Re-reading a book at a different time in one’s life is always a new experience. A couple of weeks ago I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina again and quickly became engrossed in the story and the characters. As a novel, I had wanted to re-read it for lots of personal reasons but I didn’t think of it as having any relation to my work. Re-reading it however I was struck by a powerful depiction of the human capacity for forgiveness.
Alexis, Anna’s betrayed and humiliated husband, is making his way home to St Petersburg from Moscow, summoned by Anna who is in labour with her lover’s child. Vronsky, her lover is attending the birth. During the journey Alexis feels hatred for his wife and finds himself wishing her death. Once in the presence of the lovers however, and witnessing their despair, he is suddenly overwhelmed by emotion and is flooded with forgiveness for them both.
Human forgiveness, where it comes from, and what makes it possible, is something of a mystery – it cannot be forced and isn’t ruled by logic or rationality. My experience tells me it comes from the deepest internal place and at essence is paradoxical – where vengeance and blame would be perfectly understandable, forgiveness suddenly wells up and along with it the release of compassion and something akin to joy. As close as it gets to miraculous.
I have occasions to witness this first hand in the restorative justice and mediation work I do and it never ceases to move me. It is one of the privileges and rewards of working in this field.
And finally, reading this remarkable book again I am reminded why fiction has always been so central to my life, and of the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “fiction reveals truth that reality obscures “. Yes, we read fiction to understand life.