On Forgiveness

Drawing by Mandy Assin: Lisa as imagined after retirement

Drawing by Mandy Assin: Lisa as imagined after retirement

” In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank, written 1943, published 1947

“To forgive is not just to be altruistic, it is the best form of self interest.” Archbishop Tutu, 2010

Forgiveness is not only compassionate towards those who have done us harm. It is also good for the person doing the forgiving.  And yet, in our social media driven, accountability-obsessed world, we forget this. We seek to apportion cause, responsibility and blame within moments of the occurrence of an event that seems adverse. And then we look for retribution. Even when the case for responsibility is far from proven.

Take Dame Fiona Woolf. The initial chair of the Independent Panel into Child Sex Abuse was the eminent judge Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss. She stood down because her deceased brother, Lord Havers, had been Attorney General at a point to be covered by the inquiry. Woolf, also an eminent lawyer, was hurriedly named by the Home Secretary as her replacement. It then emerged that another former member of government, Lord Brittain, might come under scrutiny during the enquiry (he since died of cancer). Woolf was open about the fact that he was a neighbour and had been to her house for dinner. A media furore ensued, and she resigned from the chair role at the end of October 2014. As her damehood was being announced in the 2015 New Year Honours List, there were calls for it to be rescinded for no reason other than that she had accepted a difficult public task.

You may not care much about Dame Fiona. She is a powerful figure. And you may not care for the honours system. But what about the nurse Jacintha Saldhana? She fell for a not-very-good hoax call to a private hospital by two Australian DJs pretending to be the Queen enquiring after the welfare of the Duchess of Cambridge during her last pregnancy. The call was played across the international media. Some people thought it hilarious, others immediately criticised inadequate security. Then it transpired that Jacintha was so ashamed, she had taken her own life. Public vitriol at once turned on the young DJs, and there could have been more tragedies.

Human beings are flawed. We all make mistakes, some of which only turn out to have been mistakes with the benefit of hindsight. When things go wrong, people need encouragement and support, so they can learn from their mistakes and improve their practice. They may need help to forgive themselves. Unless they have purposely set out to do wrong and are unrepentant, the last thing they need is public criticism. It is particularly damaging for public servants such as teachers, nurses, doctors and managers to have their motives and competency questioned by those who know little of the events in question and have never been in the position of having to do the skilled, difficult work from which the perceived error arose.

These judgemental unforgiving attitudes to mistakes cause collateral damage. The Independent Panel into Child Sex Abuse seemed unlikely ever to happen, although it is excellent news to be able to edit this post on 5th February 2015 as a third, truly independent chair has been announced. It is much needed so that the survivors can finally be heard. But sadly, since the approbation of social workers and social service departments arising from investigations into the Baby Peter case, social work practice has become measurably more conservative, with more children being taken into care, and a national social work recruitment crisis.

Judging without forgiveness makes the people doing the judging feel angry, dissatisfied and unhappy. As Archbishop Tutu showed through his remarkable leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and in his teachings since through the worldwide Tutu Foundation, there is no future for humans without forgiveness.

The words of Gordon Wilson, speaking on live TV just after he had held the hand of his dying daughter as they lay buried in the rubble of the Enniskillen IRA bombing were “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge”. His calls for forgiveness and reconciliation helped lay the foundations for the eventual peace in Northern Ireland.

Throughout my career, I have tried to be honest when things haven’t gone as well as they might. I have expressed regret and apologised for failings and perceived failings, and listened and learned from people affected. This has led to improvements. But you have to keep listening.

And I have had my share of media criticism (as most chief executives do) including some unpleasant social media. This tends to be more vicious and personal when one is a woman. I began blogging and tweeting myself because I wanted to share more of who I was and what I was thinking with staff, patients and the public, and get their views directly. Although it has been difficult sometimes, I truly believe that leaders of public services do better by being open.

Some people believe that being active online makes you a target. I have thought hard about this, and I don’t accept it. It feels similar to blaming the victims of rape or other assault for putting themselves in harm’s way.

In September 2013, I announced my plans to retire from my chief executive job the following summer. I then took a big decision, to share for the first time a little of my experiences of mental illness which had occurred off and on since the age of 15. A few weeks after the second of these, I experienced a sudden onset of clinical depression, my worst ever episode. When I went back to work at the beginning of 2014, I had compassionate support. But there was also some nasty social media, just this side of legal. It continues today; it has taken a long time to learn not to look at it.

My breakdown wasn’t caused by anything anyone said about me on the internet, and I got better despite it. The causes were far more fundamental than that. It was my time to change, and I am really pleased that I did.

Because I am better now, I am able to let go of my feelings about people who say unkind and untruthful things about me. I forgive them because I imagine they must be dealing with a great deal of pain themselves. I feel lighter and better for this.

If you are online and thinking about posting a comment on someone’s appearance, motives, or actions, or even making something up about them, think about whether you would say that to their face. Not as a member of an anonymous crowd, but if you were sitting down together, as two human beings. And think about why you are reacting to them in the way you are. Jung said that we can be disturbed by those who reflect aspects of ourself we are less comfortable with; is this something you need help with yourself? I know I sometimes do.

And when someone says something unfair or cruel about you, which can happen to any of us, try very hard to see it for what it is, a remark that may say more about the other person than it does about you. By all means listen to see if you can learn from it. They may well have a point, and you can work on this. But please do not let it destroy you.

As Archbishop Tutu says, whatever mistakes any of us has made, we are all made for goodness.


After publishing this blog, I was pointed to a wonderful radio broadcast This American Life on cyber-harassment which is really worth a listen. A leaked internal memo shows that the CE of Twitter knows they have to do better about cyber-bullying on their platform.

And then one of the women featured in the American Life programme, Lindy West, wrote this very powerful piece about confronting someone who had said truly terrible things to her on the internet. The extraordinary results show that we must never give up on forgiveness, however hard this may be.  Even though today is #TimeToTalk day and I may sound like I’ve got my act together, forgiveness is as hard for me as it must be for any of you reading this.

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