Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two adults stand in front of a room full of strangers, each on one side of a small table, yet they are obviously at ease with each other. Without any background knowledge, you may think Tom Stranger and Thordis Elva are old friends. Perhaps they grew up together, rode bikes down the same street as children. Perhaps they got to know each other at neighbourhood barbeques or complained about the lecturers in the classes they shared at college. The crowd falls silent as Tom begins to speak.
“In 1996, when I was 18 years old, I had the golden opportunity to go on an international exchange program. Ironically I’m an Australian who prefers proper icy cold weather, so I was both excited and tearful when I got on a plane to Iceland…My teacher recommended I try out for the school play, just to get me a bit more socially active. It turns out I didn’t end up being part of the play, but through it, I met Thordis. We shared a lovely teenage romance, and we’d meet at lunchtimes to just hold hands and walk around old downtown Reykjavík. I met her welcoming family, and she met my friends. We’d been in a budding relationship for a bit over a month when our school’s Christmas Ball was held.”
The Christmas Ball was an event that Thordis had been excited about attending with her new boyfriend, she felt it was a confirmation of their relationship and her adulthood.
“High on my newfound maturity, I felt it was only natural to try drinking rum for the first time that night,” she explains to watchful the crowd. “That was a bad idea. I became very ill, drifting in and out of consciousness in between spasms of convulsive vomiting. The security guards wanted to call me an ambulance, but Tom acted as my knight in shining armour and told them he’d take me home…The gratitude that I felt towards him soon turned to horror as he proceeded to take off my clothes and get on top of me.”
The atmosphere in the room is suddenly deathly silent, sombre, as Thordis explains the physical and emotional torture that took place that night, and in the days, weeks, months and years that followed.
While Thordis struggled with her self-worth, spending almost a decade imprisoned by hate and anger over what had transpired, Tom lived a life of denial – unable to admit even to himself what he had done.
In the midst of a breakdown one day, Thordis subconsciously knew what had to be done. “I watched in wonder as the words streamed out of my pen, forming the most pivotal letter I’ve ever written, addressed to Tom,” she explains. “The words, ‘I want to find forgiveness’ stared back at me, surprising nobody more than myself. But deep down I realised that this was my way out of my suffering because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over.”
Forgiveness is about empowering yourself, rather than empowering your past. – T. D. Jakes
Thordis calmly recounts how she mentally prepared herself for the various negative responses she could have received from Tom. She knew the risk she was taking. What she received instead, however, was a full confession and a doorway to an open and honest correspondence. It was not a connection she was looking for, yet it took her life on yet another turn. This time for the better. In the eight years that followed, Thordis and Tom, living on opposite ends of the world, created a bridge of understanding. With each letter, each emotion-filled word, a path was built, connecting two hurting hearts.
Bridging the Gap
Eventually, they decided to finally make the last step in closing the gap between them, facing their past, and each other, fully. They met in Cape Town, South Africa – halfway between their respective homes. While the experience stirred deep emotions, what transpired was something that created healing for them both. “When it came down to it, we did our best to listen to each other intently. And our individual realities were aired with an unfiltered purity that couldn’t do any less than lighten the soul,” Tom explains.
“When you own something and really square up to your culpability, I do think a surprising thing can happen. It’s what I call a paradox of ownership. I thought I’d buckle under the weight of responsibility. I thought my certificate of humanity would be burnt. Instead, I was offered to really own what I did and found that it didn’t possess the entirety of who I am. Put simply, something you’ve done doesn’t have to constitute the sum of who you are. The noise in my head abated.”
Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. – August Wilson
Thordis admits that without the ability to tell her side of the story, to tell Tom how he had hurt her, how he had impacted her life, that she may not have pulled through the darkness. The ability to transform her hatred and anger into peace saved her life.
Beyond the Labels
Words can be so powerful, they can tear down the strongest and build up those who have given up. They can be used as weapons or as dynamic tools for reconciliation and peace. They can be used to punish those who have done wrong, or they can be used to create a more harmonious, understanding and equitable world.
“Given the nature of our story, I know the words that inevitably accompany it – victim, rapist,” Thordis says. “Labels are a way to organise concepts, but they can also be dehumanising in their connotations. Once someone’s been deemed a victim, it’s that much easier to file them away as someone damaged, dishonoured, less than. And likewise, once someone has been branded a rapist, it’s that much easier to call him a monster – inhuman. But how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognise the humanity of those who commit it?”
Thich Nhat Hanh talks of using only ‘loving speech’ even when we are amid disagreements. When discussing the Vietnam War, he stated that people throughout the country were suffering and becoming enemies with each other, yet he cleared a path through this:
In such a situation, you have to find a way to survive and to help others survive. We had to show people the way to act properly because if you don’t have peace within yourself, it is very difficult to work for peace. Our thinking was, the other person is not our enemy. Our enemies are misunderstanding, discrimination, violence, hatred, and anger. With that kind of insight, we conducted the peace movement.
The story of Thordis and Tom is another example of just how powerful this way of thinking can be. When we come together with love in our words and hearts, we begin to cultivate understanding and resolution. We relate to one another as fellow human beings, each with our mistakes and shortcomings, and create opportunities to take our wrongs and make them right.
Thich Nhat Hanh also speaks of the importance of maintaining compassion towards those who have wronged us, reminding us that they too are victims:
They have not been lucky, they have been born into a situation where social conditions, and their parents and other influences, have created that kind of behavior, and that person is very much the victim of the situation.
Thordis believes if everyone, regardless of gender or their past, came together in a conscious way, society may change. “All of us are needed here. Just imagine all the suffering we could alleviate if we dared to face this issue together.”
We are all human and we have all made mistakes. Whether they are big or small, each and every one of us is responsible for taking the steps needed to bring about healing, for ourselves and everyone else involved. With this approach, we can begin to build the foundations for a peaceful society, where we meet one another in our shared humanity. Where we learn to truly love and forgive ourselves and each other.
To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless. ― G.K. Chesterton
Watch the TED Talk of Thordis and Tom here.
What experiences have you had with forgiveness and ‘loving speech’? Can you create inner and outer peace by opening up a dialogue with someone? Share your thoughts or experiences with us in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!