Day 151: September 11, Forgiveness, and Robben Island

On the five year anniversary of September 11, we are in a country that is learning well to forgive. Arriving in Hanoi, Vietnam at 10 pm, we had conveniently missed the 20 hour train south to Hoi An, where we had to be for a hotel piece. When we found this out in the airport, we became pissed off, and tried to blame each other, and then began the self-pitying Rant About Home that indicates that things have really gone downhill, when we whine for cell phones, and knowing what time zone we are in, and Mexican food, and having the clothes to dress appropriately for an occasion, and Jon Stewart, and Getting Our Point Across, and People Who Understand Us.

Quite simply, it was a night when another logistical nightmare with humans we couldn’t communicate with might just put us over the edge. Luckily, though, Vietnam stepped up. Specifically, two very kind individuals at an airport information tourist booth looked at us, the sad beings we must have appeared to be, and were nice. Over the next hour, they made us feel interesting by asking us kind questions, they gave self-respect back to us by presenting us with simple options from which we could proactively carve the next few days of our lives, and they inflated our egos from worthless to slightly competent. And, of course, they refused all money.

Although I (Claire) generally hate making generalizations about countries being nice, at that moment Vietnam certainly seemed to be. Nice. Over the next couple days driving south on the bus, we talked a lot about how incredible those two individuals had been, and what it said about this country that they could give us our best experience Getting Things Done Overseas, even when the bus couldn’t go more than 35 km an hour because of roads our country helped destroy a generation ago. The further south we got, the nicer everyone seemed to be getting, and save for a few idiots (life lesson: there are always idiots everywhere) we were really amazed. Particularly because nobody stopped being nice when we said we were from the USA, which he had worried about, because we feel pretty sad about some of the things our country did here.

And when it became September 11, and we stood in a shop with a tailor watching names of the deceased being read at Ground Zero, we began to talk about how lucky this world would be if they could pull off this kind of miracle of forgiveness in the Middle East by the time our daughters are traveling there.


There are themes that come up on such an anniversary, five years of something very terrible, and we can name them. Here is one: Forgiveness. Forgiveness, like most everything in life that is really worth something, can be really hard.

In our world, the kind of forgiveness we see more often is the slightly easier kind, the mini forgiveness. When the bad thing is reversed, and you get what you want in the end: when your sister buys you a new cashmere sweater to replace the one she ruined, when the park agrees to let you tear it down to build a mall, when the teacher decides at the last minute that you can do extra credit not to fail, or the judge changes his mind. And this mini forgiveness does take a toll of its own, and it makes you think a lot, and learn, and grow. And everyone involved or watching learns lots of Good Lessons. But the harder kind, the kind of forgiveness that is most hard to come by, is when whatever you lost is really gone – in whatever way you interpret that – because the doctor just can’t do anymore, or because the Towers really did fall, or because it just will never be The Same. And it’s the harder kind that is the most important to find.

I do a lot of thinking about forgiveness. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that it is one of many topics that inspirational/self-improvement books (which I love and which Lara loves to hate) specialize in, the fact that I came out of the womb judgmental and get mad when people don’t act the way I want them to, and the fact that I like to complain that things aren’t fair (except when I am getting the good stuff, and that happens because God likes me and because I deserve it).

A lot of what I read about forgiveness says the same stuff. And I’m sure really good writers like Anna Quindlen have written something powerful in honor of September 11 that you can read to find such wisdom. And I love that stuff, and read it again and again and find incredible value in it. But I find it particularly exciting when I read something that makes me think of things differently, and that’s what I’m going to tell you about now.

Sometime in 2005 I was reading some book that talked about forgiveness, and it had a line in it that got me upset. It made this crazy assertion that the phrase everyone uses, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget,” is actually crap. Instead, this book said that in order to truly forgive you actually do kind of have to forget. At least sort of, because remembering the specifics of hurts is usually just a way to catalogue how good you’ve become at forgiving, and how much you’ve overcome, and how much better you were than the Evil Force that did bad things A, B, and C.

