Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Forgiveness

In the climactic scene in the new movie Philomena (the title character played by Judi Dench), the two protagonists confront some of the Irish nuns who forced Philomena and other teenage girls to give up children born out of wedlock. The journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan, has only harsh words for these nuns, angrily condemning them for their lies and brutality. Philomena, on the other hand, who suffered most directly from the sisters' having wrenched her child from her, turns to one of the nuns responsible for her treatment, and says "I forgive you."

Both, it seems to me, are valid and understandable reactions. The journalist will channel his anger into writing a devastating exposé of the church's harsh practices. He needs that anger to fuel his fire. But the victim, who has even more reason to feel anger and to demand compensation or retribution, rejects that approach, telling the journalist she does not want to live like that. Philomena needs to forgive in order to find peace, while Martin is not particularly interested in finding peace. He is seeking a different sort of resolution.

Conflicts can be resolved by determining retribution or compensation. Or they can be resolved by reconciliation and redemption. The first method seems more characteristic of the traditional justice system, while the second more characteristic of a mediated or collaborative or restorative process. But mediation is flexible enough to handle either sort of emotional reaction to conflict. A mediator can recognize and validate an angry response, and can help the victim obtain some measure of compensation for her injuries, or perhaps help an aggrieved person see that the case might not be quite as black and white as they think. A mediator can also help the parties, if they choose, to seek and accept forgiveness.


Philomena's choice shows uncommon wisdom. She understands that anger is a destructive emotion that the victim carries. Most of the time, it hobbles the person carrying the anger more than the target of that anger, who only becomes more defensive and self-righteous in the face of anger, a reaction perfectly displayed by Barbara Jefford, the actress playing Sister Hildegarde near the end of the movie. Forgiveness, on the other hand, silences and shames the wrongdoer. Philomena's forgiveness makes herself large and Sister Hildegarde small. For those reasons, it is not surprising that a lot of mediators make efforts to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation. But some people, like Martin Sixsmith, want to hold on to their anger, and they are entitled to do that. Conflicts can still be resolved without requiring them to let it go.

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