An interview with Mary Noble
by Marion Verweij, the Netherlands

Forgiveness is a word we use often but rarely do we stop and dwell upon the depth of healing and updating, of liberation and connection that true forgiveness can cause. Whilst conducting seminars on gender relations Mary Noble found herself dwelling increasingly on this vital quality, and incorporating her work into the seminars. In this interview she talks about the process she continues to have with something she has come to see as vital for the future of the human race.

Question: What started your interest in the whole area of forgiveness?

For all people it’s an issue that you meet very early on in life, first with siblings, parents, and so on. This can be different for each individual but whatever one’s personal experience forgiveness has its need.

However, I would say that I only really became acutely aware of it in my 20’s and 30’s when I came across issues that you can’t easily walk away from such as betrayal, the breaking of loyalty etc. For example a long term relationship breaks up or someone betrays you or lets you down. As you go through life, building more serious and long term relationships, so things have more of an impact on you. Hurt in relationships can cause much bigger ripples.

In my own case the most vivid first memory of needing to find forgiveness was after the break up of my first marriage. I was presented with a stark choice: was I going to hold on to anger and pain and bitterness, or was I going to let go? Holding onto those things was poisoning my life and that was not how I wanted my life to be. I think that there is a moment that comes with that realisation; it’s like a state of grace. You have to summon it at times, but there comes a point when in its presence you suddenly feel free of something, and in that freedom you return to yourself and the true line of your own journey. Forgiveness means you’re no longer held prisoner to the problems between you and other people or other groups of people.

That’s where awareness of forgiveness as a conscious development issue began for me, and I realised how important it is as one gets older not to live a life of increasing hostility and bitterness that simmers just below the surface. I think then my interest in forgiveness developed in looking at it in much broader terms. In looking at it in terms of how to heal the enormous pain the human race continues to cause, whether gender to gender, human to human, nation to nation, ethnic group to ethnic group or religion to religion and in all ways in which we have found to inflict pain and terror on others.

Question: Why do you think forgiveness is so important in this world today?

I was always struck by the strand of humanity you find in religious beliefs, and in certain spiritual values a person can come to in their life, where it doesn’t make sense to continue down the road of vengeance. If I had a choice to eradicate something it would be the wish for vengeance and retaliation to disappear. This is something that in small and large has resulted in mass genocide at one end of the scale, and perpetual bloodshed and feuding between small tribes, families etc. at the other end. There is something about forgiveness that offers a way for human life, if it could only reach for that place, a place that could allow them to become assembled in such a way that the power and reason for forgiveness would be more powerful than the need for revenge.

It does of course become a very complex issue when you’re dealing with forgiveness at the level of nations and political forgiveness. I’ve been reading about the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa and the place of forgiveness. How do you help a whole nation to move from apartheid to democracy? How do you ensure that it does not end up in a bloodbath? How do you allow the victims to feel that justice has been done? And at the same time how do you free that whole circumstance from a continuing cycle of revenge and denial and more revenge?

I see that as a human race we have to evolve beyond our current ways of behaving and thinking about each other if we are to survive as a species. It’s almost as if without forgiveness we’ve lost the essential tool for being able to clean ourselves up as human beings and as nations. The rapidly growing level of distrust, hate and bitterness at a global level, evident in the increase of terrorism is putting us at great risk. If we don’t as a human race start addressing the act of forgiveness at a very deep level we’re in great trouble.

Question: Why do you see it to be so fundamental to gender relations?

Sometimes when you look at the two genders it’s almost as if they come from different universes and there can be a lot of conflict that can come from simply being different, approaching life differently, and having different emotional reactions. This can inadvertently cause pain, wounding, misunderstanding and hostility.

I see forgiveness to be like a neutral zone where both genders can step out of their own identity and meet in a neutral place where they both accept that life is not perfect, that we are not perfect, but that there is something so extraordinary and profound that can be reached in the humanity and the sharing and the warmth between the two genders, and that there is an extraordinary grace that can turn up in that process. Quite simply we need to reach for forgiveness on a constant basis. We need to exercise it, we need to practice it, we can’t just expect it to be there. It truly is one of the most magnificent gifts of creation that we can employ to further the work of humanity.

Question: You have started doing seminars on the subject, what sort of responses do you get?

One of the keys to any kind of forgiveness, but particularly between the genders, is to develop understanding. The more we can understand about how the other gender thinks and feels, then the easier the forgiveness comes when they don’t appear to match up to our view of how human beings should behave.

Sometimes women will say to me ‘why can’t my partner be more like my girl friends?’ i.e. empathetic, sensitive, listening. And whilst yes there are degrees of sensitivity we can develop in both genders and there are many sensitive and empathetic men, my view about that now is why should we expect men to be exactly like us? Because in some ways a man is designed for different things, and therefore there needs to be the understanding that his ways and his preoccupations, or his demonstration of his love may appear odd or strange or be expressed differently. But without them half the job of what’s needed from the human race by creation would not get done.

I have found in my seminars that another key to forgiveness is understanding the role of self-forgiveness, because it’s very rare in a relationship where there are problems that it can all be put down to one party rather than the other. There is virtually always some complicity even if it’s acquiescence by the victim to be the victim.

So part of the role of forgiveness and self-forgiveness is understanding that it is human to make mistakes, and that there are things that we simply cannot understand before we’re old enough to be ready for that knowledge. So the whole process of growing up and going through different ages is one of gradually become more competent and more able to truly be what a human being can be. The problem is, if we can’t forgive ourselves for what we once did, what we once were along the way, but are no longer today, we cause ourselves a lot of pain and we arrest ourselves, and we cut ourselves off from that grace. One way to find self-forgiveness is to focus every day on who we are now, who we want to be, what we are working for, and that way we start to feel connected again to the grace of our existence. It actually is never far away, but we can block it out with our guilt and shame.

I sometimes find myself calling forgiveness, God’s amnesty. Because I do believe where God and Creation are concerned, they want us as humans to move on and improve, to learn better ways, to learn from our mistakes and learn how to be more decent human beings. And there’s a great love that comes from God and Creation to the human race that if we are prepared to learn from our mistakes will grant us that amnesty.  The question is can we grant it to ourselves and can we grant it to each other as God’s agents?

Question: What place do you think forgiveness has in the future?

For me, the simple answer, to quote the title of Desmond Tutu’s book, is: ‘No future without forgiveness.’  That sums it up. I think as a human race we’ve got to grow up.

Finding forgiveness: our future depends on it