The retired Anglican archbishop on what he's learned about forgiveness
Desmond Tutu Guardian/UK 22 March 2014
There were so many nights when I, as a young boy, had to watch helplessly as my father verbally and physically abused my mother. I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother's eyes and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child.
If I dwell on those memories, I can feel myself wanting to hurt my father back, in the same ways he hurt my mother, and in ways of which I was incapable as a small boy. I see my mother's face and I see this gentle human being whom I loved so very much and who did nothing to deserve the pain inflicted on her.
When I recall this story, I realise how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he himself was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us pain
My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me, but then I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me. Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps not. But still I would forgive him.
Why would I do such a thing? I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. You can say: "I am willing to forgive you for stealing my pen, and after you give me my pen back, I shall forgive you." This is the most familiar pattern of forgiveness. We don't forgive to help the other person. We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is self-interest.
Forgiveness takes practice, honesty, open-mindedness and a willingness to try. It isn't easy. Perhaps you have already tried to forgive someone and just couldn't do it. Perhaps you have forgiven and the person did not show remorse or own up to his or her offences – and you find yourself unforgiving all over again. It is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But the only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom.
As a father myself, raising children has sometimes felt like training for a forgiveness marathon. Like other parents, my wife, Leah, and I could create a whole catalogue of the failures and irritations our children have served up. As infants, their loud squalls disturbed our slumber. Even as one or the other of us stumbled out of bed, the irritation at being woken and the thoughts of the fatigue that would lie like a pall over the coming day gave way to the simple acknowledgment that this was a baby. This is what babies do. The loving parent slides easily into the place of acceptance, even gratitude, for the helpless bundle of tears. Toddler tantrums might provoke an answering anger in a mother or father, but it will be quickly replaced by the understanding that a little person does not yet have the language to express the flood of feelings contained in his or her body. Acceptance comes.
As our own children grew, they found new (and remarkably creative) ways of testing our patience, our resolve and our rules and limits. We learned time and again to turn their transgressions into teaching moments. But mostly we learned to forgive them over and over again, and fold them back into our embrace. We know our children are so much more than the sum of everything they have done wrong. Their stories are more than rehearsals of their repeated need for forgiveness. We know that even the things they did wrong were opportunities for us to teach them to be citizens of the world. We have been able to forgive them because we have known their humanity. We have seen the good in them.
This is an edited copy of the first part of a long article.