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The nature of forgiveness

Francis Coleman

This essay is another in a series that I'm writing for a book about my journey toward faith. The book will be called "Science and Religion in Harmony — A Credible Framework.” Today, I would like to discuss the nature of forgiveness.

Social scientists tell us that forgiveness is a deliberate decision to let go of feelings of anger, resentment or vengeance toward someone who has hurt you.

The highest form of forgiveness is exoneration, for hurt that was caused knowingly but has been atoned for. The relationship continues and the slate is wiped clean.

Social scientists also tell us that failing to forgive — to let go of the hurtful past — harms us more than it harms those who have wronged us, because we allow them space in our mind "rent-free" to store their toxins.

In 1936, Agnes Leakey was bridesmaid at my parents' wedding in Copenhagen, Denmark. Agnes was from Kenya. Her father was Gray Leakey, a cousin of anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who discovered the oldest known human skull.

In 1948, shortly after World War II, Gray Leakey invited my family to leave England for Kenya so that my father could manage the Leakey coffee farm. My parents eventually declined the offer and we emigrated to America instead.

In 1952, the bloody Mau Mau Uprising began in Kenya, lasting until 1960.

In 1954, the Leakey coffee farm where we would have lived was wiped out. Agnes Leakey's father was buried alive.

In 1957, Jane Goodall traveled from England to Kenya and met with Dr. Leakey, who was looking for someone to study wild chimpanzees, hoping to shed light on the behavior of a shared Stone Age ancestor.

By 1960, Dr. Leakey had raised the necessary funds for Jane Goodall to launch her studies of wild chimpanzees. He also arranged for her to pursue a doctorate in ethology at Cambridge University, without a bachelor's degree.

In 1974, Agnes and her husband were dining with a colleague from Kenya. He told them that he had been on the Mau Mau committee in 1954 that selected her father as a human sacrifice, to propitiate the gods because he was a good man. Stunned, she asked him to repeat himself.

"Thank God we have both learned the secret of forgiveness," she said softly.

How could Jane Goodall, in 1960, at the age of 26 and often alone in the jungle, conduct her scientific study of wild chimpanzees so soon after the long, bloody Mau Mau struggle?

I believe the answer lay in forgiveness between the warring factions in Kenya. They put aside their grievances, atoned, forgave and were exonerated.

Similarly, in 1995, South Africa formed a truth and reconciliation commission as a call for truth, forgiveness and amnesty for the apartheid years.

Grieving that is nurtured leads to sickened individuals and blighted societies. Grieving can be overcome through forgiveness. Science and religion teach us this.

The nature of forgiveness is compelling.

Francis Coleman is a Bloomfield resident.