Practice Matters

Forgive us our trespasses

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, speaks of Nelson Mandela, he insists Mandela has always been a free man because he was free from any need or desire for revenge. Since his release from prison in 1990, Mandela has given the whole world a demonstration of forgiveness. He has shown that it takes more courage, more stamina, and more humanity to forgive than to say “Let my people go.” And his attitude can be applied by each of us.

The only thing that may be harder than forgiving a transgressor is being that transgressor and accepting the extended hand of forgiveness. To acknowledge you are being forgiven, you have to admit to and acknowledge you have done something that requires forgiveness.

You have to swallow your pride. The pride that keeps us from forgiving another person is the same pride that prevents us from accepting forgiveness.
If forgiveness is so hard, why do it? The power and purpose of giving forgiveness is to release yourself from pain and free yourself to participate in life once again. The power and purpose of accepting forgiveness is to free yourself from self-diminishing guilt, to allow yourself to be your best self so you can participate fully in the human community.

The word “participatory” comes close to defining the highest good in African society. It is the core meaning of the word ubuntu and is enshrined in the Xhosa proverb, “A person is a person through persons.” Ubun­tu affirms the organic wholeness of humanity: that one realizes one’s full potential only through other people. “I think, therefore I am” is replaced by “I participate, therefore I am.” Life together is the quintessence of an African understanding of what it means to be human:

Mandela was participating. Ubuntu.

A person becomes a person through persons. Ubuntu.


On an individual basis, I think we understand the power and purpose of forgiveness pretty well. But on an institutional basis, the power of forgiveness usually is buried in professional and organizational practices designed to protect ourselves—which is why it’s so refreshing to find an exception. In a Boston hospital’s delivery unit, a series of small mistakes compounded by everyday stressors, personality conflicts, and harried schedules resulted in a neonate’s death and serious harm to the mother. Benjamin Sachs should be commended for his frank discussion, in the August 17, 2005 issue of JAMA, of the mistakes he and his colleagues made in this case, the costs to everyone involved, and the hospital’s generative approach to improvement. But what makes his article extraordinary is its focus on offering an apology. In doing so, the healthcare professionals sought forgiveness which, in turn, enabled everyone to participate in the ensuing investigation.

The Joint Commission requires healthcare workers to apologize for errors they make in their care, and an increasing body of medical malpractice literature indicates that frank disclosure helps avoid malpractice lawsuits. But apologizing is hard to do—really hard. You must:

  • Admit you’ve hurt someone. Sincerity is the one thing that measures how sorry you truly are, not the words you speak. Tell the other person what happened, honestly and without elaboration.
  • Don’t make excuses and don’t blame anyone else. An apology is an apology only when it’s not an excuse. Self-serving excuses only make matters worse.
  • State what you plan to do about it. When you apologize for something you did or something that happened whether you did it or not, tell the person what corrective actions you plan to take, and keep him or her updated on your progress.

This way we all participate. Ubuntu.

Leah Curtin, RN, ScD(h), FAAN

Executive Editor, Professional Outreach

American Nurse Today

Dr. Leah Curtin, RN, ScD (h), FAAN, is Executive Editor, Professional Outreach, American Nurse Today. An internationally recognized nurse leader, ethicist, speaker, and consultant, she is a strong advocate for both the nursing profession and high-quality patient care. Currently she is Clinical Professor of Nursing at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and Health. For over 20 years, she was the Editor-in-Chief of Nursing Management. In 2007, she was appointed to the Standards and Appeals Board of DNV Healthcare, a new Medicare accrediting authority. Dr. Curtin can be reached at LCurtin@healthcommedia.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the ANA or the staff or Editorial Advisory Board of American Nurse Today. Visit americannursetoday.com/SendLetterstoEditor.aspx to comment on this article.

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