Hostages freed to forgive


Cover of Judith Tebbutt's book 'A Long Walk Home' with the subheading 'One woman's story of kidnap, hostage, loss - and survival'My father was a volatile man and easily hurt, so that from time to time the trumpet cry of 'I'll never forgive him!' would shake the house. 'Forget it!' my mother would instruct; or else she'd ask, 'Who are you to forgive?'

Forgiving and forgetting are weighty matters. It is unlikely, for example, that people like English Judith Tebbutt and Australian Nigel Brennan, both of whom were held hostage in Somalia, will ever be able to forget their experiences of prolonged isolation, near starvation, and regular threats of death. Brennan was held for an unimaginable 15 months, Tebbutt for six, but Tebbutt bore the additional burden of eventually learning that her husband, whom she had dearly loved for 33 years, had been murdered on the night of her abduction.

How have Tebbutt and Brennan coped with the inevitable flashbacks and hauntings? Both have written books (A Long Walk Home and The Price of Life respectively), which is a start, at least: we can't change experience, but we can make something positive out of it. It is difficult for memory to be deleted, but it is possible for it to be healed. We are narrative and expressive animals, so catharsis can be attempted by practising any of the arts.

Much has been written about forgiveness. Considered to be one of the seven heavenly virtues, the one opposing the deadly sin of anger, forgiveness, in cases of serious transgression and betrayal, is almost always very hard to achieve. My mother, in questioning my father, doubtless had Alexander Pope in mind: To err is human, to forgive divine. But surely there is also a human need to forgive? Oscar Wilde may have been right when he instructed: Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them as much.

How to achieve forgiveness, though? Tebbutt seems to have managed the matter, perhaps almost unconsciously. In her case and in Brennan's, a kind of forgiveness seems to have been reached via the effort to understand their captors' lives and environment. Brennan found himself trying to teach his captors yoga, and Tebbutt has publicly wondered why she doesn't hate her tormentors.

The answer to her question may lie in the fact that she has been able to separate the sin from the sinner. When she was asked whether one of her captors was a bad man, her reply was that she didn't know him as a man, but that his deeds, the deeds of all the people involved, were very bad indeed.

Both Tebbutt and Brennan were eventually able to develop some insight into their captors' lives and mentality. They were often very young men who had had little chance in the struggle against poverty and hardship that they had become child soldiers, inured to violence and deprived of hope. Their mindset was so different from that of their prisoners that they genuinely failed to understand Tebbutt's grief at the loss of her husband. Tebbutt realised their ignorance, and in this the echo from Luke 23 is obvious: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Forgiveness is often seen as a gift that lessens the burden of the recipient. But it is also a practice that can change the future, as the one sinned against is no longer trapped in the immobility of anger: he or she has the opportunity to make progress. Brennan says his ordeal has made him more compassionate and patient, while Tebbutt acknowledges that her life will never be the same. But, she says, the value of life itself cannot be underestimated.

The theologian Lewis B. Smedes put it thus: To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover the prisoner was you. Tebbutt and Brennan may well have achieved far more than literal freedom.

Gillian Bouras headshotGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, forgiveness, Alexander Pope, Judith Tebbutt, Nigel Brennan



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Thank you. For an excellent exposition of the process of forgiving see Stephen Cherry's 'Healing Agony' (2012).

hilary | 21 August 2013  

We can see Nelson Mandela as an example of what forgiveness can achieve in statesmanship. All churches have in the past been fooled by a false interpretation of the gospel imperative in favour of an emphasis on social control through a fear of punishment. I always remember the nonsense of the Holywood romanticism of the 1960's with a slogan that "Love means never having to say one is sorry"

John ozanne | 21 August 2013  

An excellent, insightful and non-preachy article, Gillian. People such as Terry Waite and Robert Baer (the man on whom the film "Syriana" was based) have also endured this sort of incarceration. Bob was also tortured by Hezbollah. He's a pretty tough ex CIA field officer. I'm not sure, even though he was a cradle Catholic, whether he "forgave" his captors because he never said. He seems to have gotten over it, as, in one of his books, he talks about "us" (principally the US but I think he also means people like us, the US's greatest ally) coming to terms with Iran, Hezbollah's prime funder and manipulator, as a counter to the Saudis who he, with every reason, mistrusts. He certainly isn't full of hate. Neither is John McCain, a former POW who was also tortured. Whether on a religious or secular level, I think there are good reasons for letting go of the pain of the past. It may take considerable effort but I think it preferable to remaining embittered and waiting to extract revenge.

Edward F | 21 August 2013  

Yes, if it can be achieved, the peace that comes with forgiveness is far better than the bitterness that feeds and follows revenge. If only our children could grow up understanding this rather than the payback and checks and balances that seem to guide popular thinking. It seems it takes dramatic experiences for this to be truly learned. Thank you Gillian.

Anne | 21 August 2013  

I've read one or two things on the topic of 'forgiveness' over the last ten years or so. And probably the writer who has (somewhat) broken through for me is Stephanie Dowrick. In her book "Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love" she says: 'As challenging and single-pointed as it is, forgiveness may be the supreme virtue, the most virtuous of the virtues, the apotheosis of love, for it declares: 'I will attempt to go on loving the life in you, or the divine in you, or the soul in you, even when I totally abhor what you have done or what you stand for.' Oh, and the book of Philemon's worth a read too.

Pam | 22 August 2013  

Thanks for the article Gillian. Martin Luther King Jr also had something profound to say about forgiveness; namely "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Yes I believe that forgiveness and letting go can lead down the path of healing and peace.

John Whitehead | 22 August 2013  

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