An Introduction to Our Topic: Truth and Reconciliation (2)

Reconciling with those who have wronged us asks a lot from us – to forgo retaliation, to acknowledge the “other” as a fellow human being motivated by similar, or at least understandable, emotions and interests, and perhaps to recognize our own responsibilities in contributing to the situation. Sometimes the wrongs are on such a huge scale that the possibility seems unimaginable. If we look, though, we can find many accounts of people not only acknowledging the other’s genuine apology, but offering their forgiveness in turn and in some cases showing a willingness to establish or rebuild a relationship. Peacebuilding truly is a human capacity.

For most of us, there are actions that are unforgivable – the personal loss is too great or the crimes committed are so massive that no individual can surely take that power onto themselves. Such was the dilemma expressed by Simon Wiesenthal, when as a concentration camp prisoner, he was suddenly brought to the bedside of a dying Nazi, who wished to confess his sins and ask for a Jew’s forgiveness. The act seems profoundly selfish, but the lifelong doubt that Wiesenthal shared in his book, The Sunflower, as to whether he had done the right thing by walking out without saying a word, speaks volumes about the power of truth-telling and genuine remorse.

Forgiveness, as Martha Minow says, is necessarily an individual act. Official forgiveness indeed suggests public forgetting, and the old adage “forgive and forget” really should be replaced by “remember and forgive”. Victims who forgive do not forget the wrongs committed, nor should they be asked to, but victims frequently assert that the power of the event to continue causing pain is greatly lessened through the act of forgiving. Forgiveness is a complicated concept and is often done for very personal reasons that have nothing to do with the perpetrator, but genuine forgiveness can also be provoked spontaneously by an honest display of remorse, as happened to Eric Lomax, who had been tortured in a Japanese POW camp during WWII. After meeting the interpreter, who had been the source of his hatred and desires for vengeance for 50 years, he found that his anger simply disappeared, when seeing that his perpetrator’s grief was “far more acute than mine” (quoted in Lazare, 245). As Minow cautions, forgiveness though must never be demanded: “it must remain a choice by individuals; the power to forgive must be inextricable from the power to choose not to do so” (18).

It is important to not over-exaggerate the positive impact of the truth on the promotion of reconciliation. Speaking the truth can of course sometimes cause individual harm and fuel conflicts. Anthropologist Douglas Fry emphasizes that toleration, where a conflict “is simply ignored, and the relationship with the offending party is continued” has been a common response to conflict and is often used effectively to preserve peaceful relationships. Furthermore, studies conducted in the years following South Africa’s TRC have offered a more nuanced conclusion about its significance for individual victims. Many were truly helped by a chance to share their suffering with a wider community, but some found the telling of their story brought simply the re-living of a traumatizing experience; moreover, many perpetrators testified to their crimes to obtain amnesty, but offered no remorse, which often intensified the suffering of their victims who were in attendance.

However, speaking the personal truths of our lives, particularly when we are placing ourselves in a vulnerable position, has the power to transform relationships. This is revealed so poignantly by one of this newsletter’s contributors, Libby Hoffman, whose work with a community-focused reconciliation project in Sierra Leone, called Fambul Tok (Family Talk), offers incredible examples of the power of storytelling, while providing lessons to all of us about how international peacebuilding initiatives often fail precisely because they do next to nothing to rebuild broken human relationships torn apart by hatred, fear, and guilt.

In addition, we have a powerful article by award-winning author and University of Regina historian James Daschuk that reveals how our nation was built on the intentional destruction of our land’s original settlers. Montreal author Judith Kalman reflects on her experiences as a witness at what will likely be one of the last Nazi war crimes trials, and reveals the value of a country confronting its past. We end the collection with two inspiring contributions from Christina Ma and Dawson’s Ivan Freud: the first an account of a wonderful initiative at Simon Fraser University to foster reconciliation among students of diverse backgrounds; the second an invitation to consider how the world’s religions can foster peace. While diverse, each one of these pieces reveals the paths to a more peaceful world – one that arguably is attainable if we start bringing more openness, creativity and compassion to our thinking about the conflicts that too often plague our relationships.

Works cited

Fry, Douglas P. The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Minow, Martha.. “Memory and Hate: Are There Lessons from Around the World?” Breaking the Cycles of Hatred: Memory, Law and Repair. Ed. Martha Minow. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. 14-30.

Wiesenthal, Simon. The Sunflower. New York: Schocken, 1998.

Pat Romano
Humanities, Dawson College

For recent comparative research on truth and reconciliation commissions, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, launched in the aftermath of South Africa’s TRC, is a wonderful source.


