How to think about forgiveness in daily life


Marina Cantacuzino is telling me a story about two women, both of whom discovered that their partners were having affairs. For the first one – let’s call her Woman A – the infidelity, says Cantacuzino, “was seen as the act of ultimate betrayal, which not only ended her marriage but for the past 30 years has been the defining, obsessional, story of her life.”

As a result, her children, whom she had roped into the bitter, protracted war against her husband, more or less lost contact with their father.

Woman B was equally devastated to discover her husband’s affair, which came to light through text messages sent accidentally to one of their children.

But, over time, she decided that “These things happen, she was not going to let it ruin her life. The affair had to stop but it wasn’t going to be the big defining moment for her family.”

Some years later it was, says Cantacuzino, “as if it had never happened. There was no residue.”

Bitter marital breakdown. Estranged siblings. Adult children who “divorce” their parents. Friends who never speak again. Such all too common stories are a testament to the challenge of forgiveness in everyday life.

Extremes apart, almost everyone has a tale of an unthinking comment or unkind act (or several) by a family member or friend that can never quite be thrown off.

At the same time, none of us wants to be one of those slightly sad people with a long, knotted tale of deep resentment that is hauled out at every occasion, often over a string of seemingly minor incidents going back years: that person with a powerful investment in telling the story only one way – our way. Cantacuzino seems like an excellent adjudicator of such thorny issues. A former journalist with a calm, non-judging presence (she is a practising Buddhist), she set up the Forgiveness Project 10 years ago. A charitable enterprise, it has explored, largely through vivid storytelling, the many ways in which individuals deal with major trauma such as murder, sexual violence or acts of terrorism.

Her years as a journalist speaking to people about “the smaller injustices of their personal lives” meant that when she started collecting forgiveness stories she was ‘‘keen to avoid the ‘smaller’ and more personal narratives and concentrate instead on the more extreme stuff. I wanted to be more serious and engaged politically.”

The Forgiveness Project has done some remarkable work, bringing together perpetrators and victims from just about every serious war zone and area of conflict in the world, including Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel. Sometimes it has ventured into controversial territory, such as its decision to hold a discussion at the House of Commons between Brighton bomber Pat Magee and Jo Berry, the daughter of Sir Anthony Berry who was killed in the IRA attack on the Grand hotel on 12 October 1984, during the Conservative party conference.

Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry at a Forgiveness Project talk in parliament in 2009.
 Brighton bomber Patrick Magee and Jo Berry at a Forgiveness Project talk in parliament in 2009. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The project has also gone into British prisons, bringing victims of violence face to face with those who have committed similarly extreme acts. One of the most absorbing and remarkable debates I ever attended was a Forgiveness Project discussion between the businessman Will Riley whose house had been burgled and Peter Woolf, the career criminal and heroin addict, who broke into his home that night.

In recent years, Cantacuzino has been struck by the many parallels between the experience of severe trauma and that of the more mundane betrayals of daily life. Very often, one is wrapped inside the other, as in the case of Magdeline Makola, who in 2008 was kidnapped and locked in the boot of her car for 10 days but ended up feeling a greater anger with some of her friends – whom she claimed “were more interested in talking to the media than in my wellbeing” – than towards her brutal assailant.

Stories like these led Cantacuzino to fresh reflection on the difficulty – but vital importance – of thinking about forgiveness in ordinary life, and the charity is now broadening its work to look at more diverse, daily stories including those of medical mishaps and workplace conflict.

During our conversation, she mentions how much classic literature has the theme of forgiveness at its heart, from Middlemarch, in which George Eliot talks about “the hideous fettering of domestic hate”, to Anthony Trollope’s suitably entitled Can You Forgive Her?

Cantacuzino says, “Forgiveness is a nuanced thing. It’s a choice, a practice. In successful relationships, we’re probably doing it unconsciously on a daily basis. The English poet and philosopher David Whyte says, ‘All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.’ I love that quote!” She pauses, then laughs. “Or you could just call it, letting go of the rankle.”

Good word that, rankle.

So, I am curious to know, what makes the difference between a Woman A and Woman B? Is it age or experience – or are some things just hard-wired in our temperaments? (We often talk about a character as “proud” or “stubborn”, unsure whether to praise, pity or even decry such qualities.) And how much is it to do with the way we were brought up? Could we, should we, be raising forgiving children?

Cantacuzino says, “You would hope that age comes into it, that experience would make people realise that life isn’t black and white. But sometimes people get more stubborn and entrenched as they get older, and it’s harder for them to be flexible.”


Styles of parenting obviously exert a powerful influence. “Clearly the attitude with which you rear your children is going to affect them, although each of them will be very different people. My mother was a good forgiver. She always said sorry to us when we were children, and I think that’s fantastically important. Similarly, a parent who never says sorry can create a child who finds it hard to do the same.”

Children can also learn empathy, an important part of the forgiveness process, from their early years. “It’s often about being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. A forgiving person would think: could I be that person? Did I perhaps play some part in this dynamic?”

Often a turning point for a victim of serious crime can occur with a face-to-face meeting with the perpetrator, coming to see them as a vulnerable human being, which can be hugely liberating. But, of course, in family life or friendship, we know the other person only too well (or we think we do) and this, paradoxically, can make it harder.

Everyone who has thought deeply about these issues agrees on one thing: there is no easy, quick path. Sometimes the choice to forgive, whatever that means, will come only after a lot of inner turbulence. Cantacuzino believes, “Feelings of rage and revenge come from pain, so it’s important to feel the pain, to grieve deeply for a loss. Some people call this process Hate, Hurt, Heal.”

