Liberia January 2008
In Liberia Dr. Borris was invited by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Her Excellency Olubanke King-Akerele to give a conflict resolution training program in collaboration with the Foreign Service Institute to forty-four people including from the Foreign Service Institute, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia and the J. Oliver Duncan Psychological Association of Liberia. The training program focused on rebuilding Liberia, by providing training in conflict resolution, trauma healing and discussing different reconciliation processes including the power of forgiveness on the political arena. Below are a few of my thoughts about the experience.
As I think back over the past year the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation are foremost in my mind. A few months ago I went to Liberia. This is a country dealing with the aftermath of 14 years of civil war yet the Liberian people are full of hope about the future. This hope is in part due to the new government with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as their new president and that the Liberian culture supports the forces of forgiveness. This is a traumatized country. Pain and violence have impacted the lives of all Liberians and is also a universal response to their collective trauma. People must heal from this trauma and yet we also need to recognize that collective healing involves much more than healing individuals and relationships. It involves tapping into the depth of their culture which supports healing and resolving conflict on a collective level. For the Liberians this could mean reviving the Palava Huts and using story, song and dance to help in the healing process of the nation and to teach about forgiveness.
While I was in Liberia, I gave a week long training in conflict resolution, trauma healing and forgiveness. I teach a model called the “Trauma Healing/Forgiveness Model” because the process of trauma healing and forgiveness are very similar. We have to heal before we can forgive and usually the things that call for forgiveness can also be traumatic. Work in both trauma healing and forgiveness begin with creating a safe environment and sharing one’s “traumatic” narrative with others who will be supportive and listening deeply to what is being said. I talk about how it is part of our human nature to want revenge and as the Liberians talked about this, they also began to realize that revenge will not give them what they really want, and that it will not heal their deep emotional pain. The focus then becomes dealing with their painful emotions, especially anger. The key in this step is in understanding what our anger is trying to tell us. Angers message is to always look inward and take responsibility for your own behavior. This helps us look at the situation differently. We stop asking “why me,” and start asking “why them.” A shift in our thinking begins to take place by being willing to walk in someone else’s shoes and understand their suffering. This reframing supports the growth in understanding and compassion which helps us to heal our own pain and suffering.
As we struggle with our own difficulties in being able to forgive, we open ourselves up to a benevolent force which is far more powerful than we could ever be. This creative force which is sometimes experienced as grace, is that inexplicable power which comes from something beyond ourselves. This power gives us the ability to forgive even when we feel within our hearts, forgiveness is humanly impossible. When it happens, you can feel the power and presence of a higher intervention which transforms your relationships as you experience an outpouring of this inexplicable love. This is the power of forgiveness.
As Thomas Merton once wrote, “that to live, one must die, that the demons of possessions, attachments, and other ill-conceived goals and objects must disappear so that a re-birth may occur. The Liberians are learning about this. They realize that their hatreds must die. And when this happens, this triggers a newfound peace, a true joy, a feeling of freedom permitting one to focus on what is truly important in life – love and compassion for others.”
(For those interested in learning more about how to forgive you may be interested in Eileen’s book “Finding Forgiveness: A 7 Step Program in Letting go of Anger and Bitterness” published by McGraw-Hill and available on Amazon.com.)