To forgive, you must overcome yourself
Time heals all wounds. Even those gathered over the years, either in the open or concealed for centuries. It turns out, there is nothing more durable among people than sorrow. Lost opportunities, unsettled accounts for wrongs, tragedies continuing for generations, spilled blood. Calling for vengeance
.There have been many such issues among the nations of the Central and Eastern Europe. It is not without a reason why Timothy Snyder referred to our part of the world as “bloodlands.” While a rather ordered civilisation flourished in the West, with developing culture, and concerts by Mozart or Beethoven sounding at the operas of Paris or Berlin, the lands between the Baltic and the Black Sea experienced unparalleled tragedies, with neighbours harming neighbours against all the rules and commandments, and with music replaced by cries of despair spreading in empty fields and forests, or even more often with the clash of arms and shooting guns. Our part of the world was too often a victim to rivalry and combat, too often these were bloodlands. What is the worst is that few of those problems have been solved. Many issues have been kicked into the long grass against the words of the prophets of all times – convenient to enemies, incomprehensible to neighbours, difficult to us ourselves. And we can still hear the echoes of old disputes, the starter of wars. And here we come again.
The art of forgiving is difficult. In order to forgive, one must reach beyond it, but also, in order to forgive, one must understand the sins and blames that have always been and will be on both sides. Regardless of whatever bright vision of civilisation is presented and promoted, irrespective of answers provided by the Oracle of Delphi or digital prophets from the Silicon Valley. Poland has been, however, touched by something unusual. On both sides of one coin, we can see our own shadows, a reflection of our own faces. Strange? Yes, because it is different than in other parts of the world that do not have so many problems with identity. We cannot avoid this reflection; we must not fear it. Therefore, we must face it, look ourselves in the eyes. Can we do that?
Escape is a frequent move. Fear and anxiety replace hope, take control, and want to show us the direction. Resentments are easily stirred, calling the ghosts of the past. A neighbour is a wolf to one’s neighbour, it has been so for years. Such memory usually leads to perdition, or at least to being lost. It is rather easy: getting lost while remaining where you were. We stand astride at a familiar and secure place because it is more convenient to do so. Let the others pass us by. We remember and shall not take even one step back.
But, ultimately, there can be no forgiveness without redress, without admitting the harm done. Memory is one thing, but this mental level of forgiveness is the most important and the most difficult one. Because how can we reach out, turn the other cheek when we know it will hurt again because we know it by experience? This awareness is the most difficult, hence the heroism of such an attitude. In the hierarchy of goods, one must always first take care of oneself, and only later of the others. Just as on the plane: we first put a mask on ourselves, and only then on the others; parents first, children later. If we can change that logic, miracles happen, and the wrongs are made good. But this is not always possible. It turns out societies function in a similar way. If they contain long hidden emotions, sorrow, or doubts, these will burst eventually. And most often than not in a wrong time. The only option is to turn the other cheek. In order to forgive, something must die, some part of us must be gone.
Time is of essence here. While stretching the delicate threads of peace and reconciliation, one must remember that not everything can be achieved straight away. The important things must mature, build themselves internally, and this has to last. Time heals all wounds: it is years later that one can reflect and look at the things from a perspective. But what if we are always short of time?
We delude ourselves that everything will be OK. And finally, of course, it will. It always is. Nevertheless, considering for example the issue of future peace in our part of Europe (the western part is certainly rather safe), we must be realistic. We all know the joke about two trains riding at the same time from Paris to Moscow, and from Moscow to Paris. They both stop in Warsaw at the same time. And all the passengers, whether from Moscow or from Paris, the capital of Poland seems to be a different world: a bit strange, a bit familiar, but also autonomous. The passengers of both trains believe they have reached their destination.