And so I was working through this thought in my mind in April of 2005, when Lara and I went to South Africa for a month, which will always be one of my favorite trips of all life. On our last day on the Western Cape, we took a crowded ferry to Robben Island, where one of the most symbolic prison complexes under apartheid opened their doors in 1995 to visitors. Amazingly, the tours at Robben Island are given by the very political prisoners who lived there, the often eloquent, always knowledgeable men who spent years of their lives confined in the shit-stained rooms.

I remember that day very well. We saw the toilets in the jail, and the mess hall, and the garden where men dug holes for eight hours a day only to have them refilled again, and the place where Nelson Mandela hid his famous manuscript in the dirt. Throughout, everyone kept pushing the question of our guide’s own story: How was it like a decade ago in this room, like when you were here? What was your opinion of the food quality? What was your experience?

At the end of the afternoon, the guide led our group into a long dormitory room where some forty men used to sleep on bunk beds. The beds were pushed against the back of the room now, and while a few people sat on the worn mattresses, the rest of us gathered on the benches that were nailed to the walls. And began to tell us his story. For the first time that day the acoustics were good. And no one was talking. And it all made his story seem real powerful.

He told us that it started when he was fifteen, or fourteen, or some age at which men should be worried about the aftershave they should buy or the girl they want to impress. Instead, though, he was living in the midst of political misery and the emerging dissidence that was seeking a way out. Their way, of violence or non-violence depending on the individual, landed him two years later in jail for the rest of his foreseeable days. He was sixteen, and saw no future. Although the details to his story were hazy, as he and we all must have wanted it to be, the outline was clear: dissidence for good cause, questionable means, unjust incarceration.

When he stopped speaking, it got kind of uncomfortable, because no one knew what to say. Someone coughed, because someone always coughs, and I looked at a teenage boy peering over the ledge to see the garden beyond. Finally, an African American woman from I don't remember which US state raised her hand and asked him a simple question: How do you – and she reiterated – all you South Africans – how do you forgive? How can you possibly forgive what happened here?

The guide looked at her thoughtfully and nodded his head in a way that indicated that he had heard the question before, and that it was a question that many were confused by. He knew the answer, of course, because he had to find this answer years before he ever came to give tours in the jail he used to be incarcerated in, and he told her. It was a simple phrase, and I wrote it down immediately: “For us to pursue revenge would destroy us.”

When we took the ferry back to Capetown that day, Lara and I watched a man sitting toward the back of the boat, who(m) we recognized as one of the guides. His shoes seemed different, and his way of looking out at the water, and he was alone. And although none of these things individually would add up to him being a ex-prisoner/guide and not a tourist, all together we knew that he was. After she watched him for awhile, Lara realized that he seemed to be the only person on the ferry not looking back at Robben Island as we floated away. And she told me that, and I thought it meant something.

That night in Capetown, the tour guides at Robben Island clouded our minds, and we talked at length about the ways that individuals can overcome such atrocities. The sheer enormity of the healing was (and is) incredible, and we marveled that two decades ago the man in that prison could never have dreamed that he would one day be called on to lead tourists from all over the world through the cell of his unfortunate life. And we talked a lot about why the guide on the ferry wasn’t looking back, and what that meant.

In the year and a half that has followed since that time, I have tried to write about the experience, and have sent Lara sometimes strange emails out of the blue to ask her if she has an answer yet. If she has figured out yet why he wasn’t looking back. Because he was going to see the island in the morning? Because he sees it everyday? Because it is in his dreams? Because he is trying to forget?

Today, on September 11, 2006, a day full of questions about forgiveness and hurt, Lara says she still isn’t sure why the man wasn’t looking back. And neither am I. But I think that maybe it has to do with him trying to forget. In the good way. And trying to forgive a little more each day. At least I hope it is something meaningful like this, and that it is something we can learn from.

