A very wise person, perhaps even wiser than the tree from Pocahontas, once said that we hurt the ones we love. Now I do not think I football-tackled Mike Ciske out of love when he tripped me at soccer practice in 9th grade, nor do I think love was what motivated me to ring my neighbor’s doorbell every Saturday night around 2 a.m. for the better portion of my middle school years. But I do think there is some real truth to the idea that the closer and more comfortable we feel with people, the more comfortable we are taking our frustrations out on those people. When you live in a relatively small house with 18 other people, it doesn’t take long to get comfortable.
By no means have the 19 of us living in Kimberley House had any big blow-ups. There have been no threats to return to the states, no relationships destroyed irreparably and no fists thrown. There has just been the little sniping that gets under people’s skin, the irritating comments that cause people to offer suggestions of what the person who annoyed them can do to him or herself. Dishes unwashed, noisy late-night dance parties, people hogging the house phone or shushing anyone who dares make noise while they are watching Dexter are simply the manifestations of our general fatigue of living in close quarters.
Good news, though: we are currently living in a country that is known for the magnanimous way its people—both the majority that was long oppressed by the evil racial classification system of apartheid and the minority that oppressed the majority—came to a place of healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. It has been incredibly humbling to meet and talk with people who can compare the way the country was before and after Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election. As we have listened to the personal accounts of those who had every reason in the world to hate someone but instead chose to try to understand them, dirty dishes, snoring roommates and hair-clogged shower drains have all been shown for what they really are: incredibly trite issues that are never worth drawing a line in the sand over.
I have already talked about one of the most obvious instances of forgiveness in a previous blog entry, but the Biehl family’s story is worth mentioning again. Amy Biehl was a Fulbright scholar whose research and work involved womens’ rights and helping South Africa move towards democracy. In 1993, she was murdered by a mob of black men who, after years of oppression under apartheid, were suspicious of a white person’s presence in the underprivileged township Guguletu. In an astounding act of forgiveness, Amy’s parents supported the four men convicted of killing their daughter in their application for amnesty under South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Perhaps as remarkable as the forgiveness was the subsequent work with two of those men—Easy and Ntobeko—in the formation of the Amy Biehl Foundation, an organization that seeks to empower and assist in growing township youths through reading classes, an after-school program and other opportunities. It is the organization through which I teach reading, English and guitar classes, and it is also the organization that allowed our group to hear Ntobeko and Amy’s mother Linda speak about their experiences together. While our questions all seemed to politely and subtly ask Linda how she possibly found it in herself to forgive Ntobeko, their answers seemed to in turn ask how they possibly could have passed up an opportunity to carry on Amy’s work by learning from the people she fought for and trying to help future generations. (Note: A more detailed account of our meeting with Linda Biehl and Ntobeko can be found at one of my housemates’ blogs: cateatthecape.wordpress.com)
Despite these lessons, our house clearly still has questions about how reconciliation can play into our daily lives. After a mid-semester trip that saw tensions build after six-hour car rides, intense games of Mafia and 12 people sleeping in a single room together–deafening snoring and sleep-talking included–I suspect many of us were looking for the secret to preventing World War III. Though we have not found some kind of elixir that cures all of our self-inflicted wounds, a weekend in Hermanus with author John de Gruchy certainly helped us to begin realizing a way forward. The format of our retreat was that Mr. de Gruchy, who wrote a book documenting the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, would answer any questions we had in four sessions over the course of three days. While questions varied from how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to how to understand the Gospel, a few answers de Gruchy gave stuck out in my mind. One of our housemates almost timidly asked de Gruchy how we, who have not experienced schisms anywhere near those South Africa has seen, can learn to be forgiving of each other. There was a sense of urgency in the question, as though we all realized how much we needed to learn how to apply these concepts to our everyday lives.
De Gruchy’s answer focused on tolerance but not in a way I had ever heard it spoken of before. I had always thought of tolerance as a good thing, evidence of one’s ability to live with other people. While de Gruchy did not contest this, he suggested that tolerance implies a willingness to live with but not necessarily accept others’ differences, a capability to stand next to someone you do not like without necessarily trying to understand them. It is not tolerance for others that we should seek, said de Gruchy, but rather respect for others. Respect implies acceptance, understanding and even love.
De Gruchy also touched on the often-overlooked depth of a decision to forgive someone else. Speaking in terms of the Christian tradition, he explained that the cost of forgiveness—the cross of Christ—was beyond-comprehension enormous. It was not the simple looking over of someone’s wrongs but the ultimate sacrifice of a sinless person’s life. The person who can easily say they forgive someone, he warned, is not necessarily forgiving.
This was a tremendous gut check. How often, I asked myself, have I told someone I forgave them for some tiny, insignificant fault they committed against me, while actually carrying a grudge? How frequently have I failed to forgive myself or accept someone else’s forgiveness for something that my faith told me God had already forgiven me for the moment I committed the wrong?
Forgiveness isn’t always the popular route to take. When someone embarrasses you, takes something from you or cheats you in some way, it is seldom difficult to find voices advising you to trust that person no more, disregarding them and cutting them off from your life in the process. People might argue that in forgiving someone, you are simply allowing them to walk all over you. But if we think of forgiveness as John de Gruchy described, it is a struggle, but a necessary and important one. If we at Kimberley House, Marquette, UWC or anywhere else cannot learn to forgive ourselves and each other for our shortcomings—whether they are mistakes at our work sites, disrespect for our housemates or callousness towards the feelings of others—we will surely have serious issues understanding and living with each other when those difficult moments pass. Like I said, none of us have ever faced the challenge of forgiving someone to the extent that Linda Biehl did. But we can all certainly learn something from her and Ntobeko’s story. At some point, carrying the bitterness that results from someone hurting you becomes even more of a burden than the initial pain they caused ever was. Choosing to forgive may make people call you naive or a pushover. But if we take John de Gruchy’s advice and think about it as a way of life, a decision with deep implications that are not to be taken lightly, it is clear that there is nothing foolish about recognizing the need to forgive the people who wrong us, accepting the forgiveness of those we wrong and forgiving ourselves for the times we fail to understand this.