As a journalist, Megan Feldman Bettencourt seeks to tell the stories of extraordinary people. But rarely do those stories change her in quite the way that Azim Khamisa’s did in early 2012.
Khamisa’s only son was shot to death in San Diego by an aspiring gang member, yet his words in the immediate aftermath were, “There were victims on both sides of the gun.”
During the murder trial, Khamisa announced he had forgiven the killer. Then he befriended the killer’s grandfather, and together they launched a nonprofit that teaches nonviolence in public middle schools.
That story stunned Bettencourt.
“Forgiveness had never been my forte, nor my aspiration,” she writes in the introduction to her book, “Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World.”
The book is about her quest for a kernel of truth about how and why people forgive – even when the one who hurt you shows no remorse.
“Something I always thought is you forgive someone once they apologize,” the Albuquerque native says in a phone interview from Denver, where she lives now with her husband and baby son.
Her exploration moves from devastation in Rwanda to the halls of urban middle schools, from the living rooms of shattered families to her own hardened heart.
Curious and in pain when she met Khamisa to interview him for a magazine story, Bettencourt quickly found their stories intertwined as he taught her techniques for forgiveness.
When she delved further into the science of forgiveness, she found how much it enhances our health.
“Unforgiveness holds us back,” she says.
The further she got into gathering more people’s stories, the more she saw the collective implications for society. “It became more of an imperative. You don’t do it to feel good. You do it to make the world better.”
Forgiveness not only changes your future, but your past, Bettencourt says. Most illuminating were people who had forgiven their own parents of seemingly impossible things.
Once people stopped feeding the story of “how disappointing their father was, how mean their mom was,” they unlocked memories that had been walled off because they hadn’t fit the bitter story.
Bettencourt says she’s pleased that the book has gotten a lot of attention before its launch – this interview was her fourth in a week – plus a blurb from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the megahit book, “Eat Pray Love.”
The two of them connected back in 2005 at a reading for “Eat Pray Love” and chatted about magazine writing, then bonded over frustrations about a man Bettencourt had been dating, “this more personal, frivolous conversation about relationships,” she says with a laugh.
Flash forward to 2014, when Gilbert posted on her Facebook page about forgiveness. So Bettencourt wrote her an email and just asked her to write a blurb. “She happens to be an incredibly generous person,” Bettencourt says.
Her takeway? “Forgiveness isn’t easy,” she says. “Certainly not for me. I love grudges. But we actually don’t have to be stuck with bitterness and resentment no matter what happens. That’s a big deal.”