But isn’t anger or even hate sometimes a legitimate response? Cantacuzino tells me a story about a father who left all his money to just one of his three adult children, leaving the other siblings furious and the relationships fractured. I protest at the unfairness and she says, “Life is messy. Perhaps we do best not to have expectations, to not think that we are owed everything, even by our family. It’s really not black and white.”

In this case, the story has a happy ending. The sibling who was left the money decided to share it out in an “effort to repair the relationship”. But I am left feeling the “rankle” on her siblings’ behalf and a nagging worry that too much emphasis on inner emotional worlds could, in the wrong hands, lead the less powerful to reconcile themselves to injustice rather than seek resolution of a wrong.

Cantacuzino is keen to stress, “Forgiveness is not about condoning or excusing bad behaviour. Forgiving is a tool for dealing with pain, a decision not to perpetuate the cycle. Reconciling with the past allows you to look to the future. The single thing that most characterises people who have experienced forgiveness is this larger perspective.”

The American journalist Harriet Brown has written about how, after years of obsessively hating her mother, she came to understand that while she might still choose not to meet her mother, she could make that decision in a different spirit. “Forgiveness, I begin to see, is not about pretending you don’t feel angry or hurt. It’s about responding out of kindness rather than rage. Even toward someone who’s hurt you deeply.”

Cantacuzino echoes this sentiment: “Sometimes it’s about acknowledging the hurt and choosing to let go. A few years ago, I had a friendship that went wrong. I tried to put it right, probably too hard. In the end, I had to realise, people have a right not to be your friend. And you not to be theirs.

“Sometimes we just have to give in to broken relationships. The writer Sharon Salzberg rather brilliantly calls it ‘loosening the grip of fixation’.”

 The Forgiveness Project by Marina Cantacuzino is published by Jessica Kingsley, £8.99. To order a copy for £7.19, go to or call the Guardian Bookshop on 0330 333 6846


This piece was published in the Guardian on March 26 2016


Speech given at Westminster Abbey,  March 7 2016, to Westminster School.


Standing here in Westminster Abbey this morning, speaking to you, the pupils of Westminster School, it is only too easy to grasp the true meaning of educational privilege.

The beauty of these buildings, the dizzying proximity to power and real influence – just across the road!

An education at Westminster school will surely offer each of you myriad opportunities,  access to influential networks and significant career advantage  –   as the Sutton Trust report Leading People 2016 confirmed only last week.

I am also sure that you are all frequently reminded of how lucky you are – to be at a school where the amount spent on your individual education per year is near or well above what the average UK citizen earns in total.

But let’s reverse the accepted wisdom for a moment and imagine that what Westminster, and other schools like it, represent is a not an ideal or a model, to be replicated, but, in fact, a seemingly intractable problem.

For society

And possibly even for yourselves.

My father was educated here.  It was a very long time ago now.

But the path he followed, from Public School to Oxbridge to Parliament –  the classic establishment route –  has changed depressingly little over the past century.

As he got older, he came firmly to believe that not only did private education constitute a major barrier to a good schooling for all, but that it had in some ways limited his own social and intellectual understanding.

Indeed, he was intrigued by, and somewhat envious of,  the experience of those of his children and grandchildren who were educated, at local state schools,  alongside those of very different backgrounds.

There are many potential failings of a divided system –  even for its supposed beneficiaries:

To not recognise how much of one’s own achievements are down to good fortune rather than natural ability;

To learn how to mask, rather than grasp, our shared human vulnerability;

To develop unrealistic ambition or too narrow a definition of success;

To fail to understand the root motivations and meanings of the ‘lives of others’.

The writer and academic Lynsey Hanley, born on a council estate in Birmingham,  tell us how the educational divide looks from the other side,

how those from poorer backgrounds can be equally trapped by low expectations, few opportunities and a lack of networks.

In her brilliant forthcoming book Respectable: The Experience of Class, she writes that, ultimately, the most damaging  aspect of class is not money and power but the ‘combined forces of outright snobbery and tacit distinction…because they contribute to the undermining of self belief.’

So what to do?

We do not need to talk of the abolition of Westminster, Eton, Winchester, St Paul’s, Harrow and the rest.

The language of the bulldozer is not appropriate, especially when speaking about education.

The answer lies instead in integration: the creation of a national system of education in which places at a school like this are not –  as they are now – largely  determined by the size of the parental bank account.

There have been moments in our national history when such integration looked possible –  principally during and towards the end of the second world war.

There was, then, serious discussion about bringing the old public schools, much attacked for their weak performance in the pre-war period, into the new free state secondary education system set up under the 1944 Education Act.

Sadly, politicians of all parties ducked this important challenge, and our divided system continued.

Other countries have been bolder.

I am always inspired by the reforms that one small European country undertook, over forty years ago now, with dramatic results.

In the 1970s, Finland had a system very similar to our own today:  divided, hierarchical, grossly unequal in terms of the educational outcomes of rich and poor.

After much debate, and securing agreement right across the political spectrum, the Finns abolished all their private and selective schools.

In its place, they built up a richly creative comprehensive system that soon took Finland to the top of the international league tables, and considerably narrowing the educational gap between rich and poor.

Finland’s story shows that the leaders of a nation can take a cool, clear look at its own unequal structures, and create a consensus for fundamental change.

I am passionately committed to the creation of that consensus here in England, and the UK,  and cheered by the fact that some senior politicians from right to left now recognise that one of the most urgent problems in our society is educational inequality, which both creates and confirms broader inequalities.

Within the next generation, then, we will need figures with the vision and courage to carry on the struggle for a genuinely unified and high-quality school system.

Perhaps some of you will be among them.

I hope so.

Thank you.