Emory Report

June 12, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 35

Forgiveness & humanity

Leah Ward Sears '80L is a justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

Like many things in recent years, the terms "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" have grown in use and popularity.

The number of reconciliation institutes, studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, and truth commissions like the one in South Africa initiated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have blossomed from a fledgling few to hundreds, if not more. And, like many terms of art, the definition and importance of forgiveness and reconciliation have also grown and expanded to encompass various and often opposing meanings.

Those who tend firsthand to bruises and tears, those who everyday bind physical and emotional wounds, know that the singular characteristic that distinguishes human beings from all other species is our ability to make other human beings suffer, often without any legitimate cause whatsoever. Many of us know that, as human beings, we are the only animals who have the capacity to ask for and receive forgiveness for our many transgressions, thereby wiping the slate clean and breaking the vicious cycle of injury.

In my 15 years as a judge, I have repeatedly found evidence of gross human destruction strewn in our bedrooms and living rooms in the form of shattered dreams and lost hopes. Wars may terminate with the signing of peace treaties, but intimate injuries have no such formal mechanisms for ending. They can last forever. And the rage and patterns of abuse are often handed down from generation to generation. Moreover, the more intimate the injury-the closer you are to the person who hurt you-the more difficult the process of reconciliation either on the part of the injured or the injurer.

When a person is victimized by a loved one, a core belief system is shattered. The effect can last for weeks, months, years, even a lifetime. Rage, hate and self-blame can consume the victim. Such people often suffer physical illnesses as well. Some victims are paranoid, not sure that the injury is complete. The victim suffers a mutilation; a part of that person has been blown away. They may feel out of control. Events can seem random. And such victims can become hostages to their own naked vulnerability.

The aftermath of injury is a time of confusion and exhaustion. It is frightening to see and even more frightening to experience. The best that the wounded person can do is attempt to "suffer through it." The best that a friend can do is comfort the sufferer.

The process of forgiving is never truly and completely over. The deepest hurts are never forgotten. We forgive, and remember, and remember yet again, and again, and again and again. We are constantly being called on to remember the injury.

Whole groups of people have become victims of the same cycle. Whole groups of people have been and continue to be the victims of prejudice because of race, religion, age, gender, class and even health. Yet groups that have oppressed others rarely admit to causing injury and oftentimes take little responsibility for harms done. Phrases like "Someone else did it," or "Get over it that was a long time ago," are often uttered in frustration and contempt by those who should feel some shame for at the very least benefiting from past prejudice.

I nonetheless believe that if forgiveness is to occur, it must begin within the victim or the victimized group. In stating this I recognize that the burdens of forgiveness and reconciliation on the injurer and the injured are by no means equal. Indeed, the burden falls on the injured who must carry a double load as the one who first shouldered the wounds and then participate in the act of forgiveness.

This has historically been a special challenge for Jews, African Americans and many other ethnic, racial and religious groups. But such groups must be willing to say that "although our relationship cannot be as you would like it to be, or the same as it was before, I am open to the possibility of some kind of relationship with you, although I am not obliged to restore it and the effort must be mutual." Those who have been wronged must be able to say to themselves, "My memory will cause me to live again and again the wrong you have done me, so I will have to forgive you anew each day. But I will choose to do that rather than stoke the fires of the hate I feel for you every day."

This is a tall order. We must admit that holding a grudge feels good from time to time. We feel powerful when we hold that grudge. We wrap it around ourselves like a blanket, protecting us from that person, holding them at length. It serves as a barrier between us and them, maintaining a careful distance. Although this practice feels "safe," it often takes an emotional and physical toll. And it does nothing to repair or restore the relationship.

The ability of human beings to forgive unforgivable injuries is a testament to all that is right about our species. It speaks to the fact that there remains, even in the first part of the 21st century, an inner conscience, a need to make things right when people have hurt each other. And when it happens, it imparts a peace to the forgiver and restores a modicum of kindness to the human community.

How can we best address this issue as a community at Emory, in Atlanta, in our nation? First, we must recognize that forgiveness has value. We must buy into the idea that this is worth practicing. Next we must recognize that victims require support to navigate that path of forgiveness. Understanding that forgiveness may be years in coming in some cases, our local community can make efforts to provide support, not just lip service, to those injured or harmed so that they do not have to journey down this path of forgiveness alone. And our community and nation must avoid downplaying or devaluing the harm done and the impact resulting from that harm.

Emory, as an educational institution, must exhibit leadership and provide meaningful answers. It must ensure that when it speaks of reconciliation, actions accompany those words.

It is politically correct these days to speak on topics like truth, reconciliation and forgiveness, but it is far harder to practice. As a prominent force in Atlanta and the nation, Emory must set an example for others to follow.

This essay was excerpted from a lecture Sears gave to the Association of Emory Alumni's 19th Assembly and is used with permission.

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