Hurt people hurt people

Hurt people hurt people

I have heard that phrase so many times it almost washes over me. Nonetheless it has been pivotal in helping me to access the grace of forgiveness. One of the key insights for me in the process was recognising the importance of pausing to absorb the sting of pain when someone hurts me. Before I lash out in retribution to consider what they may have intended. Did they really mean to hurt me; was something else going on; is this not really about me at all – were they hurt in some way and are lashing out and I happen to be in the way?

It is easy once you begin to look for it to see the hurt behind the hurtful actions of others.

What has been shocking to me this week has been to see a particular attitude of my own laid bare. I have struggled with a choice of one of my friends for a long time. This week a second friend in similar circumstances made a similar choice. I found myself responding in the same way. A hard core of unequivocal judgement in the depths of my being.

The problem is that both friends are good people who are genuinely trying to do the best that they can and this particular choice is not morally problematic. Clearly the issue is mine.

I can rationalise my position, but in the depths of my being I know that the inflexibility of the core means that that won’t actually get me anywhere. So I have sat with this perplexing issue for a few days.

Yesterday the penny dropped.

The inflexibility is masking a huge vulnerability. It plays into my oldest, deepest wound. The ground each of my friends is exploring is, to me, profoundly unsafe. But somehow, way back, unsafe and unacceptable morphed into one in my mind.

Their choices have been unacceptable to me because, to me, they are unsafe.

It is shocking to me to recognise that my own deep wounding was being transmitted unknowingly and unconsciously. I was the hurt person passing on the hurt.

It is profoundly humbling.

I am deeply grateful for the generosity of these two friends – my attitude would certainly have poisoned both friendships in time. I am truly blessed that it hasn’t done so yet.


Apology and forgiveness

I stumbled this quote yesterday

‘Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.’

At first glance it looks like a good attitude. But read it one more time and ask yourself if it doesn’t sound just a little self-righteous. I am sacrificing my need to be right (subtext: although of course I am right) because I am able to let go of my ego (subtext: I am better than you or more evolved than you!)

The problem is that apology and forgiveness require two non negotiable ingredients – honesty and humility.

If I am apologising – I may have thought I was acting in the most selfless way I could, but I screwed up. My intention and your experience are different. To truly acknowledge the truth of your experience I have to embrace the fact that I do not hold the whole truth. And if I don’t hold the whole truth, then ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is not a helpful binary classification.

I am presuming here that I am apologising for hurting you unintentionally. If the hurt was intentional then I have even less ground to stand on. But it is then that self-righteousness and self-justification rear their ugly heads.

It is for this reason, when I know my motives were a little mixed, that my only recourse is to pray for the grace of honesty and humility. That I may see the truth of my actions and my intent.

It is only when I have bathed myself in honesty and humility that I am in any state to apologise. To recognise that, in all honesty, I am no better than the person I have affronted. It is only when I have faced into the ugly truth of my own painful limitations that I can consider offering an apology.

Until then, I am playing self-righteous mind games which serve precisely no-one.

To apologise is to humble oneself – if you aren’t doing that, you aren’t really apologising at all.


The last five months have been intense. There have been external pressures, but much more importantly, there have been massive internal machinations. The process began with the reconciliation of a relationship that I had long since abandoned.

The letting go of that hurt, something which has defined me in some ways, meant that I could begin to tackle some of the deeper elements of unforgiveness. Over the intervening months, one after another, I have been able to acknowledge the pain, and then to let it go.

The end result has been the emergence into far greater freedom. And with it, a sense of being able to relax.

When end this particular journey began at the beginning of Lent, I had no idea what it was going to be. In fact, I had no idea that it was going to be a journey at all. I thought it was end of a very long process of forgiveness with that particular person. I wasn’t aware that that lack of forgiveness was blocking my dealing with a couple of other things.

I have no idea quite how I ended up here. I know is that the Holy Spirit has clearly been working. And I have had a few wonderful companions. It has been a period of tremendous grace and I am deeply grateful.


I spent the Easter weekend visiting three of the major battle grounds in KwaZulu Natal. Blood River where the Boers triumphed over the Zulu; Isandlwana where the Zulu triumphed over the British and Rorke’s Drift where the British fought off the Zulu.

Hearing the stories told from different angles has made me acutely aware of the complexity of the history of South Africa. The ways in which each people remember these days is so different. And in each case the victors claim that the victory was evidence of the God’s favouring of their endeavour (or the ancestors support).

