As I look at the people around me in this room I feel deeply humbled. These seemingly ordinary folk have blown me away. I’ve met with many remarkable human beings, but this is one of the most extraordinary groups I’ve ever come across. And what is impressing me so much is that these people have made something good from the most awful situations.
I’ve been invited to a meeting of The Forgiveness Project, which is a charitable organisation that ‘explores forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution through real-life human experience’. I first came across this wonderful initiative when I was in South Africa, where I met an amazing woman whose daughter had been killed by an ANC bomb during the time of apartheid. What made her so amazing to me was that she now gave presentations on reconciliation alongside the man responsible for the bombing.
Sitting in this circle with me today are people with similar stories. There’s a young woman who lost both legs in the tube bombing in London, alongside a young man who used to be a member of a fundamentalist Islamic sect, intent on bloody jihad. There’s an Irish woman whose father was killed by an IRA bomb in Northern Ireland, who now works with the bomber to heal the wounds of the past. There’s also an American lady whose son died in the World Trade Centre on 9/11. She now has a strong friendship with a woman whose son is serving a life sentence for conspiring in the attacks, because they recognise the loss and grief they share.
These people are real exemplars of ‘big love’. They’ve experienced the most terrible of losses and have every right to hate and blame. But instead they have dug deep within the soul to find understanding and compassion. And now they’re using the story of their personal suffering to help prevent further suffering for others.
I know from my own experience that it can be very difficult to forgive, and I haven’t faced anything remotely as devastating as these people have had to deal with. Sometimes the hurt can be so deep it seems impossible to forgive, because whenever I think about what has happened I feel justifiably bitter. But this isn’t a comfortable place to be, because when I’m bitter it’s hard for life to seem sweet.
The Buddha compared anger to picking up hot coals with the intention of throwing them at someone, because when we want to hurt another we also hurt ourselves. When we’re consumed by blame it locks us into the illusion of separateness and that causes suffering. But when we forgive this sets us free. And that’s why it feels so good to forgive.
If I’m stuck in my story I find it hard to forgive, but when I’m ‘deep awake’ forgiveness is natural. When I’m conscious of the ‘mystery’ all my judgements become open-ended. I can see that my story is just one perspective on life, so I’m able to understand how someone else can see things very differently. This allows healing to happen, because I’m able to hold both my own hurt and the hurt of others within the unconditional embrace of big love. And I remember that we were all once innocent children and at heart we still are.
People often talk about ‘forgiving and forgetting’, but they are not the same thing. We need to remember the terrible things that we’ve done to each other, so we don’t act in these ways again. Yet we also need to forgive. What intrigues me is that the big-hearted people in this room are able to both be real about their suffering and find forgiveness.As I sit here in this circle of forgiveness I feel both the heartbreak of the story and the healing balm of big love. I see that in the story there are people to praise and others to blame. But in the mystery there are no judgements. There are no victims or perpetrators. No heroes or villains. No separateness at all. Just communion and compassion.
TIM FREKE is a bestselling author and internationally respected authority on world spirituality. His books include The Jesus Mysteries, which was a controversial top 10 bestseller in the UK and US and a ‘book of the year’ in the prestigious UK Daily Telegraph. His books and live performances have inspired hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. Purchase How Long is Now? at Satiama by clicking here.