Extraordinary Cases of Compassion and Forgiveness: The Secular and Divine

As a kid, I went to Catholic school for several years. In addition to our lessons in traditional educational subjects of reading, science, math, history, and social studies, we also got regular lessons in Church teachings. Although I consider myself atheist or agnostic today, I distinctly remember that some of the religious lessons – particularly some of the parables of the New Testament – simply “felt” good.

In particular, I remember that the parable of the good Samaritan said something to me – try to help others in need, even if there is risk, and even if they are somehow different from you. Likewise, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (at least to me) emphasized the importance of being humble. The parable of the prodigal son contained themes of contrition, mercy, and reconciliation.

When we read those lessons – in class or in Church – they often came with a pleasant physical sensation. At the time, I interpreted that feeling as evidence that the parables were divinely inspired. After all, other stories didn’t give me the same emotional response (though at that age, I didn’t have many examples to compare). Of course, now I interpret things differently. The biological anthropologist in me would say that the pleasurable sensation is part of a human neurobiology that promotes pro-social behavior. This, in turn, reinforces the rewards that we gain from being connected to others.

Does that sound too cold? “Oh, you materialist!”  I hope it doesn’t. Whether the sentiments are divinely inspired or a part of an evolved emotional response, the effect is the same – they help maintain our connections, which we absolutely need. No human being is an island. Instead, we are obligatorily social primates. And, regardless of whether we take a religious or secular perspective, the effect is the same. We are still left with the angel and devil on either shoulder, whether we interpret that literally or figuratively. We all make our choices that are based on a combination of character, the information at our disposal, and our surrounding circumstances.  

I have to admit that I still get that inspirational feeling whenever I read about extraordinary acts of compassion, forgiveness, or simply someone who’s made an effort to seek out another’s humanity. I’ve collected them for a while. After a few accumulate, I feel the need to share them. Below are a few fairly recent examples, followed by a more comprehensive list. Collectively, they all give me hope, as they span the range of humanity – secular and religious – from many societies.

The mother of Abdolah Hosseinzadeh removes the noose from around the neck of her son’s killer, sparing his life, April 15, 2014. Image via Arash Khamooshi.

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“Love For My Enemies”

When we first met again, what could I say? I was petrified to see him again. As if you killed someone, and a month later you discover he’d been resurrected. But running away from him didn’t help. I needed to ask him for forgiveness. So I went to his house. We talked about normal things, just small talk. After a while I said, “Innocent?” He said, “Yes?” “I have truly offended you. I have come to ask you for forgiveness.

 

– A Hutu man, Wellars Uwihoreye, who asked his childhood friend, a Tutsi man named Innocent Gakwerere, to forgive him for being involved in his mutilation and near death twenty years earlier.

The above came from a very moving essay, “Love For My Enemies.” It’s well-written, interspersed with videos of a handful of Rwandans trying to come to terms with the atrocities committed two decades ago. I find accounts like these to be simultaneously tragic and inspiring. Please go read it.

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Acts of Reconciliation in Rwanda

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
                                                                                             – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

 

The New York Times Magazine published a photo essay of case studies of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda, two decades after the genocide there. The photos show a Hutu perpetrator with his Tutsi victim, along with a brief description of their individual stories of violence and the long road to asking for forgiveness. In the above picture, the woman, Vivianne, says of her former perpetrator, Jean Pierre: Continue reading

Forgiveness in Boston

Boston-Magazine Shoes http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2013/04/25/behind-our-may-boston-marathon-cover/

Cover of ‘Boston Magazine,’ by Mitch Feinberg

Less than a week after the Boston Marathon bombings, which left 3 people dead and over 280 injured, Cardinal Sean O’Malley emphasized the importance of forgiveness during Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. According to the Boston Globe, Cardinal O’Malley gave the congregation  two reasons to consider forgiveness. The first was  to avoid the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth mentality.” In that way, forgiveness offered a potential means to avoid further hostilities between groups. In fact, local tensions seemed to be simmeringO’Malley was likely cognizant of this, hoping to help defuse things before they progressed any further.  

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Further Strides toward Reconciliation

One of the major themes of this blog has been reconciliation and cooperation under difficult circumstances. Below are three pertinent, hopeful stories on reconciliation that I’ve collected over the last few months.

1. Colombia to Spend $30 B to Compensate War Victims (AlertNet; Jan 24, 2012)

Reparations to victims of Colombia’s long, bloody armed conflict will reach as much as $30 billion in the next 10 years, the government said on Tuesday… The reparation program will benefit more than 3 million victims of the war, which has dragged on for nearly five decades.”

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Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (June 25, 2015)

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi

On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.

Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during  ‘the Secret War. To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons). Continue reading

Rising Apes and Fallen Angels

In my weaker moments, I always found it somewhat comforting to know that nobody is perfect. Even historical figures that are often conflated with human perfection had serious flaws. Isaac Newton is considered by many to be the most brilliant person in history, but was aloof, suffered from nervous breakdowns, and as a teenager may have threatened to kill his mother and step-father. Gandhi wrote frequently about his own imperfections and struggles with selfish desires. Einstein deserted his wife and two children for another woman (his cousin). Mother Teresa wrote about her own doubts and struggles with faith. Jesus had his fit of rage in the temple.

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