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The Butcher's Wife

from Why Do I Love These People? 


Denise Hughes

There comes a time for many of us when we decide we’re not going to pass the trouble on. No matter how bad it was for us, no matter how angry it still makes us, no matter the mess we are in, we are clear on this: we will keep it from hurting our children. They will know a better day.

            Denise Hughes, as she is now known, remembers the night she decided these would be the stakes that defined her life.

            It was sixteen years ago, on a Friday night in Belfast. She sat on the couch, cuddling her three-month-old baby, Gary, thinking of all the things she would do after he fell asleep. Finally, his breathing slowed, and his eyes rolled back under not-yet-shut eyelids, and Denise realized if she moved he would wake up again. She was stuck on the couch a little longer. That was okay. Gary was a gorgeous baby. The center of her life. About all she could do was watch television. The news was on.

            Her husband had left several hours before, carrying a bag. He said only that he would be back tomorrow. Denise had learned not to ask. She knew he had made his way up through the ranks of a Loyalist paramilitary group. She was accustomed to the police searching her house. She was accustomed to her husband being dragged off to the Gough Barracks for questioning whenever there was a murder. Like most in Belfast, Denise had grown up in this kind of environment, so she didn’t think too much of it. She was raised to believe the IRA was murdering her people, trying to run them out of their country. Sixteen years ago, she thought a little violence was an acceptable form of vengeance. But she was about to see the dark side of it, and come to hate it with a passion.

            The television news cut to the scene of a murder out in the countryside. A gunman had broken through a family’s living room window during dinner and shot the father, an IRA leader. The man’s eight-year-old boy held him as he bled to death.

            They say that when you have a baby, your way of looking at the world completely changes.

            In that moment, holding her baby, Denise’s perspective changed completely. Every son has a mother. That boy has a mother. How could anyone do this to a mother?

            Denise looked at her life and realized that in eight years, that would be Gary holding his father. She knew her husband’s life would be short. It was inevitable. Her little boy would grow up on the streets, where he would learn to throw bricks at Catholics just for the laugh. Waste hours collecting boney wood and tires for bonfires. Drinking to be one of the lads. Squat in empty flats, wait on riots. Soon mugging people, and scamming the immigrants. He would end up inside. She knew how impossible it was to prevent, because she had soaked up those inclinations too. She had spent many Friday nights during her teens down on Roden Street, in the Empire District. The road ended at what used to be the Blackie River, but was then a huge construction site for the new Westlink Highway, which divides the Loyalist South Belfast from the Republican West Belfast. Fifty kids would be on either side of the gap, hurling rocks and rubble at each other, singing fight songs and screaming “No surrender!” Denise never felt hatred, she was just out for the craic, the good time. Wee lads, too – kids as young as six would be there. It starts young. In Belfast, by the time a child is two years old, he knows the orange shirts are the good guys and the green shirts are the bad guys, or vice versa. Nobody escapes it.

            Would it be any different for her son? Was it possible to even dream he could end up different from his father? Was there any chance he would learn to value his education, rather than his hands – his mind, rather than his fists? Would he ever know there was a world out there to explore, beyond the so-called “peace walls” that sliced Belfast into smaller and ever-smaller camps?

What had happened? In the passing of a generation, Belfast had gone from being a great city, a world leader in ship building, to a place strangled up in knots over what your people did to my people.

Denise looked at her son’s face and made a promise that she would find a way. She was in no position to make this promise. She had been out of school since she was seventeen. She was twenty one now. She did not know that she was already pregnant with her second child. She worked as an office girl in a factory. She didn’t have a penny in the bank. The course of her life was set. But she would save Gary from it. Somehow, some way.

            The next day her husband came home, and within twenty minutes the police were at the door to question him.

            She could not have this man as her husband. A few weeks later, she was able to drive him away. Not a week after that, he was shot by the police. He suffered brain damage, and he was jailed for seven years for murder.

            A second boyfriend rescued Denise. He had some money and a semi-detached three-bedroom outside Belfast in a quiet village called Moira. She couldn’t believe her luck, until she found out he enjoyed hurting women when he was drunk. Her parents did not help her, and encouraged her to stick with it. (What’s a little violence around the house, when there’s so much in the streets?) She was afraid to be on her own with her children, but when she found out her bully was seeing someone else, she decided that was it. She got a restraining order. One night he jumped the back fence and broke into the house through the back window and tried to kill her. She broke two of his ribs with a chair and called him an ambulance.

            She was no fool. She had been ready for him.

            She did not want to move into the public housing estates and live off the government, but she had no choice. By then she had three children under five. She was afraid to let her kids onto her own front patio. The most Denise could manage to improve her lot was sign up for a correspondence course. Working was out of the question – the kids took every ounce of her strength. Her middle child, Ashleigh, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Denise’s mother lived several miles away, and helped out only a little.

            “That was my lowest point,” she recalled. She became ansty at the memory, and her words came urgently, rushing, as if she needed to get out of this bad neighborhood before she was recognized by someone from the old days. “The only way was up. It couldn’t have gotten worse. I was 26, and I was like an old woman. I did not know happiness. I did not know how I had got into the mess that was my life. I resented my parents, and I resented my children. I was lost.”