Each history is deeply scored on the memory of those whose ancestors lost blood on those battle grounds. The ‘truth’ lies somewhere in between it all. But the question remains – how do we make a single nation out of these (and a good few more) peoples?

It seems to me that the telling of these stories is an important part of the identity of each group. We need to allow for the retelling of the stories as they are. We need to honour the significance of these stories to each people. We also need to hear the stories of those who lost those battles. And then we need to find a way to celebrate together. We need to find a common goal.

This project of reconciliation is no different from two hurt people trying to overcome difference. It is just at a slightly more complex level. The story of the hurt that we tell is real for each person. The extent of the hurt of the victim is usually greater than the intent of perpetrator. But frequently the victim needs to tell their story as they perceived it, and to have the story heard.

Forgiveness begins with an acceptance that the story of the perpetrator and the story of the victim are necessarily different. And reconciliation is only possible once the grace of forgiveness has taken hold. It isn’t simple.

There are two distinct challenges of our time. Firstly, to find ways in which anger can be expressed without resorting to violence and destruction. Secondly, to learn to listen to the story of another’s pain without defensiveness.


There is a situation in my life that I never dared hope to reconcile.  In this particular case I was the one who was wronged. To be perfectly honest I never really desired reconciliation. Over the years I have come to desire and seek the grace of forgiveness. And that desire has grown, and has come to fruition.

I wrote about the discovery that that grace had indeed taken root in October last year (you can find the post here).

Quite unexpectedly, through a brief email contact I have found not just forgiveness but reconciliation. With the reconciliation, the grace of forgiveness has paled into insignificance. It is a completely different space. One that I had no idea existed.

A few years ago I came across an image of grief in Jerusha Hull McCormack’s powerful book ‘Grieving: A beginner’s guide’. In it she describes grief as a rubber ball squeezed tightly into a glass jar – the glass jar is your being. In the beginning the ball fills the jar. The usual way in which people talk about ‘getting over grief’ seems to suggest that the ball should shrink over time. McCormack suggests that in fact this is not the case. The ball remains the same size – but the jar increases in size to accommodate it, and to allow new elements of life to have a place.

The image is powerful one – in my own mind over time I have morphed the image slightly – where the ball has become a stone, and it represents not only grief, but any significant experience of suffering. So for me, this particular incident was a large stone in the jar of my soul.

A few days ago I realised that with the reconciliation, the stone has disintegrated. The space it once occupied is now available.

Available for what? I am not sure, but this is clearly a part of the interior shifts taking place in the wake of the final release of an incident that held me captive for far too long. It is utterly extraordinary and pure grace.


I’ve been reading some stuff on forgiveness lately. I happened across a short book written by Jacques Derrida entitled On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness. In it he takes a fascinating position on forgiveness

In order to approach now the very concept of forgiveness, logic and common sense agree for once with the paradox: it is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin’, then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself.”

I find this a brilliant starting point. He later goes on, in fact, to make this position one end of a spectrum.

I think I only discovered what forgiveness is when I stumbled into trying to forgive something which had broken me. It was only at this point that I stopped trying to will myself to forgive – my will was simply inadequate to the task – and started praying for the grace to forgive.

Forgiveness is a process I participate in, not something I can generate.

But I think we only learn this when hit up against the thing which we are incapable of forgiving – the unforgivable – that we stop believing that we can do it ourselves. It is only when we begin to truly face the thing that has broken us in some way that we recognise our need to forgive. Until then we don’t really grasp what it is to forgive.

This week Eugene De Kock – the man known as Prime Evil – was released on parole. He served just 20 years of the 212 year sentence that was handed down. And yet there were those whose family members had been murdered and tortured in the Apartheid era who spoke publicly of forgiving him (see Russell Pollitt’s article here).

How is that possible? And yet it is. I believe through grace (although that language may not work for the people who have forgiven him)

Pierre de Vos commenting on the same events speaks of the complicit silence of far too many white South Africans (his article is here). His invitation at the end I think is an important part of the process of forgiveness which ever side of the equation you are on – to dare to enter fully into the recognition of what happened.

What was the hurt? What was the harm?

Following Derrida, these are situations which have no reparation. There is no pay back, no vengence, no possible restoration. There is only forgiveness of that which is unforgivable.

And I know I am not capable of forgiving. I can only stand in my brokenness and in woundedness with my desire to forgive and trust that, in God’s good time, the grace will be given.