Maverick Life

BOOK REVIEW

Examining Marina Cantacuzino’s ‘Forgiveness – An Exploration’ — a profound solution for self-healing

Examining Marina Cantacuzino’s ‘Forgiveness – An Exploration’ — a profound solution for self-healing
Book Cover. Image: Supplied. Image composite: Maverick Life

To forgive without allowing the other to change is self-destructive. Forgiveness should not be normal, normative and normalising. It should remain exceptional and extraordinary.

Marina Cantacuzino’s book, Forgiveness – An Exploration, is a deep dive into the concept of forgiveness — of when it is appropriate and how it can be used to heal and restore. 

It is relatively easy to forgive the small, everyday acts of indiscretion — the snub from a colleague at work, the woman who pushes past you in the grocery store, the man who cuts in the lane in front of your car, giving you heart palpitations. But then there are the harder life challenges that life throws our way: the husband who ditches you because he’s had a mid-life crisis and wants to farm alpacas, the friend who throws you under the bus and steals an opportunity that was yours, the girlfriend who broke your heart and left you crying into your whiskey. 

It’s the inconceivable acts of inhumanity that really blow the mind when it comes to forgiveness. Acts of war, genocide, despicable cruelty and violence. How are we meant to forgive those?

In Forgiveness – An Exploration, Cantacuzino centres her views on forgiveness on the notion that not all people will feel the need or are able to forgive when they have been wronged. Cantacuzino explains:

“For some people, forgiveness is not possible, but for others there is a need to change one’s narrative into one of hope. For some, forgiveness is an act of self-preservation that helps people make meaning out of things that are otherwise senseless. Often, forgiveness is driven by indescribable pain. 

“Those who are exhausted by the weight of their hurt often need some form of release. I remember a man whose daughter was killed in a terrorist attack. He had lost everything, including his job and his relationships with others. In looking at the devastation caused by the bomb that killed his daughter, he was compelled to look at the devastation of his own life. It was then that he realised that he had to do something differently, that engaging with the notion of forgiveness could potentially set him free from the darkness that had enveloped him.”

The concept of forgiveness at an individual level is, of course, a lot less complex than thinking about forgiveness at a collective or societal level. 

In cases of structural injustice, forgiveness may not always be appropriate, especially where there has been historical hurt, resulting in a need to transform and dismantle the institutions of power that were used to harm communities. 

Cantacuzino explains, “I have wrestled with the notion of collective forgiveness. Some have argued that it is not appropriate to talk about it at a political level. But I think that it does make sense when we are talking about sectarian violence that has ceased. 

“When a societal wound is left raw — when it is not tended, it will fester and cause further injury to the body of society. It happened in Northern Ireland, and it happened here in South Africa. Forgiveness cannot, of course, erode the notion of justice and accountability.” 

This is especially true in thinking about inherited trauma, how in instances of systemic discrimination and violence, trauma can be passed down from one generation to the next. There is a body of work showing how intergenerational trauma is inherited and passed on genetically. Without adequately holding accountability for systemic injustice, the chances are slim that inherited trauma can be healed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Notes from the Body — Health, Illness, Trauma

At times, part of the act of forgiving is to attempt to reconcile with the person who harmed us. This is an individual choice and depends on a number of factors, such as the severity of the harm caused, whether the wrongdoer has shown remorse, whether or not we are able to cut the person from our lives and, ultimately, whether or not it would cause us more or less harm to reconcile with the person. 

Both forgiveness and reconciliation are acts of choice. 

In 1993, Amy Biehl, an American Fulbright scholar, was on her way to drop off friends in Gugulethu when she was pulled from her car and stoned and stabbed to death. In 1998, the four men involved in her death were granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after serving five years of their sentence, a decision that was supported by Amy’s parents. Easy Nofemela and Ntobeko Peni, two of the men involved in Amy’s death, now work for the Amy Foundation Trust, a non-profit working towards violence prevention and the development of young people in impoverished communities. Amy’s parents chose to see the socio-political context that caused Amy’s death — that Nofemela and Peni were victims of systemic oppression and structural injustice. They chose to forgive those involved, and to build on Amy’s legacy of wanting to create a better world. This was instrumental to their healing.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Linda Biehl returns to SA to commemorate the 30th anniversary of her daughter Amy’s death 

Changing lives

Cantacuzino founded The Forgiveness Project in 2004, a non-profit that collects and shares stories from both the victims and perpetrators of crimes and conflict. At the heart of the Forgiveness Project is the understanding that restorative narratives have the power to transform lives. 

Storytelling is a powerful tool to help diverse groups of people see things from another’s perspective — used correctly, it can instil understanding, empathy and transform norms, values and behaviour. Cantacuzino illustrates how this was the case with Chen Alon who joined the Israeli Defence Force to defend Israel against the first and second intifadas — the Palestinian uprisings against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. While he took part in many violence sieges against the Palestinian people, he came to a place where he despised what he had done and deeply questioned his role in brutalising and dehumanising Palestinians. He came to realise that in dehumanising others, we are, in fact, dehumanising ourselves. 

In his words: “For me, telling my story is not about asking for forgiveness but about taking responsibility. This is not just about words and emotions — it’s also about action. I will only be able to achieve self-forgiveness by creating alliances with Palestinians, and this means being allies in a non-violent struggle against injustice and oppression.”

This does not mean that there are times when forgiveness is not possible. Michael Lapsley, for example, chooses to focus on working towards peace. Lapsley, an Anglican priest and social justice activist, was involved in the anti-apartheid movement and expelled from the country at the height of apartheid. 

In 1990, the apartheid government sent him a letter bomb hidden in religious magazines. Lapsley lost both hands, his sight in one eye and sustained bad burns from the blast. Since the transition to democracy, Lapsley has worked tirelessly across the globe to promote social justice. His story illustrates how it is not always possible to forgive, that sometimes we have to navigate our way through sitting as comfortably as we can in the discomfort of the pain, recognising that there might not be a resolution. 

In Cantacuzino’s words: “To forgive without allowing the other to change is self-destructive. Forgiveness should not be normal, normative and normalising. It should remain exceptional and extraordinary.”

Forgiveness is also not possible in situations where there is ongoing violence — when an injustice continues, such as the war in Gaza. In situations where there has been no remorse, apology or reparation, it might not serve us to forgive. 

Cantacuzino says, “There is a notion of the good grudge. Instances, for example, where a group of people have been harmed, a good grudge can be transmuted into activism. In such situations, people are fighting for their wounds. The gift lies in the wound and people can opt to create a sense of meaning and purpose in this, as opposed to surrendering to the hopelessness of it. Relentlessly pursuing what matters to you puts meaning back into your life, gives you a purpose.” Political forgiveness starts with the notion of accountability. Substantial societal change only happens when social imbalances are addressed and this includes access to resources and land.

The single biggest takeaway from Catacuzino’s book is this: We need more platforms for telling our stories. Stories about individual and collective injustice need the life force of others listening to them. We need to build a community and a nation of storytellers — spaces in which we seek to heal and restore, where we find peaceful solutions to violence and conflict across multiple platforms – in person in communities, online, on radio and television talk shows. In so doing, we are able to join the dots between our story as an individual, the stories of our communities and the story of our country and the world we live in. DM

Marina Cantacuzino’s book Forgiveness – An Exploration is published by Simon and Schuster (2022)

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Cartwright says:

    The LifeRighting Collective, founded by author/medic Dawn Garish, is an excellent example of shared storytelling in a safe and supportive environment.

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