born hating each other and wishing to cause harm. It is a learned condition. Children do not dream of growing up to be rapists or murderers, and yet every rapist and every murderer was once a child.”
Why forgive? Well, it’s actually healthy. The book cites a Harvard study of 7,000 people; those who were socially isolated were three times more likely to die prematurely than those with a strong social circle. What’s more, the study found that those who had an unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, obesity, and a lack of exercise) and strong social circle lived longer than those who had a weak social circle but a healthy lifestyle. And forgiveness is key to maintaining a strong social circle.
“In other words, loneliness can kill you faster than cigarettes. We are deeply connected to one another whether we recognize it or not. We need each other. We evolved this way, and our survival still depends on it.”
The Book of Forgiving is written first for those who need to learn how to forgive but also for those of us who need forgiveness. It offers a four-step process—Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship along with exercises, prayers and meditations that readers can practice along the way.
I’ve added to my stack of early morning meditations. And in all likelihood, it’s just gonna be there a while. As the book also points out, “There have been times when each and every one of us has needed to forgive. There have also been times when each and every one of us has needed to be forgiven. And there will be many times again.”