August 4, 2020

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Opinion

The power of letting go

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Wilma Derksen and her family became internationally known after Wilma’s daughter, Candace, was slain in 1984.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Wilma Derksen and her family became internationally known after Wilma’s daughter, Candace, was slain in 1984.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/2/2017 (1254 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Wilma Derksen recently celebrated the release of her sixth book, titled The Way of Letting Go. It is, much like her other books, connected to the death of her daughter, Candace, who was horribly slain in 1984.

The Derksen family is unique in the way their response to the murder of their daughter and sister is perhaps as well-known as the crime itself. They have inspired innumerable people with their story of forgiveness.

They have also aroused some suspicion, as Derksen herself attested to at her book launch. It is hard for the vast majority to imagine any measure of forgiveness under such circumstances. When many of us are prone to eruption after being cut off in traffic, for someone to forgive the killer of their child — something the Derksens made a commitment to do from the very beginning of their journey — is inconceivable to most. Their deeply vulnerable response was therefore received by some with a certain amount of doubt.

To forgive is counterintuitive, even under the most ordinary of circumstances. In the aftermath of pain caused by another, the anger comes unbidden. Retribution, which is the basis for our criminal justice system, is the balm meant to appease that anger. And it does, on the surface, appear to satisfy. For many, justice is synonymous with punishment. You cannot have one without the other. Punishment is what victims need to see for their offenders, and through a broader social lens, it is used as preventive maintenance. Vengeance is instructive. It teaches people a lesson.

Despite this, research has suggested that punitive penology does not curb criminal behaviour the way we have been led to believe. But the concept of restorative justice — which correlates victim/offender communication with healing for all parties — is not favoured by the general public. Suggesting offenders are under any circumstances worthy of empathy comes off as weak.

In The Way of Letting Go, Derksen relates a powerful story that demonstrates the deep human connection possible when victims and offenders come together. It is worth the price of the book alone. But in lieu of a justice system that consistently provides meaningful ways for victims to communicate with offenders as to the extent of their pain — assuming this approach is relevant to the situation — victims are left with no alternative but to attempt to heal themselves. Derksen believes the way to do that is through forgiveness.

In situations of injustice, there are times when anger is the right response. Racism, sexual discrimination and other forms of systemic injustice hold little hope of being upended without the rage of those upon whom it is perpetrated, as well as their empathizers. As feminist scholar Jenny Burman says of feminist and anti-racist presence, "If rage is galvanized in the service of political and spiritual resurgence, it ceases... to be vengeful, and instead directs energy toward regeneration." We can simply turn our gaze southward to see this kind of rage in forward motion. Sadly, we can also see the need for it making itself plainly known in our own backyard.

But as we are individually hurt every day — in ways both small and incomprehensibly large — it is our own decisions that create reality. Derksen gives us a glimpse into her family’s transcendent abilities in the title of her new book. "Letting go," it would seem, is the only way to reclaim one’s life when something terrible has been done to us. It seems a cruel irony that the only way to get past pain requires the victim to do more, not less, of the heavy lifting.

And yet, watching Wilma and Cliff Derksen move about the room at the book launch, one could not help but be struck by their lightness of being. Wilma’s laughter sparkled about the packed room. Since learning their story, I would like to think that, should "the worst" ever happen to my family, I would eventually respond in a similar way. Even as I write this, I’m afraid that isn’t true. But to see the Derksens in action is almost disorientingly hopeful.

As the much-publicized retrial of the man suspected of murdering Candace comes to a close, the timing of Derksen’s new book only makes its content more profound. When asked what she will do if the outcome is not what she hopes for, she responds by saying she cannot go there — right now. Letting go, it would seem, is a perpetual process.

We are watching. We are learning. Thank you, Derksen family.

Thank you, Candace.

Dez Wengrowich is a former broadcaster who has returned to university to study sociology. She lives in Winnipeg.

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