Volume 18 Number 1
Freed From the Dungeon of Hate
01 February 2005

Helena de von Arnim, from Colombia, believed that being abused as a child had condemned her to a lifetime of hate.

TWENTY YEARS ago I was invited to see a film about the life of Irène Laure, a French socialist who suffered during World War II, found the grace to forgive, and worked for post-war reconciliation and reconstruction.

As I sat in the dark room watching the film and accompanying Irène Laure through her interior journey of self discovery, I found myself on a similar journey back to times I had almost forgotten. Each phrase that was said, each silence between the words, each image started to talk to me. What Irène was saying was helping me to discover who I really was. Hate was the main force in my life.

Yes, hate. I still hated my mother, so strongly that I felt frightened by the depth of this feeling. I also hated being a woman. I could see how ugly, dirty and unworthy I felt. I had always been taught that if you forgive but you don’t forget that means you don’t really want to forgive, and since that was my case, I was sure there was nothing I could do. I was condemned to hate forever.

When I was six years old, my torture, nightmare and hate for my mother began. My cousin who was a rough and strong boy, five years older than me, started sexually abusing me. This went on for six years without anyone else being aware of it. Each time he told me: ‘If you dare to say anything, no one is going to believe you. See? I’m older, and I’m a boy, and you’re only a girl.’ By then I had enough experience to know he was right.

I had a difficult relationship with my mother; I was afraid of her and had no confidence in her because of her temper. And I was ashamed to tell my father about what was happening. I felt so small and lonely: I found no one to protect me, or take care of me. I had no one to turn to. I was terrified. I grew up hating everyone and thinking that because of my hatred I was an evil person who deserved everything that happened to me. There was no comfort or guide to follow. Just hate. And the pretence that everything was all right.

Like Irène Laure in the film, I wanted many people banished from the face of the earth. As I watched her struggle, I felt my pride and my wounds still hurting. My hate was still burning with all its fury inside my poor heart.

Then I heard her say those magic words: ‘You cannot forget but you can forgive.’ They were like fresh air and the sun flowing into a dark and humid dungeon after many years of being locked. The light had come into my heart and again I had the chance to have some hope.

I started to cry sweetly and silently. I felt at peace, I felt free. But then the struggle began. Was I really prepared to forgive? If I forgave, would that be like turning the page as if nothing had happened? I wasn’t ready for that.

I saw Irène standing in front of the women in the ruins of Berlin, who were working with their bare hands to feed babies they didn’t want, born as the result of rape by the Allies and the Russians. I heard her asking them for forgiveness for what had been done to them, and it was as if she was also asking for my forgiveness. She said, ‘I will spend the rest of my life working so these things never happen again.’

At that moment I knew I wanted to start anew with the same ideal: a world where everyone will be respected, loved and cared for. I understood that if I shut my heart to just one person, I am in great peril, because that’s the first step to hating again.

It’s been 20 years since then, and I have learned many things: to change the world means I have to start with me, and continue with me, and try again with me. Each time something happens that I don’t like, my first reaction is to hate. I have learned that if I have a list of people who have hurt me, the most probable thing is that I have hurt them too. Forgiving is very important, but asking for forgiveness is more important still.

I have also learned that writing down my thoughts during a time of silence and stillness can give me big surprises. When I did this 20 years ago, names of people appeared in my mind with the clear thought of why I had to ask for their forgiveness. This still happens to me now. It has been a journey of fighting against the enemies inside me, instead of those outside.

There is a new fire burning inside me: love instead of hate. I have discovered that I can love as strongly as I once hated.