Archive for January 5, 2014

Survival Tools

The recent death of Nelson Mandela and our collective awe of his life have me wondering again what it takes to survive.  Mandela was unusually well equipped to survive conditions that would crush the rest of us, but extreme examples sometimes teach us about the common middle.  Given basic civil rights, what tools does the common person need to survive?  And how do we get those tools.

Maybe literacy gives us the tools for a decent job.  I grew up under the 20th century assumption that the purpose of high school was to equip us with the three R’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  (In the 21st century that includes computer literacy.)  But in my daily encounters at the VA medical center I often see people for whom literacy and a high school degree have not been enough to keep them from unemployment, disability, or homelessness.  If it’s not enough to be literate, what else do we need?

Luck helps, but you can’t put luck in your toolbox.  I can think of three other tools that improve survival—tools that could be required of all high school graduates to the benefit of all:

1) fitness habits (both mental and physical)

2) financial literacy (savvy about budgets, credit cards, and bank accounts)

3) negotiation skills.

High school training in mental, physical, and fiscal fitness is hardly controversial or rare, but how many high schools require negotiation skills?  I know of none.  Yet all of us have to negotiate, sometimes for high stakes with people who have the power to harm us.

Mandela had all these survival tools in abundance, but what set him apart from his fellow freedom fighters were his negotiation skills, acquired the hard way through the severest of tests by those who initially refused to negotiate and often violated him and his people.  Violence, whether in the form of war or prison or a slap in the face or an insult, follows a failure to negotiate a mutually satisfactory solution.  If we were all better trained as negotiators, would we live in a less violent world? I’m sure we would.

But until we all master the most basic negotiating skills (Have you ever read Getting to Yes, by Roger Fry and William Ury?), we would do well to learn how to live with the small as well as the grotesque violations of our lives.  One tricky but essential part of coping with violence is the mysterious process of forgiveness.

For most of us the process of forgiveness remains mysterious because we can’t articulate how it happens, and in the grip of violence it can be tough to see clearly the way through.  There are also many ways to achieve forgiveness because the barriers and resources vary widely with each person and each conflict.

But two people have studied the forgiveness process more than most of us.  Masi Noor and Marina Cantacuzino have collaborated as psychologist and journalist, respectively, to collect in The Forgiveness Toolbox  instructive stories and commentaries that elucidate the key elements of the forgiveness process:

“The idea of a toolbox underlines the notion that forgiveness does not happen in mysterious ways. Instead, it reinforces the notion that the practice of forgiveness can be learnt by acquiring a set of skills which are based on the actual experiences of individuals who have succeeded in liberating themselves from the debilitating power of victimhood.”

For their Toolbox among the many elements of the forgiveness process they emphasize these:

Understanding—Mandela gathered voluminous information in his lawyerly way about the problem, its historical context, legal options, the character of the perpetrators and the victims, and then wrote a coherent summary of the incident.  Sharing the narrative in a safe setting was an essential element of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995-8.  We should strive for the same level of understanding.

Bridges of Suffering—identify and respect the sufferings of others, both victims and perpetrators, to build bonds through your suffering.       

Empathy—imagine what your adversary felt and thought that drove him or her to violence; it provides the basis for compassion, which often facilitates forgiveness.

Curiosity—recognize that you may not know enough at first to condemn or forgive your perpetrator.  Find out the big picture, his or her picture, and what he or she knows about you.

Accept Responsibility—an essential part of the forgiveness process involves drawing lines of responsibility for actions, large and small, related to the incident.  Clarifying your own role makes it easier to identify the role of your perpetrator and opens the way for the perpetrator to accept his or her role.

Let Go of Resentment—Listen to Mandela: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

If the life of Mandela brings us any closer to adding to our toolboxes the skills of negotiation and forgiveness, what a legacy!  The Forgiveness Toolbox, as part of The Forgiveness Project , puts these skills within reach.  All we have to do now is practice.