Fink! Still at Large: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Proved to Be a Healing Force in South Africa. What Lessons Are There in South Africa's Experience about the Power of Forgiveness

Clinical Psychiatry News, May 2010 | Go to article overview
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Fink! Still at Large: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Proved to Be a Healing Force in South Africa. What Lessons Are There in South Africa's Experience about the Power of Forgiveness


Every once in a while, we have a highly emotional, intense experience in which we realize that we have been in the presence of a spectacular person. That happened to me a few weeks ago, when I heard Archbishop Desmond Tutu give a presentation at the American College of Psychiatrists annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Nobel Peace laureate spoke to about 500 people, and one could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. I was totally caught off-guard by him. He is jovial, serious, spiritual, and real--very real.

He captured our attention at the get-go, when he began his presentation with the comment: "You've done a dangerous thing--giving a preacher an open mike and no time limit." Then his tone shifted, and he began to tell us about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on which he served as chairman.

He described in detail his role in a miracle. He told us about forgiveness and redemption, about torture and murder, and his own emotional reaction to the stories he had heard while presiding over the hearings.

The first person to come the commission, he recalled, was a victim of terrible torture. During the witness's recitation, Archbishop Tutu started to cry. He told his fellow commissioners that he didn't think he would be able to continue as chairman if he was going to cry every time they heard a witness's testimony, but he continued and every time he thought he was about to cry, he would bite on his finger. Clearly, each story was highly emotional and moving to the commissioners.

The archbishop told us about white soldiers who sat down to a barbecue after setting a black man on fire. We also were told about Amy Biehl, a Fulbright scholar from California, who was killed by a crowd of young black men in Cape Town.

For him, the miracle of the reconciliation process was the willingness of those who had been hurt to forgive the perpetrators. The tears, hugs, and sincerity shown by the survivors when they said, "I forgive you," was not only moving, but healing.

It is a mistake to say, "Forgive and forget," Archbishop Tutu said. "We can forgive, but we can never forget!"

Hundreds of witnesses came forward during this process, and Archbishop Tutu and his colleagues sat through all of the testimonies, hoping to see their country reborn with much of the hatred dissipated. He did not describe individual cases, but you could tell by his demeanor and his voice that these were tales of horror.

Desmond Tutu clearly believes in the goodness of man. But many of us on the basis of our practices and daily lives have come to view people as not essentially "good." The flood of news stories that we are exposed to and the experiences of our patients seem to suggest that the negative view of humans is more likely to be true than is Archbishop Tutu's belief. Psychiatrists tend to see the seamier side of life--I see those horrors every day in my work against youth violence and murder.

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Fink! Still at Large: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Proved to Be a Healing Force in South Africa. What Lessons Are There in South Africa's Experience about the Power of Forgiveness
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