Kind promise: I will forgive with wild abandon.

“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

Leaving bitterness and hatred behind is a perfect definition of what I mean by forgiveness.  At its heart, this is a selfish promise. I forgive not to make the other’s life easier, but to rescue my own. Bitterness is a corrosive and heavy load. I need to leave it behind in order to live a life worth living. By adding the phrase “with wild abandon” to the idea of forgiveness, I am declaring that I will find nothing unforgivable. I will always choose to leave bitterness and hatred behind.

Forgiveness is, like the other kind promises, a practice. It’s natural, when I feel thwarted, to have the flash of anger followed by a slow burn of resentment. If I don’t consciously quench that fire, the embers sit ready to become another flashpoint.

It’s easy for me to philosophize; I am not a direct victim of injustice.

On this day of Nelson Mandela’s Memorial service, I thought I would look at his example. He refused to renounce violence until South Africa’s white government did the same, turning down six conditional offers for release from prison. After his release,

 Mandela refused to grant legal absolution to the perpetrators of apartheid’s crimes until they publicly confessed their guilt. In the run-up to South Africa’s first free elections, [then South African president] de Klerk granted clemency to 4,000 members of the South African police and security services. But after winning those elections, the ANC overturned de Klerk’s action and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which required detailed, public confessions by anyone seeking amnesty.  —Peter Beinart, The Daily Beast

The name of the commission speaks to its purpose. There could be no reconciliation without first speaking and hearing truth.  “Only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who ran the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ibid.

Real healing is, for me, celebrating a sacred, creative, compassionate life. In order to leave bitterness and hatred behind, in order to forgive, I need to confront reality. In my personal life, that is about speaking my truth and listening deeply to others as they speak theirs. It requires time and patience and open interpersonal spaces.

It seems my next step is to find ways to create such spaces.


Of course, Mandela’s most powerful lessons are not about personal life. They are about life within, resisting and transforming injustice.

Any unjust system makes us all victims and the US in 2013 is unjust. In an unjust system, some people are considered to be less worthy than others. My race and background put me in the “more worthy” category and I live in a bubble of privilege. It seems my duty to use that privilege to work to change the system. On the other hand, my health and disability put me in the “less worthy” category and also make me less able to work. I am reaching to find my next step there…