One of the greatest challenges of leading an empathetic life is trying to step into the shoes of people who we consider to be ‘enemies’ or whose views and values are very different from our own. If you’re on the receiving end of a racist comment from someone at the pub or a torrent of unfair verbal abuse from your boss, the idea of trying to empathise with them would probably be the last thing on your mind. If you came face to face with the person who had recently burgled your house, could you overcome your anger to see the crime from their perspective, and understand the circumstances that may have driven them to it?
Empathising in such instances might seem like wishful thinking. But consider the case of Jo Berry. In 1984 her father, Conservative MP Sir Anthony Berry, was killed by an IRA bomb at the Party Conference in Brighton. In 1999, one of the IRA members responsible, Pat Magee, was released from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Jo’s response was a desire to meet him. She felt that trying to create a relationship with the man who had murdered her father was the best way of overcoming her anguish and anger. Since then they have met over fifty times, gradually – and often painstakingly – developing an understanding of one another’s perspectives on the bombing. Twenty-five years after the event, Jo has now launched a charity, Building Bridges for Peace, which aims to use dialogue and non-violence to promote peaceful resolutions to violent conflicts.
Jo is often asked whether she forgives Pat. Her answer is that forgiveness is not the right word or concept. What really matters, she says, is empathy. She has come to empathise with her father’s killer: ‘I’ve realised that no matter which side of the conflict you’re on, had we all lived each other’s lives, we could all have done what the other did.’
Their unlikely and remarkable friendship reveals that empathy is not only possible in the most extreme circumstances, but that it can transform individual lives and is a route towards social change. Below they tell their story in the own words. First in an interview broadcast on the BBC World Service, and then in a profile for The Forgiveness Project. If Jo Berry can find a way to empathise with Pat Magee, couldn’t we all discover new possibilities for empathy in our lives?
An inner shift is required to hear the story of the enemy. For me the question is always about whether I can let go of my need to blame, and open my heart enough to hear Pat’s story and understand his motivations. The truth is that sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t. It’s a journey and it’s a choice, which means it’s not all sorted and put away in a box.
It felt as if a part of me died in that bomb. I was totally out of my depth but somehow I held on to a small hope that something positive would come out of the trauma. So I went to Ireland and listened to the stories of many remarkable and courageous people who’d been caught up in the violence. For the first time I felt that my pain was being heard.
In those early years I probably used the word ‘forgiveness’ too liberally – I didn’t really understand it. When I used the word on television, I was shocked to receive a death threat from a man who said I had betrayed both my father and my country.
Now I don’t talk about forgiveness. To say “I forgive you” is almost condescending – it locks you into an ‘us and them’ scenario keeping me right and you wrong. That attitude won’t change anything. But I can experience empathy, and in that moment there is no judgement. Sometimes when I’ve met with Pat, I’ve had such a clear understanding of his life that there’s nothing to forgive.
I wanted to meet Pat to put a face to the enemy, and see him as a real human being. At our first meeting I was terrified, but I wanted to acknowledge the courage it had taken him to meet me. We talked with an extraordinary intensity. I shared a lot about my father, while Pat told me some of his story.
Over the past two and a half years of getting to know Pat, I feel I’ve been recovering some of the humanity I lost when that bomb went off. Pat is also on a journey to recover his humanity. I know that he sometimes finds it hard to live with the knowledge that he cares for the daughter of someone he killed through his terrorist actions.
Perhaps more than anything I’ve realised that no matter which side of the conflict you’re on, had we all lived each others lives, we could all have done what the other did. In other words, had I come from a Republican background, I could easily have made the same choices Pat made.
Some day I may be able to forgive myself. Although I still stand by my actions, I will always carry the burden that I harmed other human beings. But I’m not seeking forgiveness. If Jo could just understand why someone like me could get involved in the armed struggle then something has been achieved. The point is that Jo set out with that intent in mind – she wanted to know why.
I decided to meet Jo because, apart from addressing a personal obligation, I felt obligated as a Republican to explain what led someone like me to participate in the action. I told her that I’d got involved in the armed struggle at the age of 19, after witnessing how a small nationalist community were being mistreated by the British. Those people had to respond. For 28 years I was active in the Republican Movement. Even in jail I was still a volunteer.
Between Jo and I, the big issue is the use of violence. I can’t claim to have renounced violence, though I don’t believe I’m a violent person and have spoken out against it. I am 100% in favour of the peace process, but I am not a pacifist and I could never say to future generations, anywhere in the world, who felt themselves oppressed, “Take it, just lie down and take it.”
Jo told me that her daughter had said after one of our meetings, “Does that mean that Grandad Tony can come back now?” It stuck with me, because of course nothing has fundamentally changed. No matter what we can achieve as two human beings meeting after a terrible event, the loss remains and forgiveness can’t embrace that loss. The hope lies in the fact that we are prepared to carry on. The dialogue has continued.
It’s rare to meet someone as gracious and open as Jo. She’s come a long way in her journey to understanding; in fact, she’s come more than half way to meet me. That’s a very humbling experience.