Forgetting to Forgive – Amnesia, Forgiveness or Revenge?
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday June 5 2011
Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much. Oscar Wilde
In cyberspace no-one can hear your virtual scream. There is blood on the blogosphere. I have been contributing to a US-based blog site for the past three years. Mostly, it has been a pleasant experience because there have been a lot of smart, cultured and knowledgeable people putting in their two-cents’ worth. I am trying to extricate myself now because I have attracted the attention of a paranoid stalker who persistently misunderstands and bad-mouths me.
One good thing that has come out of this is that someone I had a battle with a couple of years back has leapt to my defence and we have become firm friends.
The film critic Mark Cousins has noted the current prevalence of vengeance as a theme in Hollywood movies. One of the questions of our time is how a tribe that has been harmed finds peace. Movies which show returning harm to those who harmed seem to give comfort by ventilating an audience’s feelings of impotence. Blog-warriors get some satisfaction by keeping anger alive and espousing vengeance as if life were a movie.
The poet, Charles Simic, wrote about the genocidal crimes of the Croat Ustashi in the 1940s and the crimes of the Serbs in the 1990s: “Many the world over believe this is the only way; that the survival of their people justifies any crime they commit. They find the scruples of those who cringe at the shedding of innocent blood in pursuit of some noble cause naive and repugnant”.
Events in Sri Lanka in 2009 prompted a friend in the UK to write to me: “Why can’t they forget race and religion and just get on with each other?” People often say similar things about Northern Ireland. Ordinary people generally do want to get along and often succeed in doing so. Unfortunately, there are economic factors and historical myths stoking conflicts.
The non-violent civil-rights protests in Northern Ireland were hi-jacked by the Provisional IRA who appointed themselves protectors of the Catholic community and hitched the issue to their own nationalist agenda of a united Ireland.
On a visit to Northern Ireland the Dalai Lama said: “Some differences, some conflicts will always be there. But we should use the differences in a positive way to try to get energy from different views. Try to minimize violence, not by force, but by awareness and respect. Through dialogue, taking others’ interests and sharing one’s own, there is a way to solve the problems”. He put his arms around a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and tugged their beards.
Irish nationalists have long memories about the crimes of Cromwell. Gloucester builder, Fred West, and his wife Rosemary murdered an uncertain number of young women in the basement at 25 Cromwell Street. He was charged with eleven murders but there were probably many more. Most of their victims were waifs and strays, but one was from a middle class family, an art student from a loving family who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Lucy Partington, the cousin of writer Martin Amis, was waiting for a bus when Fred and Rose offered her a lift. Lucy’s sister, Marian, writes movingly about Rosemary West: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty. A life deprived of truth, beauty or love. I imagine that the deviant ignorance that fed her sadistic, egotistical crimes was rooted in her ruined, crooked childhood.”
I don’t know if I could be forgiving in such circumstances. There is a good deal of research which shows that forgiving is good for the health.[i] When people think about forgiving an offender, it leads to improved functioning in their cardiovascular and nervous systems. The research of Dr. Fred Luskin of Stanford University shows that forgiveness can be learned. In Northern Ireland, Luskin found that people who are taught how to forgive, become less angry, more optimistic, self-confident. His studies show a reduction in experience and physical manifestations of stress, and an increase in vitality.
Harold Good was President of the Irish Methodist Church 2001-2. Both Jonathan Powell’s book Great Hatred, Little Room and Deaglán de Bréadún’s, The Far Side of Revenge, mention Harold’s discreet but vital role in the Northern Ireland peace process. It was Harold who announced, as spokesman for General de Chastelaine’s decommissioning body, that the war was effectively over and that the IRA had laid down their arms.
Harold served the poor in the Dublin City mission in the 1950’s. In the 1960s he was in Ohio and later served in the largely black Methodist church in Indianapolis. Back in Northern Ireland he witnessed the horrors of the Troubles. “I wasn’t isolated in an ivory tower. I know the pain inflicted by terrorists.” In spite of this, he has referred, in a personal e-mail to me, to his “friend Martin McGuinness” , former IRA Derry Commandant and now government minister. Harold worked closely with both Republican and Loyalist prisoners with a view to their resettlement. He was the Director in the 1970s of the Corrymeela community, a centre for reconciliation between the communities. He was chair of NIACRO (Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Prisoners) and part-time prison chaplain at Crumlin Road prison. A key part of the Good Friday agreement was the release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners.
In his acceptance address to the Gandhi Foundation when receiving their 2008 Peace Award, Harold quoted a child who wrote: “I want to grow up in a Northern Ireland where you can look at a sunset without wondering what they are bombing tonight.” Harold commented: “Today our children see sunsets instead of bombs. As a community we have faced and accepted realities; engaged in dialogue; achieved consensus; accepted compromise and witnessed the signs and symbols of peace.”
Seamus Heaney wrote:
“once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
Is reachable from here.”
My new blogfriend and I studiously avoid returning to the matter of our previous dispute. We talk about different nuances of American and Asian English. We talk about his experience as a black man in the USA and in the US Marines and the LAPD. If we started to get nostalgic about our old fight, there might be trouble. When I lived in London, I walked to the train station every morning at the same time. Most days I would encounter a mother taking her small son to the kindergarten. One day she was scolding him for fighting with a little girl. He defended himself by saying: “she hit me back first”. My blogfriend and I don’t want to go into who started it. I doubt if he will accept that he was wrong and I sure as hell know I was damned right. Forget about it!
Is amnesia more conducive to reconciliation than truth?