Forgiveness or Revenge, Love or Hatred?

This rather personal post departs somewhat from my usual fare – and replaces my usual Monday Musings, for a reason that will become obvious at the end.

Last week I saw the film The Railway Man. For those of you who haven’t seen or heard of it, it is about Eric Lomax, a British soldier who was fearfully tortured when he was a POW on the Burma Railway. Many years later he met and befriended the Japanese interpreter involved in his torture. I admit that I haven’t read his 1995 autobiography (also called The railway man), upon which the film is based, but in the film he says (and, in interviews, his second wife has quoted him as saying):

Sometimes, the hating has to stop.

I so admire this – this ability to stop hating and to forgive instead – just as I admired Izzeldin Abuelaish’s I shall not hate (2010), which I reviewed a couple of years ago. Abuelaish is the Palestinian who lost three daughters and a niece in an Israeli bomb attack on his home in Gaza. I quoted him in my review:

I believe in co-existence, not endless cycles of revenge and retribution. And possibly the hidden truth about Gaza can only sink in when it is conveyed by someone who does not hate.

Nelson Mandela would of course agree. In his autobiography, The long walk to freedom (1995), he wrote

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Martin Luther King Jr

1964 (Courtesy Nobel.Org via Wikipedia)

There are many others – writers, philosophers, “ordinary” people who have suffered extraordinary things and, of course, Gandhi – who have spoken similarly, but I’ll end with the person I always name when I’m asked to name my “hero”. It’s Martin Luther King Jr – and today, Monday 20 January, is a federal public holiday in the USA dedicated to his memory, Martin Luther King Jr Day. One of the many things he said on the subject of hatred is:

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.*

“Civilisation and violence”, he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “are antithetical concepts”.

None of these people, from what I’ve read, came to their positions easily. It was hard work but, as Gandhi said, “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”. I readily admit that I have never been tested in the way the people I’ve quoted here have been – but I hope that if ever I were, I would rise to their challenge, that I would turn hatred into love, or at least forgive rather than strive for vengeance!

If you are interested in the subject of forgiveness, particularly in reading about people who are its embodiment, you might like to check out The Forgiveness Project.

* This quote abounds on the web, but I took some time to track down its source. I eventually found the following: From “‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ as published in Where Do We Go from Here : Chaos or Community? (1967), p. 62; many statements in this book, or slight variants of them, were also part of his address ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ …  A common variant appearing at least as early as 1968 has ‘Returning violence for violence multiplies violence…’ An early version of the speech as published in A Martin Luther King Treasury (1964), p. 173, has : ‘Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…'”

32 thoughts on “Forgiveness or Revenge, Love or Hatred?

  1. I have just finished listening to the replay of an LNL interview by Phillip ADAMS at the Opera House during last year’s Sydney Writers Festival – of Richard FLANAGAN The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Before finishing the book he made a visit to Japan where he met with some of the guards – several who were at the places where his father worked on that railway (Hintok) and one in particular about whom “Weary” DUNLOP had written. He listened to that man’s story and of the inhuman treatment he himself (Korean background) had endured in the Japanese Army. Not making excuses. As it was. Why he was as he was – then. Richard spoke of the kindness and concern for himself and for his family – his father – that came from those aged men, too. His father who passed away aged 99 just the day Richard had finished the book – and told him so.

    Somewhere around the year 2000 – when I was living in Japan – I read The Railway Man by Eric LOMAX. A couple of years later I exchanged some letters with the Interpreter for the Kempei-Tai (the man whose face became for Eric the face of his torturer) NAGASE Takashi – who sent me a couple of his books. When the war finished – it was Eric LOMAX’s image of suffering which had stayed with NAGASE Takashi – and eventually motivated him to begin his reconciliatory work in Thailand at Kanchaburi – along the railway. The film takes some liberties (as those who read the LOMAX book will understand) but it is not untrue to the essential story. I’ll say no more on that – but there can be nothing more moving than true reconciliation/forgiveness and understanding both ways. This story tells that. NAGASE Takashi died in 2011, Eric LOMAX in late 2012

    The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong! Indeed! Gandhi was so right. One can’t help but look to our current political leadership and despair. We need to shout these words – it’s like the coward’s punch – another sign of weakness!

  2. I know that you would. And, perhaps, sometimes it is the myriad tiny forgiveness we make in our lives that keep us afloat, too, and stop us becoming bitter and hardened against the world. xo

  3. I like it VERY MUCH, Sue; it is a compilation of utterances by the best of men. I feel as if I’d like to paste them all up around my walls; for I am an unforgiving old bitch – and over such puerile things. 😦 I learned to be like this, as Mandela wrote – and, of course, he was talking about much deeper matters than my failings.

  4. Did you see the documentary on SBS on Sunday night about Eric Lomax and his wife? It might still be on SBS on demand. I haven’t seen the movie yet.

  5. Wonderful post! I always hope that should I ever be in a situation where I could choose hate or forgiveness/love that I would choose the latter. Hate breeds violence but it also takes so much work, so much energy that could be put to constructive use for something good.

