In 1994, Rwanda experienced a bloody genocide, resulting in over 800,000 brutal murders, including about 300,000 children with another 100,000 losing their parents. The killers who were caught were eventually imprisoned for their crimes. While in prison, some participated in programs that helped them own their atrocities and develop empathy for the victims and their families.
Simultaneously, survivors of the atrocities, many of whom had watched friends and family members murdered by machete, were grieving their losses and coming to terms with what they had seen and experienced. After much internal wrestling, some were able to forgive their killers. Amazing.
In 2003, when the offenders began to be released from prison, an even more amazing initiative developed: A program to bring the two sides together in a process of reconciliation. Seriously? Who in their right mind would associate in any way with someone who had murdered their love ones?
Forgiveness is hard enough, but it only takes one, and individuals can eventually let go of the anger, hurt pain, and disillusionment, while still remembering what happened. But reconciliation takes two, and you can never be sure if the other party has sincere motives.
Believe it or not, some victims and perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide were genuinely invested in healing the breach of trust. The perpetrators had to own their harm and live with the remorse and regret of their actions. The victims had to grieve the losses and come to terms with the humanity of their victimizers, so that they could forgive them and open their hearts to the terrifying possibility of reconciliation. And yet, if Rwanda is any example, this is precisely what we’re able to do as human beings. In my view, it represents our highest capacity.
The bridge that crosses this divide? Empathy. Mutual empathy.
You would think that the battle of the sexes is small potatoes compared to genocide, so could we not learn from the example of those Rwandans who have been able to transcend the natural survival instincts of our species to relate to each other on a whole new level? Can empathy help us appreciate the human struggles of both male and female as our species and society has evolved? Can we listen to one another deeply enough to feel for the pain that the other has born, so that we can bury the hatchet in this ancient conflict of the sexes? If they can pull off such a divine feat in Rwanda, can we not do this in the West between men and women? Yeah, maybe I’m dreaming.
I have longed for, and pursued, this kind of healing in my own family, and it hasn’t happened. There are still family secrets that we can’t discuss openly, honestly, humbly, and the wounds remain tender and sore. What a shame. What a waste of the short time we have on this planet.
Here on this earth, men and women—people—have their own contributions to make. Is there a way that we can support, encourage and appreciate whatever that may be, without wrangling over the sex of the person making a particular contribution? Is there a way to reconcile the relationship between men and women? Can both come to the table with an open heart and mind for the further development of our species? Can we find a way to transcend our basic emotional reactivity to one another? Can we do better?
[Check out how they’re doing it in Rwanda in As We Forgive, by Catherine Claire Larson. The most powerful book I’ve ever read on forgiveness and reconciliation. Amazing stories of incredible people. We could learn from them.]