In this series, Aspire explores inspiring individuals doing interesting work across the world.
Who: Marina Cantacuzino, Founder and Chief Storyteller of The Forgiveness Project. I have always been a collector and facilitator of stories. I was previously a journalist and my belief in the power of storytelling to connect and give meaning to our lives inspired me to create The Forgiveness Project.
What: In 2004, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, I was determined to seek out what I call restorative narratives to showcase content that acts as a force for good in the world. I curated these stories to form an exhibition called The F Word which portrayed personal narratives from victims of crime and violence who had shown compassion and from perpetrators who’d transformed aggression into a force for peace. The Forgiveness Project is a charity that I founded to be able to share these stories widely. I still collect and curate stories to share on our website, in exhibitions and in publications. I also comment/write on issues that come up in society concerning revenge, resentment, compassion and forgiveness. There is a need to amplify restorative stories as they are a really powerful antidote to the increasingly common narratives of hate, division and insularity. In addition, I spend time responding to people who reach out to us. Sometimes these are people who are struggling with hidden resentments and deep grievances and who have discovered (after a period of anger or silence or despair) that they want to explore a more creative response to pain – often that involves forgiveness.
Where: I work mostly from my computer at a desk, half the time at the office in central London, and half the time in my office at home which doubles up as the spare room. But like just about everyone these days, I work on the hoof — from my phone, and even late into the night from bed when I can’t sleep. I also spend time going out to meet people who express interest in our work; talking at Universities and conferences; and interviewing storytellers who have used a healing process to transform the narration of their offense as hurt feelings into a narration of their offense as an experience of significance.
When: If you’d asked me this 2-3 years ago I would have said 24/7 but I now am much more careful about carving out time for myself. I had to do this because I could feel myself heading towards burn out.
Why: I never planned to form the charity (not-for-profit), The Forgiveness Project. The Iraq War was my driver and I was fueled by the angry language of pay back and tit-for-tat that was spoken by politicians and repeated in the media at that time. As a journalist, I felt a responsibility to go out and collect stories that focused on empathy, compassion and forgiveness to create a kind of counter narrative. When I then turned the stories into an exhibition and that exhibition became hugely popular, I knew that there was a real need to share these stories more widely. I wouldn’t still be working in this field today if it were not for the fact that practically every day in the last 15 years somebody somewhere has reached out to The Forgiveness Project wanting to connect – perhaps to share their story, perhaps to give an insight into our stories, perhaps to show gratitude for having found hope in a world so full of hate, or perhaps simply to ask for more information about the work we do or the concepts and processes of forgiveness we have developed.
How: Forgiveness is a complex subject, much misunderstood and some would say locked in the straitjacket of religion. One of the things I do is try to reframe the conversation about forgiveness. I always describe it as difficult, messy and complicated…but potentially transformative. Then I work out ways of describing this process so that’s meaningful to people. We share our insights through the website, through books, articles and lectures. I also use the trauma healing map. The stories are our fieldwork. Not scientifically selected and yet a body of work from which you can draw conclusions and find evidence. All the many stories collected, curated and shared with The Forgiveness Project demonstrate a process that is mapped out, showing an inner trauma circle that moves towards a natural, instinctive, revenge journey and the outer trauma circle which may follow a journey towards forgiveness and reconciliation (not necessarily towards the person who’s hurt you but with your pain, the harm done).
RESTORE is our prison program that we developed in 2008 which is led by both a victim of crime and an ex-offender. It is a storytelling group-based process that encourages self-reflection and supports prisoners to change the narrative of their lives.
At The Forgiveness Project we have also developed what we call reflective circles whereby people sit in a circle to work things out together. It’s a wonderful process derived from indigenous communities around the world that helps create meaningful and safe conversations between people who might otherwise be polarized and divided.
The Forgiveness Project | Image Courtesy of The Forgiveness Project
Best part about the work: The best part is when people tell you they feel more hopeful as a result of having encountered the work! Most of us are grappling with unresolved issues and it seems that the way we present the stories and the way we work with a story at The Forgiveness Project can really make a difference to how people live their lives. Over the years I’ve witnessed people putting their families/friends into exile because of something they’ve said or done – or haven’t said or done – and it’s always seemed such a brutal response to being hurt. While I’m dead against prescribing forgiveness, I’ve come to believe it’s the oil of personal relationships and it’s wonderful to see that at work.
Worst part about the work: Managing other people’s expectations is tough! People are drawn to The Forgiveness Project because it feels like they’ve found a movement of common values, a place of shared humanity. Many would like to get involved, ask us to go to their community to help build bridges, want to forge partnerships and collaborations. Because we are small with very limited resources, we often have to turn down exciting requests such as these and that’s frustrating.
Advice for others for taking on a cause: Leave time for yourself. Don’t pursue your cause 24/7 as it will leave you spent and looking for a way out. Have good people around you and look after them. We are blessed at The Forgiveness Project to have a small but very loyal team.
Biggest obstacle to the work: The word forgiveness is, strangely enough, possibly the biggest obstacle to this work. In fact, I once thought of rebranding The Forgiveness Project because of the common misunderstandings that people have due to our name. They assume that we are a Christian organization and they assume that we exist to teach people how to forgive. In fact, we are a secular organization sharing stories from all faiths and none and we are a place of inquiry and examination, a resource for people to better understand the processes and concept of forgiveness. In the end I didn’t change the name because actually the topic of forgiveness is a great conversation starter. Everyone has an opinion. It cuts public opinion down the middle like a guillotine – there are those who are inspired by it and those who are affronted. It is also highly contested territory, dividing into two camps – those who believe forgiveness is a contractual relationship between the harmed and the harmer which must be earned and deserved through apology and remorse; and those who believe it is an act of self-healing because forgiving releases you from the burden of hatred.
Vision for the future: To continue developing storytelling techniques that people can use in their own communities and places of work. To keep telling these restorative stories in different ways so that we reach more people, for instance through The Forgiveness Project’s on-line education resource, through podcasts and through The F Word exhibition which has already been to 14 countries and been seen by 70,000 people, but there are many more places to reach.
If I had unlimited time, money or resources, I would: Spend time on something not directly related to my place of work. For over a year now I have been trying to reach The Templeton Foundation to encourage them to embrace gender equality. The Templeton Prize is an annual prize of over £1 million. Massive! It’s for an individual who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. And in 46 years, just three women have won. I have been suggesting ways that The Templeton Prize could garner more female nominees, but all my letters, emails and tweets fall on deaf ears. The most depressing thing of all is that when I tell people about this, they just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘what do you expect?’ If I had unlimited time and resources, I would put together a campaign to educate about gender bias in prestigious prizes. I find it hard to believe that in 2019 women are still so overlooked and that mostly no one much seems to care or think this is a problem for us all.