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The Forgiveness Project: Interview with Marina Cantacuzino

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The Forgiveness Project is an award-winning, secular organisation that collects and shares real stories of forgiveness to build understanding, encourage reflection and enable people to reconcile with the pain and move forward from the trauma in their own lives.

I recently interviewed its founder, Marina Cantacuzino on what the project is all about. She has also authored a book, The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age

Maybe you can start out by telling us about yourself and about The Forgiveness Project

After graduating from the University of Cambridge in 1982 I worked for nearly 20 years as a freelance journalist. I was the main breadwinner with a househusband and three children. It was a great career; I travelled widely, met amazing people and learned a lot.  But by 2002 I was beginning to feel journalism was tired of me, or I was tired of journalism.  Editors were increasingly asking for stupid and salacious details about the people I interviewed which made me feel more and more uncomfortable. I was also struggling to get the work that had previously come so easily. 

Then something happened to change the course of my life. I created an exhibit called ‘The F Word: Stories of Forgiveness’ which in turn led to me founding The Forgiveness Project, an organisation that collects, curates and shares real stories of transformation in order to help others transform the pain and conflict in their own lives.  

At the heart of everything we do is storytelling. My intention has always been to present healing narratives and facilitate restorative storytelling in the hope that it will allow people to reconcile with trauma, offer hope for a better future, and explore peaceful solutions to violence. The many stories I’ve collected not only represent a model for repairing broken communities or releasing toxic relationships but also shed light on our own smaller grievances by building empathy and providing fresh perspectives on difficult situations.

What was the impetus for creating The Forgiveness Project?

In a way I have Tony Blair to thank for propelling me along this path. In February 2003  I went on the ‘Stop the War’ march in London’s Hyde Park where nearly 2 million people tried to convince our then Prime Minister that invading Iraq was not something that the British people wanted. ‘Not in our name!’ screamed the placards and yelled the protesters. I felt a level of frustration and fury that I’d never felt about any political situation before, convinced that attempting to bomb Iraq into a democracy and removing its dictator from power would almost certainly make matters worse. Tony Blair heard the public outcry but he did not listen. From that moment on, as a journalist, I felt compelled to create a counter-narrative to the one of payback and retaliation more vividly and more forcefully. 

My newly formed peace activism probably would have begun and ended on that protest march had it not been for one other thing that stirred me up and spurred me on.  This was seeing the photograph of a terrified and traumatised 12-year-old boy called Ali Abbas. Ali became a symbol of the random futility of this war after losing both his arms and almost his entire family in a US missile attack on Baghdad in March 2003. I was appalled by the haunted look in Ali’s eyes as he stared out from the front page of almost every newspaper the day after the attack and as a result I started trying to create a counter-narrative to the one of retribution and payback, and began collecting stories of forgiveness and reconciliation both from survivors of atrocity but also from former perpetrators who had transformed their aggression into a force for peace.

What is your ultimate goal with this project?

We are a small UK-based charity with four members of staff but a very wide reach.  More that 500 people come to The Forgiveness Project website every day from all over the world; 70,000 people have visited The F Word exhibition which has been seen in 17 different countries. Our intensive group-based prison programme RESTORE (which is modelled on restorative approaches) has been delivered to 3,000 participants.  And our many lectures and events are always booked out.  Every day we receive emails, letters, phone calls from people wanting to share their stories or asking advice about how to (whether to?) forgive someone who has harmed them. We are always working at capacity with limited resources. My hope and vision is to create Forgiveness Project chapters over the world; small hubs of story-collecting and sharing which will help to make the world a more tolerant and forgiving place

Are there any stories that strike a special chord with you?

So many.  I’ve learned everything I know about forgiveness through the people who have shared their stories with me.  But I particularly like the stories of restorative justice where former perpetrators have created a positive bond with their victims.  Take the story of Mathew Boger and Timothy Zaal for instance. When Matthew Boger was 14 he was brutally beaten up by a group of skinheads, simply for being gay. It was a devastating attack not least because a year earlier Mathew had been thrown out of the family home by his mother who feared his sexuality would corrupt his siblings.

By a strange set of circumstances, three decades later he accidentally came face-to-face with Timothy Zaal, who he soon discovered had been part of the skinhead gang that night, in fact the person who had kicked his scull in the hardest. Nowadays both men share their story of forgiveness and reconciliation at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

The process of forgiveness didn’t come quickly for Matthew. But as a friendship developed between him and Timothy he realised that the only way to make sure the past would no longer dictate his life was to forgive Tim. 

Forgiveness wasn’t easy and took a long time as Matthew had for so many years identified with the attack that took place when he was 14.  He says: ‘by letting that (victim) part of me go, I mourned the person I’d known for so long.’ But he says that was also a very beautiful thing because what got replaced was a person who was more tolerant, more openhearted and a lot stronger.

Final thoughts…

When I founded The Forgiveness Project at the time of the Iraq war promoting discussion around the subject of healing and forgiveness felt very relevant.  But today it feels even more relevant.  We are living at a time where hate is effortlessly amplified through social media, where whole groups are demonised and dehumanised in a single moment, and the political rhetoric of the day is so often: ‘If you’re not with us you’re against us.’

The reason why I think forgiveness of oneself, and of others, is so needed in our world today and the reason why it is so important to creating peace is I think best summed up in this heartfelt plea by the Jesuit, Richard Rohr, where he suggests we need to start with ourselves: ‘If we do not transform our pain we will most assuredly transmit it.’

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today. 

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