FORGIVENESS: AN EXPLORATION
by Marina Cantacuzino (Simon & Schuster £14.99, 304pp)
Have you ever imagined how you would cope with something that’s almost too horrible to write down? Thinking about the murder of someone we love, I suspect most of us would feel a knee-jerk wish to kill the perpetrator in revenge — or at least to see them punished with the full weight of the law.
Yet what if those immediate feelings of rage and grief became transformed into an urge to forgive?
When, in 1985, the bound and frozen body of 13-year-old Candace Derksen was found in a shed in Winnipeg, Canada, her devastated parents decided to forgive their daughter’s killer without even knowing who he was.
Rejecting a bleak future of endlessly renewed loss, horror and rage, they ‘decided that forgiveness was the only possible route to release them from a lifetime of suffering’. The Derksens’ story is well worth Marina Cantacuzino’s sensitive telling, but sadly the couple were at best disapproved of and at worst vilified for their stance: people accused them of not really loving their dead child.
Perhaps the trouble with the concept of forgiveness is that it is somehow seen as challenging the natural human impulse towards righteous anger. Whereas the truth is far, far more complicated.
On October 12, 1984, Margaret and Norman Tebbit were among the 31 people injured in the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing by the IRA
The decision to forgive can come from the darkest place and a recognition that ‘if hate is left unchecked it may eventually corrode’. Journalist Cantacuzino has been collecting true stories of forgiveness since 2003. It was a news story about a father forgiving a doctor who had accidentally administered a lethal drug to his three-year-old daughter that led to her founding The Forgiveness Project, a secular organisation exploring reconciliation and restorative justice through the personal accounts of those who have ‘used their agony as a spur for positive change’.
Aware that forgiveness is far from easy — and may even add to the hurt of those who consider their grief challenged — Cantacuzino rejects the simplistic notion that it is a ‘tidy, almost fool-proof remedy with which to heal both individual and societal wounds’.
One example of this is Lord Tebbit. On October 12, 1984, Margaret and Norman Tebbit were among the 31 people injured in the Brighton Grand Hotel bombing by the IRA. Lady Tebbit was more seriously injured than her husband; she had fallen through four floors and was trapped for hours. Years of bravely borne suffering followed, and she used a wheelchair until her death in 2020. When Lord Tebbit learned that the IRA bomber Patrick Magee would be speaking at an event in the House of Commons organised by The Forgiveness Project, the former Cabinet Minister snapped: ‘Your project excuses, rewards and encourages murder.’
Less predictable was Magee’s own response. He told Cantacuzino: ‘Of course! [His] crusade against me is totally understandable . . . Why should he have the obligation to forgive? If I was in his position and someone had hurt my relative I don’t know if I could forgive.’
This thought-provoking book is an inquiry, not a polemic. Throughout, the author challenges even her own ideas, always aware of the limitations of restorative forgiveness.
The key question is surely: What is forgiveness for? Cantacuzino makes it clear through compelling case histories that it is not necessarily about compassion for the sinner, rather is it a way for the sinned-against to lighten their own burden.
This thought-provoking book is an inquiry, not a polemic. Throughout, the author challenges even her own ideas, always aware of the limitations of restorative forgiveness (File image)
‘Forgiveness means making peace with things or with people you cannot change. It is therefore about reconciling with psychological pain and relinquishing the burden of hatred and the desire for revenge.’
At a time when so much is marked by conflict and people seem quicker to anger than ever, this book offers compassion and calm. It ends with a sort of toolkit, drawing out six ‘ingredients’ of forgiveness from all the stories in the book.
Writing an advice column for many years has made me painfully aware of how bitterness scars so many relationships, and I found this final chapter useful, inspiring and full of intelligence and hope. In the end, you only find peace by letting go.