Forgiveness, anger, and breaking old habits….

Last night, I went to a performance at the Roundhouse: Unprovoked. The play was created through the work of The Forgiveness Project. The play tells the story of the knife-murder of a fifteen-year old girl by an eighteen-year old girl and how it is that the mother (Mary Folely) of the victim has forgiven the girl who killed her daughter. We had the privilege of being joined afterwards by Mary in a Q&A session. Not surprisingly, I think, the Q&A focused equally on understanding Mary’s journey to forgiveness alongside exploring how young people become subsumed by violence and destruction.  Mary, through the Forgiveness Project, is very active in giving talks at prisons, particularly those filled with young offenders. I concluded the evening with two ideas dominating my brainwaves: (1) at the heart of forgiveness is freedom (2) too many people in our society – of all ages – are feeling unheard and unseen and a critical a consequence of this is violence and destruction in big and small forms, directed inwards and outwards.

For this post, I’m going to focus on the first idea. In particular, I’m thinking about it in the context of social change and activism.

To some people, forgiveness is a somehow an act of weakness, a ‘giving in’ to someone who has caused harm to you – a ‘they win’ outcome. In the play, Mary’s character (and she said this herself after the performance) eloquently describes how the anger she felt towards her daughter’s killer, Beatriz, was changing her. She was becoming a type of person her daughter would not have liked and in some ways, she suggests, she was becoming little different from someone who kills – at least in her thoughts. She would consider what could happen to Beatriz in prison – how punishment might be inflicted on the girl. She distanced herself from her children and her husband. The on-going harsh and disconnecting thoughts and behaviours she was experiencing in her self were allowing one death in their family to turn into two.

Alongside Mary’s increasing discomfort with how she was being in her self and in the world, forgiveness popped into her head and heart. The first time it made an appearance, she quickly dismissed it. Then she starting allowing it to hang around a bit longer each time it came. Finally, one day, she embraced it and chose it as an action. She described to us how in doing so, she felt that a burden had been lifted from her shoulders.  Now Mary dedicates time and energy to turning her family’s tragedy into a learning tool – into a tool that can hopefully also lift heavy burdens from the lives of others – particularly young people who have committed violent crimes.

I think of Mary and I think courage. Yet, something in our society discourages people from forgiveness; as I’ve already said, some people see it as a weakness. But that isn’t all that is going on in the arguments against forgiveness.

Anger is powerful.

Anger usually tries to steer us away from forgiveness – wanting to protect itself and to grow and thrive, anger must keep forgiveness at bay. Anger heats us up, it can help shift us from feeling like vulnerable victims to empowered protagonists, it energises us. Anger can seem like a strong, reliable, protective friend.

At first glance all this sounds positive – anger as a valuable asset. And it is in this way that anger fuels the day –to-day movement of many social activists.

Anger. ANGER!

Mary chose forgiveness because it helped her to return to feeling whole and to connecting fully with her compassionate humanity.  We briefly touched upon the idea that forgiveness is often made possible because the perpetrator of harm has shown remorse and regret.  What if someone doesn’t even see that they have done anything wrong, let alone show remorse? In such a situation can we forgive?

I ask this, because often we social activists find ourselves in situations where we are angry because we feel we aren’t be heard or respected. We feel that, for example, policymakers are ignoring our needs. It is the sense of injustice that often keeps us going day in and day out and often under rather trying circumstances. We have no one to forgive because no one seems to be taking responsibility for what it is that we feel is harming us. But what we do have is anger, raging inside us. 

Mary is taking an active part in creating social change without anger – and this seems inextricably tied to her choice to forgive.  Her story has me wondering: What role might forgiveness have to play in social activism? Can we be credible and effective if we aren’t driven by anger? What does social activism rooted in compassion look like? 

Mary is a strong, powerful force.  I think of her, and I’m inclined to think that anger can be a valuable and perhaps necessary catalyst for change – it is what fires us up and it is a natural response to injustice – but then we would serve ourselves well to shift anger into another energy, into another type of fuel, one that keeps us more deeply connected with the truth of who we can be as human beings – compassionate and nurturing.  We would do well to be aware, I think, of the ways in which anger can easily become a false friend. 

Forgiveness is intriguing me right now. I feel like it turns conventional approaches to social change on their head. It directs us to find freedom, strength and power by letting go of our anger. It almost feels counterintuitive. 

But then breaking old habits often does feel strange, uncomfortable and wrong – so much so, that we struggle hard to succeed in making the break. And now I’m inclined to ask and consider: what are the habits we have as social changemakers/activists that feel ‘right’ because we are accustomed to them – but actually are doing us a dis-service? In what ways – as was happening to Mary – are our reactions to injustice taking us away from being the people we want to be and creating the society we want to see?


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