“Forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear…”   Nelson Mandela

The word I’ve chosen in relation to Freedom to Speak Up is Forgiveness.

Nelson Mandela, who walked the ‘Long Road to Freedom’, has much to teach us about forgiveness, which is timely given we are in Black History and Speak Up month.

The true power, strength and courage of Mandela was laid bare in his words: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Remarkable given all Mandela went through for speaking up.

I didn’t fare well in 2011, when I spoke up about Continuing Healthcare commissioning arrangements; the detriment continues, and it cost me dearly.

Many would argue I have just reason to feel aggrieved over what happened and what ‘the system’ put me through. But I need to forgive. Not because time is a healer, or the issues are in the past and no longer relevant – they aren’t and will be with us all for years to come – but because I can’t carry it anymore. As Jonathan Lockwood Huie said: “Forgive others, not because they deserve it but because you deserve peace”.

Forgiveness is a deeply personal process that can take time and be uncomfortable as hurt may resurface when least expected. If I forgive, where does it leave me? Does it negate my story? Or mean it never happened? Maybe the files were in order after all? The patients weren’t lost in the system? No (I still hold the original documents), it simply means I choose to forgive and find peace in a system that doesn’t always get it right or know itself. A human system that makes mistakes and can lose sight at times of doing the ‘right thing’ or the people caught up in processes. The ‘alleged perpetrator’ can be hurting as well as the ‘victim’. It is what we do about mistakes and the people hurting that makes the difference.

Some will be horrified at the thought of forgiving ‘those’ who caused me and others so much pain, but perhaps we need to look again at who ‘those’ were/are. ‘They’, along with ‘those’, were colleagues caught in a system that enabled ‘them’ to do whatever ‘they’ did/do. When we think or talk in terms of ‘They’, ‘Them’ or ‘Those’, we separate ourselves and create distance. It’s understandable and self-protecting but rarely useful. Instead of focusing on difference and what separates us, we need to explore the space that unites and fosters dialogue to occur.

The Freedom to Speak Up (FTSU) Guardian role wasn’t around when I tried to speak up (2011) but I’d like to think it would have been a very different story if it had. In January 2018, I gained an entry point back to work when Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust appointed me as their FTSU Guardian. Mersey Care, having been through its own ‘road to Damascus’, wanted to foster a culture of restorative practice, conversations, learning and resolution when things don’t go as expected. Mersey Care’s Just & Learning culture and the role of FTSU continue to develop as we learn more about just what it takes to cultivate restorative practice. A common misunderstanding is wanting ‘justice’ – avenging an eye for an eye – instead of ‘justness’: restoring balance. To restore balance we need to be open and learn from events and address the needs of the person hurt and/or learning and figure out how to be better in the future.

More work and thinking around this is needed (I’m limited by word count here) as I think ‘Forgiveness’ bridges and creates space for dialogue. An apology letter is often deemed the end of a matter, but maybe the gift of forgiveness is the start and seed of so much more. Mandela said, “Reconciliation does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict, but … working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.” We have to accept that sometimes people can never forgive, so forgiveness cannot be achieved. Without forgiveness and the associated healing, the ability to trust is continually limited and without trust we cannot move forward – individually or collectively. Forgiveness is a choice and a freedom. Having the Freedom to Speak Up is important for all workers and from personal experience, I’m especially relieved to see Primary Care is now part of the FTSU network.

PS: For the record and benefit of those who know I’m not the epitome of Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela – I hope we are united in our aim for Freedom to Speak Up, learning to forgive ourselves and others as we walk our own and each others Long Road to Freedom.