Yesterday I went to see the new film The Railway Man based on the story of Eric Lomax as told in his book of the same name, and starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. The film differs in a number of significant details from the book – not least in changing aspects of the way Lomax and Nagase re-encountered each other, and leaving out any reference to the ‘Medical Foundation’ through which Lomax experienced the empathic listening that was so integral to his healing.
I feel this to be unfortunate as it puts too much emphasis on the role which his wife Patti played. I say this not to underestimate that, but because I retain a concern that when forgiveness stories are told they always become more romantic and heroic in the telling. This is probably inevitable but can have a very demoralising, or guilt-inducing, impact on real people who are living through the aftermath of abuse or any other kind of inflicted suffering.
I wrote about Lomax in my book Healing Agony – Re-Imagining Forgiveness. Despite the differences between the book and the film the most important points that I want to make are still relevant. One of them is that forgiveness is indeed a ‘healing agony’ – it takes time and is not easy.
What follows is an extract from my book.
Lomax did not in any sense intend or achieve forgiveness. It was something that happened because he played his part as a complex and uncertain plot unfolded. He did so with great dignity, integrity and, in the end, generosity and good will. But the point that is vital here is that the plot of this forgiveness story was not driven by the will of the main character. While this is of some importance in the way we read the story, it is of massive importance for the way in which we draw implications and imperatives for other people who are victims of serious harm or violation.
The point is simply this. Whether or not you can forgive is not all down to you. Your role is to play your part in the story that unfolds with honesty, integrity, generosity and courage. Indeed, having read this story I am inclined to conclude that it might be unhelpful to think that there is a virtue called ‘forgivingness’ and that there are some people who have it in while others who do not; even allowing for the nuance of infinitely varying degrees. There are only events and responses and a small number of virtues which might or might not be brought into play depending on a variety of contingencies. This is a forgiveness story, but it might not have been. Forgiveness stories are wonderful but they do not happen simply because a person who is seriously and unjustly harmed let’s go of their resentment or accepts and apology. Forgiveness is something much stranger than that and more vulnerable to matters outside the victim’s control.
Reflecting further on Lomax’s story we see the way in which, although forgiveness was once impossible and unimaginable for him, he was gradually drawn into a situation where it became a realistic and meaningful possibility. But this would not have happened without the healing which was achieved through the care he received from the Medical Foundation or the way in which this led on to a wider interest in things Japanese, which in turn led to coming across Nagase’s book and ultimately meeting him. It is also clear that for some reason Lomax and Nagase were able to form a bond through relating together. Releasing Nagase from the consequences of his evil actions in the past was another distinct step and this was in part, it seems, a response to Nagase’s extensive atoning work.
This is a story with several distinct threads, which, from time to time, connect and tie up. This multithreaded quality is integral to the conclusion that it really can be called a forgiveness story. It is remarkable both because so many of the strands actually existed and because of the combination of care, character and serendipity which between them formed a context or environment in which forgiveness became both desirable and possible. It is indeed a wonderful story. But if we take it as ideal forgiveness story then we risk making life extremely difficult for others, both victims and offenders, who are caught up in stories with fewer of the threads that make forgiveness possible.
 An extensive exploration of the virtue of forgivingness is found in an article by Robert C. Roberts called ‘Forgivingness’ in the American Philosophical Quarterly 32: 289-306