One of the most powerful scenes from the new movie, “Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom,” which is based upon his autobiography, is the speech that he makes to his fellow citizens about the necessity to seek freedom without violence. He declares to his listening audience that forgiveness is necessary for the work ahead of them and that he has forgiven those who held him captive. A part of what makes the speech so powerful is the fact that we know that Mandela worked hard to practice what he was preaching because he knew that he would never be free if he lived with unforgiveness.
This is a challenging notion. A part of the problem is that there is much confusion about what it really means to forgive someone. Too often, it is viewed as a way to erase conflict and have everyone act as if everything is all right regardless of how horrible things might be. The truth is that forgiveness has nothing to do with pretending. It is a deeply personal matter that actually has more to do with the person who is doing the forgiving than the person who is being forgiven.
Mandela knew that he could not carry the burden of hating his violent captors with him on the road to liberation for South Africa and his personal liberation. The energy that it takes to maintain such burdens robs one of the capacity to live life to its fullest. Of course, his captors were wrong and the years that he spent in prison robbed him of family and many years of his life, but when the captivity ended forgiveness was necessary.
The poet Hafiz said, “Forgiveness is the cash you need ... to craft your falcon wings and return to your realm of divine freedom.” Throughout our human history, we have been challenged by many wise ones to forgive those who have wronged us. Whether we are talking about one person or an organized system, there is liberation in being able to let go of our own need for revenge in response to another’s behavior.
This does not negate the need to stand up for justice and to do all that we can to alleviate the darkness in the world. After leaving prison and coming to the realization that forgiveness was necessary for his personal freedom to be achieved, Mandela did not stop his quest for justice.
The healing energy that waits to be released for those who have been wounded responds to the “cash of forgiveness” as we witnessed with Mandela and many others who experienced great wounding in response to their willingness to demand political and social liberation. This spirit needs to be rekindled as we move forward into the new year. Our entire planet needs all of us to seek to find the path that will lead us to new realms of freedom.
Forgiveness does not justify acts of injustice and other kinds of wounding behavior, but it sets the victims free. Free people can do more good than people who are in prison. Free people are empowered people and they are capable of courageous and selfless actions. They are able to see beyond their individual concerns and to live a life that is dedicated to the common good. All of this is possible because the act of forgiveness sets free new energy systems in the forgiving person that allow that person to live with a new level of hope and determination.
Whether we reflect upon this idea individually or systemically, it is challenging. But it is worth considering how the bright light of Nelson Mandela’s willingness to forgive helped to illumine the path to freedom for blacks in South Africa.
A courageous army has gone before us on this journey and our names are being called. Hopefully, we will hear, listen and respond.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.