How To Forgive The Unforgivable

Co-written by Lee Daniel Kravetz.

Clemantine Wamariya knows a thing or two about forgiving the unforgivable. She was only six years old when a terrible set of events forever altered her world. Ethnic tensions had been brimming in Rwanda, Clementine’s home, for some time, when a government assassination sparked the start of Hutu-conducted mass killings of Tutsis.

“There was lots of noise and banging outside,” she remembers. “There was singing — actual singing — from the mob coming down the avenue as they broke into the houses. I heard crying in the dark. From inside or outside, I’m not sure. Then screaming.”

Clementine and her sister Claire escaped out a tiny window of their grandparents’ house. From there, they slipped into the darkness of a field of banana trees. All around them, roaming squads slaughtered neighbors with laser-like exactitude, much as they did throughout the country. Much of their family lost their lives that night.

Orphaned, Clemantine and Claire walked many days to a refugee camp in Burundi. Although they narrowly escaped death, they now faced the famine, disease, and danger of refugee life. Over the next six years, clinging to one another, the sisters bounced among camps in the Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zambia. Eventually, they achieved asylum in the United States and moved to the strange new city of Chicago.

Today, Clemantine is 26. We interviewed her recently for our new book, Supersurvivors: The Surprising Link Between Suffering and Success. Sipping coffee with her in a calm café, it’s hard to fathom both what she suffered as well as what she has since achieved.

Now a graduate of Yale University, she has spoken for the United Nations more than once, was appointed by President Obama to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and has worked alongside Oprah Winfrey at the superstar’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

When asked what enabled her to “bounce forward” so inspiringly, despite the horrors she had endured, she responds, “I could forgive.”

Research backs up Clemantine’s observation that forgiveness can be powerful. Several years ago, researchers asked nearly 10,000 U.S. residents whether they tend to forgive or hold grudges, one of the largest surveys on the topic to date. In the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, they wrote that those who tended to hold grudges reported higher rates of heart disease and cardiac arrest, elevated blood pressure, stomach ulcers, arthritis, back problems, headaches, and chronic pain than those who didn’t share this tendency.

But Clemantine’s version of forgiveness may not be exactly what most of us think it is. Forgiveness isn’t about giving the gift of pardon to the perpetrators. In fact, the perpetrator doesn’t even necessarily have to know when someone has practiced forgiveness.

It’s also not about forgetting the past. Clemantine frequently lectures to the United Nations, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, human rights law conferences, and even high school assemblies about genocide.

Rather, forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. It’s giving ourselves permission to let go, as much as we can, of the pain, anger, and hurt of the past. In short, forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different.

It’s saying, “Yes the past is important, but I can’t change it,” and breaking the emotional ties that shackle us to that past. We’re then able to turn out sites forward and create a better future.

And that’s exactly what Clementine has done, one step at a time. But how?

A number of psychologists have developed so-called “process models” of how people ultimately arrive at forgiveness. Though these models differ in how many steps are involved, almost all of them agree on two major things that victims often do.

First, victims must pass through a stage of acknowledging the suffering that the wrongdoing has caused, admitting that it may have forever changed their lives, and owning their feelings of sorrow, loss, resentment, and sometimes rage.

In their book Helping Clients Forgive, Robert Enright and Richard Fitzgibbons write, “if the client or patient concludes that he or she is suffering emotionally because of another’s injustice, this can serve as a motivator to change. The emotional pain can be a motivator to think about and to try to forgive.”

It was through this process, which Clemantine calls “mourning,” that she decided she needed to find a way to move beyond the hurt.

Second, most process models of forgiveness observe that it is useful to understand why the perpetrators did what they did, taking their perspective.

Again, Enright and Fiztgibbons writes that the point is “to help the patient see a person who is, in fact, a human being and not evil incarnate.” As distasteful as this may sound, many perpetrators were once victims themselves. Understanding their pain may help victims move forward.

That’s exactly what Clemantine naturally found herself doing. “I have learned to love others, even the people who did the killing,” she says. “Before, I saw people as either friendly or dangerous. I now see that we are all bound by a universal desire to live. Every human being strives for this. They would kill each other to live. Who was my persecutor? I have no idea. They killed, but most murderers, they knew that killing is wrong. But there was a campaign of fear and misinformation everywhere.”

“I can’t be a part of that anymore,” Clemantine says with conviction. “That wouldn’t have brought my parents back. Forgiveness allowed me to wash my burdened past away.” She came to a simple yet freeing conclusion: she could not change the past.

“I felt strength to take steps out into the world for the first time,” she says. “I would no longer be a victim. I wasn’t going to take what life gave me. I was going to go after things.”

Today, she brings this message to people all over the world. But she hasn’t forgotten the past. When she lectures before audiences around the world, people hear about her painful journey.

But they also hear another message. “It’s a story about hope,” she says with a smile that could only come from wisdom. “I’ve transformed the anger into something beautiful.”

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