"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison." - Nelson Mandela.
Why is it that some people who have suffered terrible tragedy still see the goodness in life, when so many of us, who never experience such pain, live in fear and bitterness created by a reluctance or an inability to let go of hurt?
It's a challenge we all face to a greater or lesser extent, but one we often don't think about deeply until something major happens in our life. Often the act of forgiveness in our lives goes barely unnoticed, seen simply as a normal part of life's roller-coaster. At other times forgiveness becomes so difficult that it seems impossible. At such times we don't want to become trapped in a cycle of resentment and bitterness, but neither do we always know how to escape it.
Carrying around baggage like that is tiring, isn't it? We can speculate forever about why things happen or why some people do terrible things, but we rarely find the answers we seek. Wouldn't it be so much better if we could hand that heavy load over to God and feel free to enjoy our lives?
Easier said than done, I know, which is why I went to people who have had huge trials to overcome, and asked how they did it. What I learned has changed my life and my relationships for the better, and inspired me to write a book so that others can benefit from these experiences too. I hope that you will discover that while some of their circumstances may be outside of your experience, these are ordinary people who have found the strength to forgive. What they have done is amazing, but you can do it too.
The book is split into two parts with reflections and questions after each story to help start a conversation about what you've just read. The testimonies in part one help us to explore the personal face of society's ills: war, crime, and terrorism. The broad social issues covered in the first four stories are thankfully only something most of us read about or hear on the news. For many, these things happen to someone else, somewhere else. Yet, behind each news item are individuals who feel they have lost everything, broken people who need to find a way to rebuild their lives. In part two we hear everyday stories of forgiveness which help us hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask, where are we keeping a record of wrongs against those we love or have loved, or even against ourselves?
After reading these testimonies the book then invites us to think about our own experience of forgiveness. Sometimes it is hard for us to see the bigger picture in our own life. When we are hurting it is difficult to imagine how we will ever recover from life's pain and setbacks. Often it is easier to see from the outside where help might come from, where hope is burning and where God is working, however silently, in other people's lives. As each of the testimonies given in the book demonstrate, help does not always come from where we expect it, and sometimes it is only with hindsight that we are able to recognise the positive significance of events or people in our lives. Being open to forgiveness means being open to love, wherever it appears. This is never easy, particularly not after we have been hurt badly, but if we are not open to love in all its forms then we may not always recognise the support that could eventually help us to heal. Each of the people who shared their stories for this book felt like they were stuck in a cycle of pain. Healing takes time and there is no magic number for how long that might take. However, at some point in each testimony there was a leap of grace and their lives were restored through the power of forgiveness. That leap of grace can happen for you too.
Writing the book certainly made me think about my own life and how many opportunities I have each day to either forgive or not, to let go of pain or to let it weigh heavy in my heart. Do I need to focus on a throwaway remark from a stranger so that it spoils the rest of my day? Am I open to accept help even when it doesn't come from where I might expect it? Can I be more loving, grateful and less critical? Can I focus on the good in people? What I've learned is that life can be messy, but we are all given choices every day. In choosing to forgive we are choosing to love, and to live the best life we can today.
Against the Odds: True Stories of Forgiveness and Healing is published by BRF priced £8.99
As a journalist I meet all kinds of people. Despite the stereotypical view, I usually want to make people look their best. Sometimes it's harder than others, because some people don't help themselves. They've already decided all journalists are sour people who want to tell the worst of life. There are people who make it clear that they don't want to talk to me in case I write about them, and then take umbrage when I do what they want and ignore them. Usually these are people who have nothing interesting to say anyway. And then there are people who have such an amazing story to tell that meeting them has changed my view of the world.
When I spoke to Ray he asked if I was going to visit him. Given the time constraints of my news desk I couldn't. Then he told me that his wife had dementia and he was the sole carer. I realised that he probably wasn't getting out of the house much at all, so I said that while I couldn't visit him in work time, I would go to see him. I suppose I went to his house the first time because I felt sorry for him and his situation, but as time went on Ray was to touch my heart in a way that I could never have expected.
The friendships Ray forged in those adverse times were ones which were to last a lifetime. The men he knew then, men who could be cheerful under the most appalling circumstances, were not men who could let bitterness eat into their souls and he didn't like to see hatred consuming them in this way. It was a big ask, Ray more than anyone knew that, but he wanted to encourage them, for their own sake, to forgive.
'Peace within a person is where it all starts, because the actions of nations are merely the actions of men writ large. No-one who has personal experience of world war ever wants to see another one. While there is life, strength and breath in our bodies we should be striving for a better world and our better world will come if the common people of the world wish for it and work for it hard enough'.
It's a vision that is shared by the Restorative Justice Council, which give victims the chance to tell offenders the real impact of their crime, and holds offenders to account for what they have done, enabling everyone affected by a particular incident to play a part in repairing the harm and finding a positive way forward.
I can't begin to understand what Ray and Joanne went through, but the goodness they reflect through their capacity for forgiveness makes me want to live a better life. They've made me think about how many opportunities I have each day to either forgive or not, to let go of pain or to let it weigh heavy in my heart. Do I need to focus on a throwaway remark from a stranger so that it spoils the rest of my day? Am I open to accept help even when it doesn't come from where I might expect it? Can I be more loving, grateful and less critical? Can I focus on the good in people? What I've learned is that life can be messy, but we are all given choices every day. In choosing to forgive we are choosing to love, and to live the best life we can today.