It is true, our part of the world is autonomous, with its own history, heroes, and tragedies. But will the emotions building up on both sides and enhanced with the propaganda of war allow us to sit at one table one day? Doubtful, although we need to believe so. This is the only thing we have left. Even if the will to take revenge is overwhelming, even if we hear further slogans to beat those others. Sometimes, this is necessary indeed. But we must also believe everything will be OK, even when we hear further gunshots far away. There is a short path from victory to defeat, but a long one from truce to justice.
To forgive is not naïve, this is not a pacifist approach. History has given us examples of just peace treaties, leading to reconciliation and forgiveness. Let us hope for more of those! But there have also been cases of unjust peace treaties, truces at all costs, which have later led to even more bloodshed. The Treaty of Versailles keeps coming to mind, which gave Europe peace just for twenty years. It did not solve any problems which should have been solved at the time, but just allowed to buy us some time before Europe and the world soon witnessed even more barbarian behaviour, and even greater tragedies. How did this happen? This should be a mandatory topic of all diplomacy seminars, a memento for every action on the international arena. Yes, time heals all wounds, and history is the teacher of life. We must be able to learn from it, draw conclusions, take lessons.
Peace and reconciliation are more than just text on several pages with signatures on documents, or rules repeated for centuries. This is the internal background for our thoughts and emotions. While observing the current erosion of the system of security and international guaranties, we can see that, fortunately, all parties still avoiding final solutions. But for how long? Further steps are already clearly visible; further limits, including verbal, are crossed, and we can hear the words that should not be spoken. Language has also become a weapon. Apparently, this has always been so, but perhaps not on such a scale. The social media, the global agora where the loudest, while not necessarily the wisest, are heard are somehow responsible. Our environment is not neutral; anger and sorrow, however, are real. The true path to peace is the thinking environment.
There are increasingly more conflict zones. It is hard to escape from them, even if the June weather is soothing. Perhaps it is time to turn off your smartphone and take some digital detox? The problem is that what we already have in our heads will remain there. But it is also not outstanding to climb a high tower and simply observe. There are moments where peace and reconciliation require specific action. Slowness, cowardice, and escape are the greatest advocates of war. We are protected against it, however, by courage, by going deeper, by looking without fear.
Therefore, there are conflicts where it is important simply to raise our heads and act. Only this can lead to reconciliation – on just terms. An example of this is our Polish openness to refugees from Ukraine, a chance to cross out all problems and grudges, years of conflicts and using negative attitude to play ones against the others. This can also take the wind out of the sails of common enemies: the division. “A house divided against itself will fall,” as the Scripture says. And our house is bigger than we think.
Apart from the war in the media, there are also real conflicts we cannot escape, which derive from the accounts of wrongs and blames. First of all, they limit our vision. They cannot be seen in photos, or in the social media. They are deep within us, in people, in the mentality, also in the language, in treating one another not with understanding but with some misunderstanding, blinking eye, malice and reserve, in returning repeatedly to the past. Even if there are well hidden in our minds, we will eventually let them out unless we devote ourselves to a greater cause.
This is because peace is in the mind. It is the final unconditioned forgiveness, with no “buts” and no returning to the past. Although, indeed, there is no escape from confrontation: whether with us or with the others, or even with the entire world. But this fight can never end in victory unless we first have a peace of mind. Peace nobody can distort. True peace can only be achieved when we know what to do with our anger, resentment, and agitation; when we can say: “I forgive” no matter what. Or at least when we know we have those emotions, and we know where they are. And that we cannot lock them up, avoid, or consider unimportant. This is the first, or perhaps the last step.
.But peace is also a gift and a task. A gift from ourselves when we are able to give away that piece of us that screams for revenge for the wrongs of the past. Leaving that behind, drawing conclusions and learning about ourselves and the others – this is the foundation. And this is exactly our task to orient ourselves on peace. Sometimes, forgiving is not enough, one must also control that part of us which still wants to fight. Fighting is, of course, necessary, but there are moments where fighting others will not bring about a solution. First, we have to overcome ourselves.