9 Responses to An Introduction to Our Topic: Truth and Reconciliation (2)

  1. Alexa May 14, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

    I’ve always had an issue with the quote “forgive and forget” because when a person hurts you, you are not going to forget. In my opinion moving on you can’t forget what happen because you learn from it. You learn from that situation and it helps you in life. At the same time by remembering it you can’t keep a grudge because it’s just not good for you. So that’s why you need to forgive. As much as you don’t want to forgive that person you should because you will feel a weight lifted of of you and you will be able to move forward. I really like “remember and forgive” much more than “forgive and forget”, you learn from your experiences and you move on.

  2. Emily November 28, 2015 at 11:02 am #

    I believe that it is impossible to “forgive and forget”. Someone who has been wronged will always remember the act committed against them but it is about how they respond that will lead to what comes for the future. It does feel better to forgive someone, the act committed against you tends to give you less pain when you show forgiveness so “remember and forgive” seems to be a more accurate depiction of the reality. However, example given of Simon Wiesenthal is a very profound one and shows that there truly are actions in this world that are unforgivable.

  3. Yolanda Gualdieri December 2, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

    I do not go by the “forgive and forget” quote. I think that you can’t forget what someone has done to you. It is impossible to forget when someone does or says something that gets you mad or hurts you. In my opinion, you learn from the people who hurt you and the mistakes you made if you forget them you’ll just repeat the same mistakes over again. In all honesty, it feels very good to forgive when someone does something to hurt you because you wont feel as bothered by it and the feeling of hatred and sadness will eventually go away. “Remember and forgive” is a much easier way to live by than “forgive and forget” and it’s a more accurate representation of how people live in our society

  4. Niloofar Dadkhah December 7, 2015 at 6:49 pm #

    I want to affirm that “Forgive and forget” is the best way to get rid of our sadness. however forgetting some of the unforgivable actions is really hard. We could forget them by putting ourselves in the place of the offender and accepting their situation and their actions. WE can feel more freedom when we “Forget and forgive”. According to my experiences, remembering our bad experiences lead us to have more difficulty in forgiving others. There is more pleasure in forgiving people than getting revenge. The first step to forgiving others is trying to forget their cruelties.

  5. Emilie Battet December 9, 2015 at 1:59 pm #

    I have difficulty with the term “forgive and forget”, as sometimes that can be almost impossible to do for someone who feels an extreme amount of pain, sadness or frustration towards a person. When you have been affected by something or someone to the point of it truly having an impact on your feelings, it is very difficult to let go of. I believe that it is important to forgive a situation and find peace within ourselves, that way we do not hold the weight of a wrong on our shoulders. It can be hard to find forgiveness as sometimes it feels as if we are just giving the person the O.K to once again do more harm, but holding a grudge is much more mentally exhausting. When you are hurt by somebody, you do not need to keep them in your life if you feel as if they have done too much damage. Coming to terms with someone else’s wrong and growing as a person from it is the first step to forgiving a situation and healing yourself from it along the way.

  6. Simona Santorelli December 10, 2015 at 10:34 pm #

    “Forgive and forget”. How can we forget something so powerful, how can we forget something that has affected us and hurt us? At times even if we do want to forget a powerful moment, as much as we try to forget it something so strong will never leave our minds. It will forever affect us until it is resolved. I believe that sometimes it is necessary to forgive for the best of things. Forgiveness can make us move on and feel relief. “Remember and forgive” is a quote I strongly stand by; we should never forget who has hurt us but we should forgive in order to feel free and move on in our lives. People in today’s world tend to “Forgive and forget” because they feel that if they forget and forgive they wont get hurt in the future which is not accurate at all. It hurts to remember the bad times but then we know what is to come.

  7. Julia Graziani December 10, 2015 at 11:35 pm #

    My mom always tells me to “Forgive and Forget” when something hurtful occurs in my life, but it’s a hard thing to come by, easy to just state it but to actually and mentally do, it’s quite difficult. Forgiving takes time but helps us overcome our bad experiences, however forgetting is more of the hard part. You can’t just erase that specific horrific memory! It will always be a part of you.

  8. Gabrielle Messier December 14, 2015 at 5:05 pm #

    Happiness is easier to find when you just forget about everything that happened to you in the past. It may be hard, but I partially agree with the “Forgive and forget” quote because it makes you worry less about everything. On the other hand, I believe that when someone hurt you, you may be able to learn from it and stay away from the person that made you feel sad. That’s how you learn and become a greater person by passing through hard time. Briefly, you may be able to find happiness in an easier way by forgetting but you can gain maturity by learning when someone hurt you.

  9. Wan-Ying Chan December 7, 2016 at 11:09 pm #

    I believe that a person can only be truly happy and at peace with himself when he can forgive anyone who’s ever done him wrong. In fact, I believe that no matter the severity of the sin a person commits, there must be a reason why he did it. Instead of spending our time despising the people who have done us wrong, we should take a moment to ask ourselves: “Why did he do that to hurt me? What was his motive?”. That way, we can truly understand why a person behaves a certain way, and it will be easier for us to forgive them. There is just no point in dwelling in the past, because it cannot be undone.

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