When Thordis Elva was sixteen, she got to know Tom Stranger. They were performing together in a school play. Tom was an eighteen-year-old Australian exchange student still struggling to get the hang of Iceland’s language and customs.
The two grew close. At school they would meet for lunch to talk and to hold hands. Thordis was in love for the first time. After about a month, they attended the school’s Christmas Ball together. She was thrilled.
At the Ball she drank rum for the first time, got drunk, and grew terribly ill. The security guards offered to get her an ambulance. She refused after Tom volunteered to take her back home.
Tom carried her to her room. He placed her on her bed, took off her clothes, and raped her.
The next day, she was in severe physical pain. Her soul was in torment. She felt shame and betrayal. She blamed herself.
Weeks passed before she could name for herself that Tom had raped her. By that time, he had returned to his native Australia.
For years she lurched through life in silent agony. She carried a pen and a notebook with her wherever she went, just to have something to do with her hands.
One day, sitting in a cafe, she put pen to paper in her usual nervous way. To her astonishment a letter to Tom flowed onto the page. She detailed what he had done to her and how it had devastated her life.
But what shocked her most was the sentence that stared back at her from her journal: “I want to find forgiveness.”
She realized that Tom may not be willing to admit his guilt or to make amends. Nevertheless, she recognized that forgiveness was her path to liberation and peace. And so her long, uneven journey of forgiveness began in earnest.
Jesus talked at length about forgiveness. Once, Peter asked him, “So, look, how often do I have to forgive? Seven times? Will that about cut it?” Imagine the look on Peter’s face when Jesus said, “Make that seventy-times seven.”
Strictly speaking, Jesus wasn’t just telling Peter how many times he had to forgive a repeat offender. He was also telling him—telling us—how forgiveness works.
Forgiveness is a process. It rarely comes as a single, discrete decision. We forgive in response to wounds and betrayals. A part of ourselves has died. A relationship has crumbled. The life we imagined for ourselves lies in ruins.
The grievances and resentments we seek to leave behind resurface from time to time. Maybe they’re triggered by someone’s offhand remark or by an old tune from back in the day. Sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere.
The persistence of our grievances makes sense when we remember that we’re not objective judges deciding whether or not to grant a suspended sentence to an offender. We are shattered people.
Forgiveness is the way in which we participate in the divine love that mends us. And even divine mending takes time. As people in Twelve Step programs might put it, we forgive one day at a time.
On that day in the cafe Thordis decided to find forgiveness for Tom. And that was the start of an eight year process.
Courageously, she began an email correspondence with her attacker. They exchanged deeply honest, painful truth with each other.
And while Thordis could see that she had made significant progress, she also yearned for a closure she had not yet experienced. So, she invited Tom to meet face-to-face for a weeklong conversation.
Tom agreed. They each traveled to Cape Town, South Africa. They chose the site in part because it was a midway point.
But more importantly, no place on this planet has participated more intentionally in a process of public reconciliation than the former home of Apartheid.
In the TED talk she shared with Tom, Thordis said that, as the jet’s wheels touched down, she thought, “Why didn’t I just get a therapist and a bottle of vodka like a normal person?” Forgiveness is a process.
Thordis emerged from their conversations transformed. A survivor. No longer a victim. Her award-winning writing and speaking career focuses on those who have suffered sexual violence. Her aim is to help others bring new life from out of the ruins.*
When Jesus teaches us about forgiveness, I believe that this is precisely what he intends to give us.
*Thordis courageously shared her forgiveness process with us in the book she coauthored with her attacker Tom: South of Forgiveness. Tom also grew in this process, but I have elected to focus on Thordis. All of Tom’s proceeds from this book go to support a women’s shelter in Reykjavik.