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The New York Times Magazine is featuring an article with photographs of Rwandans. Each portrait features “a Hutu who was granted pardon by the Tutsi survivor of his crime.” I think these stories of forgiveness can serve as an example to all of us.

The act of forgiveness may not seem like act that benefits oneself. In fact, when one is so wronged, to forgive sometimes seems like an act of self abnegation, especially in the absence of justice, vengeance or some kind of tipping of the scales closer to even. But really, when you truly forgive, even if it is by degrees, you are getting the fuck over yourself. Getting the fuck over your suffering, your wounds, your losses, your former life, your self. Getting the fuck over the fact that because of someone else, because of no good reason, certain things are, and always will be, hurt or dead to you. Getting the fuck over the obscene contingency of life. Forgiveness is no small task.

“The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.” – Dominique Ndahimana

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Driving today, alone on the road in the dark, navigating the roads of a foreign land, I opened my CD jewel case (yes, I still own some of those things) and found it empty. Annoyed, I turned on the radio which happened to be set on a classical music channel. And to my surprize, the strains of Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque rose from the speakers. I was stricken with a surfeit of something indescribable and tears welled in my eyes. How can it be that my life, so insignificant and random and meaningless to most others, so very small and unrecognized, can still contain so much? When I think of all the people I pass by with their own lives, I ask myself – what have I not seen? What kind of wonder, terror and beauty do they know and hold that I do not know of? How many little surprizes fill their lives to bursting?

From one foreign land to another; in time I will be traveling to two very different nations, but both with a recent history of genocide. How many lives lost that so many know not of? How many tiny hidden everythings were buried in those mass graves?

Sometimes I love and hate my life in equal measure. The older I become, the keener the edge of my finitude. There are days when I feel that I cannot bring myself to do what my heart demands of me and that I was simply not built to have such a brutal, fearless organ.

But it is nice to be surprized.

DALLAIRE PEARSON PEACE MEDAL

Last month, I had a chance to see L.Gen. Roméo Dallaire speak at a fundraiser for his foundation. They screened the film, Shake Hands with the Devil, a documentary (not to be confused with the 2007 drama) about his visit to Rwanda a decade after the genocide. I highly recommend watching this film as L.Gen. Dallaire shares his insights and observations as well as his process in coming to terms with the genocide. (The film also briefly features James Orbinski, whose documentary, Triage, also follows a different man’s path to rebuilding meaning after bearing witness to one of the greatest human atrocities in modern history.)

I have long struggled with the question of why, in extreme situations, some people retain their humanity and make ethical decisions at great personal cost, while the majority do not. I have worried this issue over and over in my mind over the years, turning it over, seeking greater understanding. I was never satisfied with the pat answer “because it was the right thing to do.” Clearly, in situations that are so unambiguous, when human lives are at stake, there is a right thing to do, but that “rightness” is not nearly enough to motivate the majority of people to make the right choices which is why our world looks exactly the way it does today. I asked L.Gen. Dallaire about this during the Q&A. I asked him if he had observed any patterns or factors he’s observed in people who do make the ethical choices.

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Today, I went to hear Dr. James Orbinski speak on a panel about genocide, war and conflict with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish and LGen. The Hon. Roméo Dallaire. One of the questions moderator Carol Off asked was how Dr. Orbinski felt treating the wounded who may have been killers or genocidaires and who could, after healing, continue to perpetuate violence. He answered, and I paraphrase, that he is frequently asked this question and does not feel there was any dilemma present because of the underlying principle of his actions as a physician and humanitarian, which was to treat each patient as a human being first, worthy of aid and common decency. The relationship of physician and patient reaches a fundamental place that is inviolate by politics.

It is only now that I have become aware that I have been living with this incredibly subversive idea and how actions derived from this feeling can be truly revolutionary. To experience in action, that every person, regardless of their past, their actions and their wrongdoings, is still a human being that deserves a certain regard.

Sometimes I wonder if the one-on-one encounter holds the most potential for this subversive idea. Perhaps the dyad is where equality may begin – even in relationships that are traditionally structured around a power differential (e.g., teacher and student). It seems to me that there is something unique about a coupling that cannot occur elsewhere. All context falls away and at least temporarily, you are the whole world of the other and the other becomes your whole world. It is no surprize that a frequent desire for a romantic couple is to get away from it all, to escape context, to try to protect the dyadic connection.

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Every now and then, during meditation, I’ll cry. They aren’t tears of distress, nor of purely parasympathetic arousal (I’ve got supported bridge pose for that!). They represent the meeting of two trains of inquiry I’ve had for awhile regarding ethical behaviour.

A Rwandan genocide survivor at the Gisozi memorial in Kigali looks at pictures of victims of the genocide, in which 800,000 people died. Picture: Reuters

The first train of thought extended from a discussion regarding non-harm and mass consumerism in which the collective conclusion was the inability to avoid harm and focusing on minimizing it. Despite my dissatisfaction at this conclusion, I could not think of another way to approach living in a system of logic that devalues human life and life in general by replacing that value with the exchange value of capitalism. So, my rationality failing me, I relegated this problem to my unconscious to crunch on.

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