Forgiveness Lessons from Rwanda

in #society4 months ago


The above image was made with stable diffusion using the prompt 'balanced scales cartoon.'

My dreams last night were disturbing. 20 years ago, someone hurt me badly. Even though it was a long time ago and this person is hopefully dead, I still have nightmares about it. This is one of several experiences I've had over the years that challenge my belief in the innate goodness of people.

Some people are sociopaths. Some are predators. Some are just so deeply confused that they do harm to others for selfish reasons and don't even understand what they're doing. I try to view them all with compassion and don't always succeed. In truth, I often wish they'd simply stop existing.

At the same time, I do believe that anyone can change and do better. And oftentimes that change involves changes in circumstance that support the individual in question. To varying degrees, we're all responsible for helping each other to change in good ways. Unfortunately, the societal systems we use as proxies for this social responsibility are broken and do more harm than good.


After genocide in Rwanda claimed 800,000 lives, the world kept turning and the country had to figure out a way to move forward. Here's a quote from NPR describing part of how they did that:

They set up a system of community courts - without lawyers - to sort of repurpose a system that really had only been used for small claims mitigation in traditional Rwanda, called gacaca, and have open, communal - what we might call a town hall - format for trials. And then the idea was to hold people accountable and have a system of punishment. And this system banked very heavily on encouraging confession and rewarding it. But the confessions were supposed to be also verified by the community. ... Forgiveness doesn't require trust. Forgiveness simply means letting go of the idea of getting even, forgoing the idea of revenge. Right? Now, even that's a big ask. But it means accepting coexistence.

This example is both extreme and powerful. It proves to the world that even the most grievous harms can be processed and healed on a cultural level. Part of how this healing worked involved persuading victims not to seek revenge. If the article above is accurate, this letting go of getting even was the standard of forgiveness used in the trials.

Having been a victim more than once, I feel like I can learn something from this example. Forgiveness doesn't need to mean giving wrongdoers a pass. It can mean instead a refusal to let harm beget more harm. A willingness to live and let live. An end to a cycle of violence.

Even this most basic level of forgiveness doesn't necessarily come easy. I'm not quite there with the person I'm still having nightmares about 20 years later. I wish no harm on them, but my acceptance of our coexistence on Earth is grudging at best. I feel like that should be good enough, but the nightmares suggest that the matter isn't fully settled.

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Wow. Striking share. Thanks for sharing that powerful NPR story. I resonate with this way of defining forgiveness, especially with atrocious harms like the Rwandan genocide or your own personal experiences. It reminds me of a Buddhist saying that rage is like holding onto a burning coal with the intention of throwing it at someone else. You are the one that gets burned.

I think forgiveness is a reclaiming of our unconditional dignity, in spite of (and maybe because of) whatever happened to us. As Maya Angelou said, encountering what hurts us invites us to know who we are, what we can rise from, and how we can still come out of it. I've always felt that forgiveness was more of an internal process of freeing ourselves from what holds us down, burdens us, victimizes us. The responsibility of the other person changing or healing is not ours to carry, but maybe our own liberation can be contagious and impact those around us. Violence and hate only multiplies without this liberation.

When I look at all the ways in which I've tightly held onto some sort of revenge or hatred because of something that happened to me, I've found myself making choices that weren't the healthiest or most conscious. So it kept me in this negative feedback loop. I would cut myself off from pleasure, joy, compassion, self-love. My ability to know myself outside of the state of distress or oppression. I started wondering if this anger really served me and my healing... let alone the consideration of people or things that hurt me. How do we unknowingly keep ourselves small, trapped in a set of circumstances, believing we have no agency?

This freedom we give to ourselves when we forgive is a way of life for the courageous. And it's a way to honor the pain and suffering we've went through. There's a quote from one of my favorite books Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini: “I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”

Sounds like you're on a healing path. And so even though this nightmare of your past emerged, you are different. Your life circumstances are different. Maybe this dream is also a reminder to reflect on how far you've come, as imperfect and messy as this journey has been for you.

"Some events and feelings remain raggedly unsettled in us, and we have to trust that they make our human system work better - who knows how? This may explain why not every one of our psychological issues can, or is meant to be fully addressed, finally processed, or completely resolved. Our assignment is only to let go of our relentless need to control our feelings and to keep granting hospitality to our story, with all its gaps in need of mending and all its griefs that have no tidy ending. What a complex and enigmatic challenge it is to understand and to become fully human." - David Richo

Also, I find that forgiveness comes when it's ready. Sometimes it comes when another part of our lives gets improved, or when new, positive energy blooms into our lives. Then, we might be ready to forgive.

The idea of forgiveness being a reclamation of human dignity has appeal. And its true that whatever else it is, retribution is undignified. Still, the temptation to squeeze that burning coal can be strong. I feel like letting go is more of a process than an event. Sometimes a long process.

Yes, a a lifelong process.