At this time of year, we have many opportunities to join together with family and friends, to celebrate, to tell stories, to share memories. Because these holidays are most often colored in happy hues and we look forward to good food and fun-filled events with family and friends, it is easy to focus on happy memories, memories that we treasure and tell again year after year.
But memories are not always happy. Bad things happen. Sometimes these memories are of personal tragedies, while other times they are related to larger national or cultural struggles. What do we do about those memories?
I recently read Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer, a new memoir by Fr. Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest from New Zealand who was sent by his religious order to South Africa in the early 1970s. The book describes his early years in apartheid South Africa and his growing identification as a white man with the struggle against apartheid and the ANC. These activities soon got him evicted from the country, first to Lesotho and finally to Zimbabwe. His continued activism resulted in a letter bombing in 1990 that cost him his hands and one eye. It was these injuries that led to him considering how memories of the apartheid oppression continued to impact him and many in South Africa, even after Mandela had been released, the ANC was unbanned, apartheid was dismantled, and a new non-racial constitutional democracy established.
His own testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began his process of considering how one can heal such memories. The TRC had provided a forum where victims could be heard and believed… could be listened to. Stories spilled out… many of terrible abuse at the hands of the apartheid state, but others by the hands of the liberation movement. “Every story was given equal dignity, and both were seen as wrongs” (p.142). Building on his personal story and his work with the Trauma Centre in Cape Town, he began to see that political freedom was important but not enough. “As a people, we were, and in many ways still are, imprisoned by the memories of the past” (p. 117). Fr. Michael began to see that the TRC was just a beginning. What was needed was a parallel process that would allow all those affected by the long history of oppression in South Africa to work through those memories with others and to in fact heal them. He sought a way to “break the chain of history” that stretched back to the earliest history of the region. He realised that oppressed people who see themselves as victims frequently become victimizers of others, justifying their actions because of past wrongs. This vicious cycle had to stop, but how?
From these experiences has grown his life ministry –the Institute for the Healing of Memories .The Institute facilitates 3-day workshops during which participants tell their stories and listen to the stories of others. The hurts visited one on another are acknowledged and understood. Participants are often able to come to a place where memories as well as relationships can be healed, allowing the possibility of the healing of society at large. While located in South Africa, Fr. Michael has taken the workshop to many other parts of the world where memories also need to be healed after conflict and oppression.
So my question in reading Fr. Michael’s memoir is, how might healing of memories be applied in our individual lives? All too often a victim’s stories seem to elicit the response from the “listener” of a similar experience (often with the implication that the listener’s experience was more difficult). Such “pity parties” often devolve into “my oppression is worse than your oppression.”
What might happen if I were to really listen to what the other person has to share, really listen. What might I learn? How might my attentive listening affect the speaker? What might the outcome be if we all were able to share our stories, our memories, in an accepting environment. What would happen if we each actually tried to hear each other?