I attended the premiere of the fantastic film Invictus last week and it made me think about my interview with Linda Biehl. She talked a lot about Nelson Mandela and her experience with him and the example he has been in her life and in South Africa. The film was special for me because it shows what Mandela was like as a person and the concepts of reconciliation and change can be experienced in a personal and real way through this story, rather than just rhetorically. (Apparently Morgan Freeman nailed Mandela’s personality and mannerisms and is getting rave reviews on all fronts about his portrayal.)
I read about Linda Biehl in an article that was an interview with Desmond Tutu in the July 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, surprisingly (for me at least) by Brad Pitt. (I didn’t know he wrote, too – what on earth does that guy not do?)
(A little background: Tutu and Nelson Mandela came up with the concept of “restorative justice” with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa in order to enable their country to heal and come to terms with its past of violence and human rights abuses that occurred during the apartheid system and anti-apartheid struggle. The TRC investigated the violations that took place between 1960 and 1994 to provide support and reparation to victims and their families, and to compile a full and objective record of the effects of apartheid on South African society. Perpetrators of any politically-motivated acts – including violations or abuse – could apply for amnesty from the TRC in return for providing a full account of their actions.)
In this Vanity Fair article, Tutu discusses ubuntu, which he says is, “the essence of being human…You can’t be human in isolation. You are human only in relationships. We are interconnected.” He goes on to say, “The greatest good in the concept of ubuntu is communal harmony. Anger, revenge are subversive of this great good.” As an example, he tells the story of Amy Biehl and her parents and what they have done with the Amy Biehl Foundation and how they not only asked for their daughter’s killers’ amnesty, but they then employed and have relationships with two of them. (Amy Biehl was killed during an uprising during the apartheid struggles while in South Africa as a Fulbright scholar studying and working for peace and with the poor.)
I was completely blown away and stunned by this story of true forgiveness and reconciliation. I honestly don’t believe that most people practice this. You hear about it all the time, but people don’t practice what they preach when things really get bad. This is as bad as it could get – their daughter was killed by teenagers caught up in the struggle and violence of apartheid – but the Biehls forgave them when they asked for forgiveness and not only forgave them but fought for their amnesty so they wouldn’t be in jail forever (they served 4 years) and now the foundation employs and works with 2 of them, promoting reconciliation, change, barriers against violence, forgiveness and negotiation.
If we could all truly forgive like this, what kind of world would this be? What is possible for us? If the Biehl’s can do it, we all have the capability to do it. In fact, when I read the article, I happened to be going through a lot of hurt and anger and was having a hard time forgiving someone who had hurt me deeply. After reading about the Biehls, I just thought, “Linda and Peter Biehl can forgive their daughter’s killers and I can’t forgive so-and-so? Oh yes, I can.” And it helped me eventually forgive this person and understand and experience more fully that forgiving is really for the person doing the forgiving, not the other way around. Their story helps me all the time to know it’s possible to truly forgive and let go – it may take me a while, but I know it is possible. Linda and Peter Biehl took something so awful and turned it into a positive for themselves and the world – and they did it by practicing true forgiveness and reconciliation.
In July of 2007, the seeds of the concept of Epiphany were being planted, and Linda was one of the very first people I put on my list to interview. Once the project had outside interest and was developing, she was the first person I contacted that I didn’t know. After looking up the foundation online, I cold-called her and was thrilled when she got back to me. We never met but conducted her interview on the phone almost a year to the day after I read the article about her. Linda Biehl is one of my heroes. www.myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp?hero=a_biehl
Here is an excerpt from her interview with me:
“One of the greatest realizations for me that has come out my situation and work with the Foundation and South Africa is my experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Forgiveness is extremely important, of course, and is the first step toward true peace and healing, but it’s with reconciliation – actively restoring peace and harmony – that I think you can make the biggest difference. I’ve realized that what is needed is deeper and more involved than just forgiveness – reconciliation and negotiation are necessary. We need to focus on learning from our mistakes, and we need to work on trust and respect and listening. Nelson Mandela is a great example of this. He is one of our greatest world leaders because he realized that it wouldn’t serve his people or country to stay angry or demand revenge. He personifies forgiveness, reconciliation and negotiation and is, at the same time, a very strong leader and man. We speak to a lot of kids and this is wonderful for them to have leaders they can look at and respect and then find their own way with the information and knowledge we try to give them. We’ve taken this reconciliation concept outside of just South Africa. I speak all over the U.S. and in many different countries now – many times with and have a very busy speaking schedule, and I don’t promote at all. People seem to be hungry for this everywhere.
My life’s process is that I want to be always learning, always growing until I leave here. I turned sixty-six in April and some of my friends at my high school reunion were just sort of retiring from life. That’s not for me. I’m always challenging myself step-by-step, learning as I go and being open to the process. It’s been really gratifying for me to work with kids and work with people like Nelson Mandela. I’d like to leave something behind to help the world move forward rather than backward. Victims Against the Death Penalty wanted me to join them, and I won’t join because of the word ‘victim.’ I’ve never felt like a victim. I never want to be a victim. I like this project you’re doing because it’s about people telling their stories – it’s similar to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is in that it’s based upon the stories – allowing people to tell their stories. We learn from each other this way. We’re never really going to have all the answers… and maybe that’s what this is all about anyway – maybe we’re always on this journey of learning and growing and striving to understand each other and the world around us. I think that’s the exciting thing about being human beings. You’ll find traits that are similar and traits that are novelties that don’t fit anywhere. If we can just work together a little more and strive for our best in behavior and thinking, as opposed to behaving and thinking to our lower common denominator, things will hopefully get better.”
“We’re never really going to have all the answers… and maybe that’s what this is all about anyway – we’re always on this journey of learning and growing and striving to understand each other and the world around us. I think that’s the exciting thing about being human beings.”
– Linda Biehl
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley
According to the film, Invictus is the poem that helped Mandela while he was in prison for almost 30 years.
Invictus is perfect holiday movie-going fare…(esp. when doing the whole double feature afternoon thing that you know you do sometimes…)