Marina Cantacuzino is the founder of The Forgiveness Project and author of a new book  out this month, “The Forgiveness Project: Stories for a Vengeful Age.” The non-profit uses storytelling to explore individual journeys towards forgiveness, particularly by those who have faced some of life’s hardest trials –the murder of a loved one, the injustice of abuse, the degradation of torture. The project also hosts restorative justice programs in prisons, helping inmates to come to terms with their crimes. A journalist by trade, Cantacuzino spoke about the project and the book from her home in London. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What is it that people find so inspiring about these stories of forgiveness?
Cantacuzino: First of all, I’ve been very, very careful as a journalist to write as authentic a story as possible. By that I mean to show the difficult, messy, costly, complicated journey of forgiveness. If it was all tied up and wrapped neatly, and presented as a panacea for all ills people would be put off.

So I think people respond to the fact that there are no easy answers, and that it takes a lot of effort and time, very often. That one day you might forgive and the next day, something triggers the pain again and it becomes very difficult, and I think that’s one reason why people are very attracted to the stories.

I also think they are narratives of hope at a very bleak time. You know, we live in a world where it seems easier to judge and criticize and hold a grudge than embrace another with understanding and compassion and yet, you just have to look at Malala Yousafzai, or Nelson Mandela and you see the public response to these individuals’ stories, and you know that as human beings that’s [the type of connection] we’re created for.

 Q: In the book you tend to avoid providing a neat definition of forgiveness. And yet, I’m wondering if you do have a general definition of what it means to forgive.

Cantacuzino: Well, the one I use is ‘Forgiveness is making peace with something or someone that you cannot change.’ I heard Fred Luskin, who’s a great expert on forgiveness, say recently that he changes his sort of favorite definition all the time and now he’s come down to freedom. Forgiveness is freedom, he says.

And if you look at the dictionary definitions, they’re limited. Even the one I gave you doesn’t quite say enough about compassion in there….I think forgiveness is more than letting go. More than acceptance, it does need a degree of compassion, whether it’s compassion for an individual or compassion for humanity that fails. There really is no single definition I believe.

Q: One of the things that’s so powerful about the book is that you showcase some of the darkest parts of the human experience, along with the most transcendent and remarkable. What do you make of that juxtaposition?

Cantacuzino: I think of Andrew Rice, whose brother was killed in the Twin Towers. Rice says, you know, “those people calling loudest for retribution, are those people least affected.” And I think there’s something about having been there, gone there, to the darkest places that very often connect you to humanity.

It can, of course, have the opposite effect, but in these cases I think the individuals have experienced something that none of us hopefully will experience, and it is such a dark place that you have this extreme urge to fill it with light. That’s just the way I see it, that you can’t stay in that place for very long.

Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing,for instance, he stayed in that place for about a year and everything collapses around him and then one day he looks over the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and he says, “you know, I need to do something differently because what I’m doing isn’t working.”

So, sometimes its a very pragmatic decision to line yourself up for forgiveness. I see it as that, lining yourself up. For some people it might be the emotional response. Sam Lawler’s story in the book, whose father killed her mother, you know, she just had to see her father dying, unable to speak and there was an energy in the room that she describes, and she says that she could never hate him again. With others it might be an encounter with the offender. You see them as human … but all of them I think are propelled in a way toward the light, having been through very, very dark, darkest places

Q: Wow. That’s beautifully put. Humility seems to be a theme in the stories of forgiveness that you share. Do you agree? And what else do you consider to be some of the essential elements of forgiveness?

Cantacuzino: I think you’re absolutely right. First, you have to have compassion for yourself in order to have compassion for others, and you have to have an extreme sort of emotional awareness. And that requires humility. I think it also requires courage. Because very often it’s an isolating position. It’s easy to judge and criticize and hold a grudge, and very often your friends and family and society want you to do that. And so it does require courage in facing your fears.

It also requires a willingness to be vulnerable. That might be like the humility one. And willingness to feel the pain. Sometimes it’s easier to bury stuff, or to not go to those deepest pains and there’s one of the stories Camilla Carr, where she put it rather beautifully: “First you have to deal with the anger, then with tears, and only once you reach the tears are you on the road to finding peace of mind.”

So there’s this sense that you cannot avoid the anger and you cannot avoid the tears, the real pain of it. And it seems that that’s what it requires, whatever that is, it requires that, like a real self-awareness.

Q: What do you think the role of justice is in forgiveness?

Cantacuzino:It’s a difficult one because it’s so individual. And for some justice is irrelevant. And for others it’s very important. Occasionally justice can feel a little like revenge in the way it’s articulated and sought and searched for and chased. But, I think it’s really important to say that for some people, forgiveness is not possible without accountability and justice. The trouble is that justice doesn’t always mete out what you wanted. If you think of the scales, you know, how do you find justice for a murder?

Then, accountability becomes really important, and you do find that this is where restorative justice comes in, that many victims will tell you that the most healing thing of all isn’t the ten-year prison sentence, but it is the acknowledgment from the offender, that they did wrong. That they show remorse. That they want to create a better life and make sure that it’s never repeated. …But I think it’s important to say that forgiveness doesn’t preclude or exclude justice.

Q: I’m also wondering, what do you think we can learn from these extraordinary examples of forgiveness in how we deal with minor annoyances in our everyday lives?

Cantacuzino: Over the years, I’ve had so many people email me and contact me, who’ve stumbled across the Web site, for instance, and say ‘Thank you so much. We came across this story and I was reading them and it’s really helping me deal with the pain in my own life.’ And often they say ‘It’s nothing extreme or big, its just a family matter or an estrangement with a child, but it’s given me hope, and given me an idea of how to act, react.’ So I know that they’re relevant. I think that forgiveness is the oil of personal relationships. I think people can be inspired to let go of grudges.

So all I can say, because people have told me, is that [incredible stories of forgiveness] do affect them. Because you know, these are great examples of people who forgive what most people would think would be unforgivable. And the rest of us have smaller, everyday issues that go on every day, and you begin to reflect on how you’re dealing with your own conflict in your own life.

Some people might begin to see that holding a grudge is like renting a room in your house that is taking up too much space. And to let go of that grudge, and I’m talking about grudges here because I think resentment and grudges is what a lot of us hold in everyday life, and when you let go of that people become lighter and they lose heavy loads.

I also think that sometimes it’s more difficult to forgive the smaller [transgressions] with loved ones, than the bigger ones with strangers. Betrayal is something that’s very, very hard to forgive, and it requires enormous courage and all the things that we talked about before.

The stories give people permission in a way, because forgiveness isn’t about pretending you don’t feel angry or hurt. It’s just about responding out of compassion rather than rage. And they still have that angry response, but you find a better way. And you’re no longer defined by that hurt.

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