P.S. For anachronistic Positive! War! related things, look at this great effort, Love Bomb, for a solider in Iraq. Or, send positive energy to our friend, Jodi, who is single momming it while her husband is in Iraq. If you have something inspiring, stupid, or funny to say to Jodi, write us at or comment on this post. There must be online support communities/ blogs for the single parents stuck in this horrid position, and we'd like to find them. Otherwise *someone* should start one. Because *someone* is funny as hell. And TrippingOnWords is bored as usual and can offer extensive HTML skills. Good causes, people.


Beth Danae said...

Liked the post.. Honestly feel speechless in terms of describing my thoughts on it, was 'grabbing', and of course well said.

I love living outside the US mainly because it feels so nice to throw off the ignorant life that so easily becomes the norm there.

It seems the average American is fairly well taken care of and yet relatively we seem to know so little about the rest of the worlds troubles such as in South Africa or Vietnam. It's tragic.

And yet here in Asia, you can't get away with not knowing your neighbors, and aren't we all neighbors in this world which is growing smaller by the day...

Here's to forgiveness and all things that lead to a more connected, healthier temporary home for us all... And to leaving mini-essays as comments...

Doug said...

Funny you should write about forgiveness and Robben Island. I not too long ago posted about a talk I had gone to by Lionel Davis, a man imprisoned on Robben ISland with Nelson Mandela for seven years, and one of the tour guides you mentioned. What an amazing story he had to share, one on equality and forgiveness for wrongs done in the past....two highlights for me were when someone asked him what he would say to the warden of the prison if he saw him today, to which he replied they were in fact neighbours, and they worked together giving tours. Secondly, the school holding the talk accidentally played the old Apartheid anthem, to which he just have that sort of forgiveness in ones eart is an amazing and desirable trait....excellent post

Seismic_Pirate said...

Wonderful Post-very thoughtful.

Thanks for mentioning Danny's LOVEBOMB project, too!

Also, if anyone's looking for sites for military spouses, start with Victoria, first.

I found her by jumping links, starting from LL, who has TONS of military links.

Again, great post today!!

sarah mac said...

beautiful post. thank you for sharing the guide's response to the question of forgiveness. i wish some of the US' policy-makers were reading and taking note.

Faith said...

One of the reasons I enjoy your blog--the whole month or so that I've been reading--is that I appreciate someone cataloging the rhythm of life. Some days you wax eloquent on forgiveness, and others you bemoan the small inconveniences.

Thank you for letting us get a glimpse into your thoughts, even when they're personal and a reflection of what you've been wrestling to come to terms with recently.

Mari said...

Wonderful post. I have many meaningful thoughts/reactions but at an anonymous friend's request, will post a light-hearted comment:

have you seen the sex and the city episode "Can you really forgive if you can't forget?" here is the run down of the unsatisfying episode as it attempts to tackle the question:
"Carrie and Aidan are interrupted in bed by the voice of Big on Carrie's answering machine. Though Aidan says nothing, Carrie fears that he'll never be able to forgive her for her affair with Big. She wonders if you can ever really forgive if you can't forget. Carrie works hard to show Aidan that she's a great girlfriend, but he seems distant and angry...
Meanwhile, Carrie finds Aidan at his bar flirting with the waitress and practically ignoring Carrie. Carrie realizes she's being punished for her big mistake. She offers to walk Aidan's dog while he works and again finds him hanging out with the sexy waitress. She angrily goes home. Aidan shows up and says he's pissed and wants Carrie to remove Big from her life. She says she can't do that and pleads that Aidan has to forgive her. He surrenders his anger and takes her in his arms."

that last sentence is priceless. if only life were as easy as an hbo script...

also, speaking of forgiving/forgetting, here is an entertaining quote from the episode:
"I got to thinking about relationships and partial lobotomies. Two seemingly different ideas that might just be perfect together - like chocolate and peanut butter." - Carrie

Lana said...

claire you're both an amazing writer and an amazing person. great post. i love you.

lara, you too.

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