  6. I add my thanks for this lovely post – such a wonderful reminder about how we should aspire to live our lives! Thank you. X

  7. WG,

    I’m so glad that you’ve seen this film. I saw it at TIFF last Sept, but it doesn’t seem to have found its way to more general release. I’d like to watch it again before I write a review, if I write one. And no, I haven’t read the memoir either. The film is moving as it brings out the theme of forgiveness on a personal level. After viewing the film, I have this question in mind… Does one forgive if the tormentor doesn’t accept his wrongdoing? You see, it’s much easier to forgive someone after he has apologized. What if he doesn’t? What if he feels there’s nothing wrong? And, from a personal level to a national level, and this being so real with the Japanese Prime Ministers paying homage to the Yasukuni Shrine, honouring solders of the war including many war criminals of mass murders and tortures, the most recent being Shinzo Abe. While Germany has denounced Nazi wrongdoings, or South Africa ridding of Apartheid, Japan has not demonstrated similar act. Further, the change of textbooks or the absence of WWII atrocities mentioned in their schools and general public are infamous. (Maybe that’s the reason why so many Japanese young people are fascinated by the Anne Frank story, a human link to the war.) The person who went to see this movie with me held very conflicting emotions as she watched it. While I’m not so emotionally torn, intellectually and rationally, I find this issue unsettling.

    • What a great question Arti. From what I’ve seen and read you are right about German and Japanese responses to the war. When my son was living in Japan he had a very lovely Japanese girlfriend. She apparently knew nothing. When our son told her about some of the things that happened, she apologised!

      Anyhow your main question. My position is theoretical because I’ve only been tested in those little day to day ways, not in the big things like violence against a close loved one or myself. But the way I see it, forgiveness is a personal decision. I don’t really see it as contingent upon the other person. In Eric Lomax’s story, of course, there was remorse from Takashi Nagase. Lomax I believe said that he forgave but wouldn’t forget, and that was partly to honour the memory of those who’d suffered and/or died. Remorse, recognition of wrong doing would be good – and must surely be a precursor to improvement, growth, rectification of the bigger issue – but I’d like to think that it’s not essential. At a personal level, if you forgive you tend to leave bitterness and anger behind and that is surely good for your own health even if it doesn’t resolve any bigger problems. If there’s no remorse, you probably can’t trust … but that’s the next step after forgiveness anyhow, I think. Does that make sense? I’m not sure I’m as articulate on this as I’d like to be.

      (In courts, I’m aware that remorse can affect sentencing but that’s a whole different ball-game I think.)

  8. I read the Railway Man some years ago and was impressed by the story and as a member of the Society of Friends the theme of reconciliation seemed to chime very well with my beliefs at the time. The Forgiveness Project looks very interesting. The point is I suppose that there really is no alternative to forgiveness that does not involve further escalation of the original problem.

  9. I have no idea if I could forgive or not. Detachment would be more likely.

    The documentary ‘Enemy, My Friend’ which shows the dignified Eric Lomax and his wife returning to Thailand and visiting Japan, is far, far more affecting than the movie. I cannot recommending it enough.

    It also explains why Eric Lomax who before the trip is adamant that he will never forgive: ‘people who want me to forgive have not been what I have been through’ ends up forgiving Takashi Nagase.

    • It’s hard to know, Gabrielle, isn’t it until you are in the place. You’ve probably been closer to such a place than I have I suspect. Yes, I saw that documentary – after I wrote the post. Someone told me about it and I found it on SBS On Demand. I was also interested in the fact that when he did apologise he said “I forgive you, but I won’t forget”. And if I understood him correctly, that was partly to honour those who’d died at the hands of the Japanese. Forgetting would deny what happened to them. A thoughtful, interesting man.

  10. Wonderful post, as always. And I particularly love how you’ve inserted it into a literary blog – perhaps most literature deals with forgiveness in one way or another? I haven’t seen the film you mention, or read the book, but your post does remind me of something that happened in Canberra quite a few years ago. A highly respected Canberra artist (respected nationally, I should add) was involved in a car accident – he died at the scene of his injuries. The parents, despite their grief and torment, went to the hospital where the woman who’d been driving the other car was being treated for her own very serious though not life-threatening injuries. They said to her, ‘We will never ever blame you, and we wish you all the very best for your recovery and the rest of your life.’ Of course, I’m paraphrasing, as I wasn’t directly involved (though the person who told me this story was closely connected with the family of the artist). But I’ve always admired this act of forgiveness, even though it was only ever an accident so no one was to blame. Perhaps it was pre-emptive forgiveness?

    • Great story, Nigel … They probably knew that no matter how much of an accident it was, there is always, I think, survivor guilt, and thoughts of “if only”. Pre-emptive forgiveness, yes.

      Oh, and yes, I think quite a lot of literature could be seen to be about forgiveness.

  11. I think these sentiments should be voiced more often. It is so much easier to inherit hatred than remove its roots from oneself. If I think of the explosive and horrific violence that took place in the ex-Yugoslav states just over the border here, in our recent past… And how places we drove through in Burkina Faso and Mali may no longer be crossed without risk – both by locals and foreigners – when tourism used to help local communities.
    But personal forgiveness, that is not always easy!

    • Thanks Catherine. Personal forgiveness is harder, I agree, which is what makes it all the more admirable and worth shouting from the rooftops. It is so easy to hate. There is a scene at the end of a recent German series Generation War in which a Jewish woman decides to save the woman who had earlier dobbed her in. Her reason was much like Lomax’s … It has to stop somewhere.

      It must be sad for you to see those things happening so close.

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