Triumph of the Heart – Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World

Megan Feldman Bettencourt – Hudson Street Press (2015)

Book event at the Center for Spiritual Living in Albuquerque, NM

Book event at the Center for Spiritual Living in Albuquerque, NM – August 2015

I stepped off the plane in Albuquerque and my friend asked “Do you want to go to a book event for a new author?”

“What’s the book title?”

“Something about Forgiveness. I heard about it on KUNM this morning.”

“When?”  … “Now!” 

Hmmmmm, was this a hint that I owed someone an apology?  We loaded my bags into her car and drove off.

The topic of the book resonated with me. Personally, I think the most important words two people can say to one another, in addition to “thank you,” are ” I forgive you” and “I’m sorry.”

This is Megan Feldman’s first book but I hope not the last. The audience at the book event was clearly receptive, but I suspect a class of uninterested middle school students would have been engaged once she started sharing her story. She has a way of personalizing her message, both in her speaking and her writing.  Her TedTalk from November 2014 is a good introduction to her book.

The idea for her book was sparked after a meeting with Azim Khamisa, an international investment banker, whose only son, a college student working a pizza delivery job, was shot and killed by a teenage gang member in San Diego. Azim’s first response was “There were two victims at either end of the gun that night!”  

With those words, she had me. I bought her book and read it cover to cover. Now I’m torn about who I should pass it on to since I obviously can’t haul a library around the world with me as a Pilgrim.

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Megan writes about the health benefits in seeking and granting forgiveness. Citing the research and the science of forgiveness, she makes a convincing link between anger, resentment, and cardiac health. Maybe I should send the book to my son, the cardiologist.

She tells about how a Baltimore principal used forgiveness techniques to eradicate violence in her school. After the riots in Baltimore this past Spring, I wonder if my friend — a Baltimore teacher — would like the book.

She also writes about the importance of mindfulness, as well as restorative justice, two subjects my good friend, a psychologist, has been telling me about this summer. He would certainly appreciate the book.

The author is a stickler for research and she’s traveled around the world talking with tons of people about forgiveness — from San Diego to Rwanda, and many points in-between. She also visited the summer camp in northern New Mexico where the Creativity for Peace program brings together Israeli and Palestinian girls with the “goal of helping them get to know one another outside of their militantly separate and tension-filled lives in the Middle East.”

Researchers have coined a term in recent years called “competitive victimhood,” which refers to a phenomenon that exacerbates and perpetuates intergroup hatred and violence. Competitive victimhood means that two groups that have been mire in conflict become entrenched in a competition over which group has suffered more, steeping new generations in the idea that their own group has suffered more than the other and is therefore entitled to act in certain ways. Dr. Masi Noor, of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, has studied the phenomenon extensively, and says it can be applied to conflicts in places like Northern Ireland, Rwanda, and Israel-Palestine.

I can hear some of my friends in Gaza objecting and arguing that this normalization of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians that occurs in summer camps and similar programs should be avoided. After all, the Palestinians and Israelis in the room don’t share the same power structure. One comes from the side of the occupier with all of the laws and rules and biases in her favor, while the other comes from a people who have been traumatized, humiliated, and occupied for 67 years. Granting forgiveness, they might say, is premature until the occupier acknowledges the occupation.

I understand that position, but avoiding the “other” only exacerbates the fear, misunderstanding, and dehumanization of the “other”. There must be a way of building bridges and connecting in a meaningful way without succumbing to the occupier’s narrative. I found this chapter in the book a little thin (it didn’t meet my expectations) but maybe the author will write a sequel that focuses on Israel & Palestine and how ordinary people on both sides of that divide can bridge the gap. The concepts of restorative justice and forgiveness seem powerful when applied to individuals and small groups, but do they really work in the context of colonizers and the oppressed?

The author includes Forgiveness Practices in the Appendix – practical resources for implementing the ideas in her book.

  1. Noticing
  2. Finding the Impersonal in the Hurt
  3. Developing Empathy
  4. Examining Your Grievance Story
  5. Clearing Away the Past
  6. What Role Did You Play?
  7. Practicing Self-Compassion
  8. From Victim to Hero
  9. Living Well Is the Best Revenge
  10. Seeking Redemption
  11. Cultivating Mindfulness
  12. The Forgiveness Ceremony
  13. Implementing Restorative Practices In Your Community