Archive for December 22, 2013

Our Forgiveness Artist

We’ve lost our finest forgiveness artist.  Nelson Mandela’s ninety-five years revealed to us many talents: scholar, activist, linguist, writer, speaker, politician, and negotiator. For me, the talent that most sets him apart, the one for which we owe him the most, is that of negotiator.  Mandela learned, and we learned with him, over a lifetime and through the toughest of struggles, the fine art of negotiating reconciliation with his oppressors.  This lesson in negotiation applies to resolving national conflicts, and it also applies to resolving conflicts in our homes and workplaces.

It’s clear from his Long Walk to Freedom that Mandela did not appreciate as a young man the power of forgiveness to achieve reconciliation.  Mandela was just 30 in 1948 when Gandhi was assassinated and India won its independence from colonial Britain, a time when Mandela and the freedom fighters of the African National Congress (ANC) embraced Gandhi’s example of non-violent civil disobedience as their main tactic.

Mandela was 45 in 1963 when he was imprisoned for life as a “terrorist” against the state, after the ANC adopted violent protests in response to violent suppression.

Mandela was 77 in 1995 when as President he commissioned retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu to conduct the Truth and Reconciliation Commission . What had Mandela learned on Robben Island?  With this act Mandela combined his upraised fist with his now outstretched hand to personify the spirit of the new government of South Africa, which included many legislators who had been exiled, jailed, tortured, or threatened by those who could now apply for amnesty.

Through their new constitution and this Commission, the new government chose to suspend retributive justice for a short time in favor of facilitating the reconstruction of the nation. No Nuremburg-stye trials nor blanket amnesty for this nation.  The principle guiding their bold choice is captured by the title of Tutu’s book about his experience—both wrenching and inspiring—of conducting this Commission: No Future without Forgiveness.

The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was brief and narrow—to provide a pathway to amnesty in 1995-98 for selected politically motivated perpetrators of gross violations of human rights committed between 1960-94.  Its methods for negotiating legal amnesty may teach us about the more personal process of negotiating forgiveness.

  • The applicant had to make “full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to the offense for which amnesty was being sought.” Most disclosures were made in public hearings.
  • Victims had the right to oppose applications for amnesty if they felt the conditions were not met.
  • Victims had the right to testify at the hearings.
  • Once amnesty was granted for criminal offenses, the victim could not pursue civil charges.
  • Victims could apply for reparations.  The aim of the process was “restorative justice,” not retributive justice.

Tutu’s account of this admittedly limited and insufficient experiment in national reconciliation spells out the genius of the effort. This Commission earned its place in history as the best modern example of conflict resolution by restorative justice. It taught us once again that there are times in some struggles when restoring the relationship trumps winning the fight. It taught us that learning the truth about an offense can mean more to a victim than revenge against the perpetrator.  It taught us that reparations—modest and symbolic reparations—granted in a fair and open process may restore a victim’s self-respect, even if the perpetrator is granted legal amnesty.

If this South African event 15 years ago seems too removed from your daily life, check out one of Mandela’s offspring, spawned about 10 years ago, Marina Cantacuzino’s The Forgiveness Project.  There’s our future.

The Decatholon of Late Life Flourishing

Who ages well? As my generation hits its sixties, this question suddenly grows interesting to me.  It’s a simple question with no simple answers. And wouldn’t we love to know how people age well and what predicts aging well?

One reason we don’t know the answers to these questions is they are hard and expensive questions to study, and people are so complex. But the Harvard Study of Adult Development  recently published a review of what may be the most rigorous scientific attempt to address these questions, through the account of its director for most of the last half-century, George Vaillant, MD, in Triumphs of Experience (2012).

How would you define aging well?  The options depend on your values, your genes, and your luck: looking good or feeling happy, working hard or having multiple retirement plans, being physically fit or having a robust income, enjoying your marriage or enjoying your independence?

Given this dilemma, the Harvard Study of Adult Development chose another approach to defining aging well.  In mining the 70 years of prospective data collected nearly annually on 268 men recruited around 1940—the survivors are now in their early 90’s—Vaillant chose ten events or accomplishments during their ages of 60-80 that serve as a measure of aging well and could be objectively measured. No one accomplished all ten, but doing well in five or six of the ten events was impressive and set the best apart from the rest.  Vaillant dubbed his measure the “Decathalon of Flourishing.”

Vaillant chose, among other accomplishments, low psychological distress throughout this period, income in the top quartile of the Study group, being physically active at 75, good mental and physical health at 80, mastery of the generativity task of development, good social supports outside of immediate family, good marriage, and being close to his kids. This definition boils down to being healthy, wealthy, and well connected to those who care about you.

What predicts who will flourish in late life by this definition? Entered in this horse race were such constitutional variables from early adulthood as body type (is muscular and athletic better?), parental longevity, family history of depression or alcoholism, and inborn childhood temperament. Competing with these constitutional variables were social class, as measured by the parents’ years of education and mean family income, and levels of attachment in childhood and early adulthood.

Of the 17 potential predictor variables, eight proved to be statistically significant predictors of high Decathalon scores.  Of the five strongest predictors, four proved to be relationship or attachment variables related to a warm childhood, warm adult relationships, and empathic coping styles. Vaillant concludes, “In short, it was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.”

The message from this lifelong prospective study of talented and privileged men is that the best predictor of their health, wealth, and meaningful attachments in the years from 60-80 was not social class or athletic prowess or genes for longevity, but the capacity to develop and keep intimate relationships in childhood and early adulthood.

Whether this applies to the rest of humanity remains to be studied.  Limited as it is by the homogeneity of the sample, this finding stands out as a reminder that even in this privileged group, whose other considerable talents and good fortune might have saved them, what counted most for late life flourishing in a range of areas was the talent for intimacy.

A talent for intimacy helps us procreate; it may also help us live long enough to enjoy our procreations.