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Somehow or another this book came up in some discussions with my mother during the period when I had broken up with [livejournal.com profile] scrottie and was trying to sort through a bunch of emotional stuff. I was interested in the book not so much in the context of that immediate relationship situation, but more in general because I've felt for a long time like I haven't entirely understood the concept of forgiveness.

This actually stems back to my Catholic upbringing. One of the important rituals (sacraments, actually) in the Catholic church is the ritual of Reconciliation. Depending on who you talk to, you will hear different stories of what Reconciliation is and how it goes. The earlier versions of it were what you know of as Confession, with the private chambers where the priest hears about your sins, tells you to do some penance, and you go on your way. Growing up when I did, Confession had taken on a different tone that involved face-to-face meetings with a religious figure, but at that time I often felt like I was supposed to be coming up with a list of bad things that I had done so I had some basis for asking for forgiveness. I think this is in part because I didn't really understand the sacrament, but in part because I only received half-explanations of how it was supposed to work. I had this understanding that it was an important ritual, but that was the extent of it.

Fast-forward to graduate school. Two or three years into grad school, I hit something of a crisis point in the time right after Zack disappeared. One of those phases of, "What am I DOING with my life?!" I came to feel like I couldn't trust some of the people I had thought of as some of my closer friends, in good part because I didn't like who I became when around them. For instance - they found me funny when I was drunk, where I experienced a profound sense of alienation from myself and other people.

After certain things happened, I instinctively needed to push away, hard. Pushing away from those friends was more about who I was than it was about them, but regardless, it was a big rift. Breaking up with friends is incredibly hard.

But after some time had passed and I reached a point where I felt like I had re-aligned my sense of self, I started to experience another thing: I had this incredibly strong urge to forgive those former friends, but I also had this awareness that I really didn't know how. Ever since that point, the whole concept of "forgiveness" has been high on the radar as something I want to understand and practice better. For instance, this piece talks about teaching children to do a better job of reconciling wrongs.

I also copied out a quotation from a friend: "Forgiveness is for the forgiver and not the forgiven. Personal power arises from the ability to transcend the need for acknowledgement of our personal work. Let the action be the reward."

And when I encounter incredible stories of forgiveness, like this Holocaust survivor forgiving an Auschwitz guard, I listen.

What is going on here?

It feels like Desmond and Mpho Tutu hit some pretty big nails squarely on the head in this department. The Book of Forgiving contains some utterly horrific stories of the awful things that human beings do to each other, but it also makes a crucial point about human connectedness. The point is this: when another person hurts you, you have two options. You can retaliate, which will extend into a cycle of revenge, or you can choose to enter a cycle of forgiveness. There's a strong human impulse to retaliate, which is why the Tutus take a step back to ask, why and how can we choose to do something different?

Their perspective on humanity resonates deeply with my perspective, which is that we all need to recall our shared humanity even when faced with acts of extreme depravity. Towards the very end of the book, they talk about the distinctions between restorative and retributive justice. I deeply believe in the capabilities of human beings to become better, even while recognizing that we still live in a flawed, hurtful world. Tutu does not shy away from talking about some of the very worst things that humans have done to each other, including genocide, over the course of the book, and this is part of what makes the book so powerful.

As such, I would highly recommend the book, and I would be interested to hear your perspective, too.

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