Lost she was, but it could have been worse. Unable to control her own fate, she could have whacked her kids around to establish control at home. She could have found her escape in a bottomless bottle of beer. She could have channeled her frustration, as so many do, by flying the Union Jack and complaining about the Taigs down the road. Hers was a stormy house, for sure, but even at her lowest point, Denise was sound. She had a clear mind. There was no hate in her, no blame. She was willing to try another way. And if life gave her a chance, she would not look back.

            It did, and she didn’t.

            The chance came when she walked her kids to school one day, and on the walk home stopped off at a butcher shop for some sausages. There was a new guy behind the counter, Brian Hughes. He caught her eye, then chatted her up. He was soft spoken and had an amusing temperament. He had been laid off from a job selling textbooks and had fallen back on the family trade. Brian had learned to cut meat at the age of six, as soon as he could see over the counter at his father’s shop in Portadown.

            “Unlike my father, I’m not going to be doing this forever,” he promised Denise.

            Denise did the stupid thing girls often do with guys they like: she matched him up with her girlfriend. Luckily, their date was a disaster.

            “He was so boring,” her friend reported.

            “Boring sounds pretty good to me,” Denise said, thinking about the fathers of her children.

            Soon after, Denise was out in her front garden when Brian drove by on the way to a friend’s. He got out and said hello. They spent three hours sitting on the curb, chatting.

            Brian was Catholic, but it did not seem to matter – at least at first, when their attraction was private. Brian had been to university. He was an open-minded man. What side he took on The Troubles was not high on her list of criteria. He had been married before as well, but he did not have kids. Like Denise, his priority was finding someone who did not resemble his previous spouse.

            They kept their relationship secret for a year and a half. Not just because of the taboo of dating the enemy. They had both been burned before and did not want to endure another public retraction if it did not work out. And Denise did not want to expose her children to a man until she was sure about him. She was in no rush.

When I asked Brian why he fell in love with Denise, he said firmly, “I’m willing to see people for who they are.” He loved that she was loud and brash and did not back down. He could always hear Denise walking toward the butcher shop, hollering after her kids. They bonded over films and philosophy. The first time they kissed, he said, “It went through my bones and straight to my soul.”

Still, you might wonder why an educated guy like Brian Hughes fell in love with an undereducated mother of three living in public housing. Well, Denise was all that, but not around Brian. The Denise he knew left her kids with a babysitter and met up with him late at night. The part-time relationship suited Denise perfectly. “It was all of the affection, with none of the responsibility.” On Brian’s lunch hour, he walked up the hill a hundred yards from the butcher shop to a red phone box and called Denise.

They certainly did not have it easy, but their love was in a bubble. When bubbles pop, though, love becomes just a consideration.

Think of what Brian was facing. He wasn’t even sure he wanted kids. Denise already had three! He was just a butcher, with a mind for a better life. Would he ever get there, if he took on four mouths to feed? What if they needed expensive schools? Then, what about the politics? Brain liked to believe it didn’t matter a bit to him, but politics are so pervasive in Northern Ireland that nobody can claim to be unbiased.

Brian was from Portadown. He drove me around his old neighborhood, pointing out the locations of every shop that had been bombed, and he took me down the parade streets that were currently the subject of protests and burnings. As a teen, he would be searched by the street police for no reason. Even if he could look past Denise’s loyalties, could his family? Could his friends? Could the guys at work? Northern Ireland is not like America, where a couple can move to a new city for a clean start. Your past never leaves you. No matter where you are, everyone knows what side you are on.

            Now imagine what Denise was facing. She thought Brian was great, but she had thought the last two guys were great too. Could she trust her judgment? There was no way her family or friends would accept Brian. Denise was from South Belfast’s The Sandy Row, an insular and tight-knit Loyalist stronghold. From the time she was six years old, she knew what to do when they got a bomb warning: crack the window sash, so the window merely rattles and doesn’t blow in. Then walk up to Library Hill or Saint Aidan’s and wait out the bombing. She did not meet a Catholic person until she was sixteen. When Denise took me to her old neighborhood, I quickly understood why she would be afraid to bring Brian here. The prejudice is not subtle.

            Northern Ireland is no bigger than the state of Connecticut, and it has a population similar to Columbus, Ohio. Since 1969, there have been over 37,000 shootings and 16,200 bombings. That last figure does not include the petrol bombs regularly hurled over the peace walls.

            It takes a special couple to not be intimidated by the social pressure to choose someone from your side of the wall. Then there are the interpersonal pressures.

            Twice Brian moved in with Denise and the kids, to try it out. Neither time did he last more than three days. Denise was too territorial, too accustomed to being the only boss in the house. “You make me feel like an unwelcome lodger,” Brian told her on the way out. He went to England for a few months to take a breather. Denise wrote him a “Dear John” letter breaking up with him. Brian wrote back with a wedding proposal and flowers. She said yes, right away. They courted properly for a year before marrying. When Denise’s mother asked after his religion, Denise refused to answer. All the kids asked to take Brian’s name. The two girls asked to call him “Dad.” Gary called Brian by his name. They found a house in Lisburn, a few miles from Belfast, and hoped that nobody came knocking on the door at night.


Denise had done well in her correspondence courses. Brian encouraged her to consider attending a proper university.

            “It’s the next step,” he told her.

            “I can’t,” she said. “Not with children.”

            “You would be surprised,” he insisted.

            He encouraged her to at least go with his younger brother to a recruiting fair at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown. There, she learned that because she was older, she was eligible for a two-year fast track degree.

            “Great,” Brian said.

            “Who’ll mind the children!?”

            “We’ll figure it out,” he assured her.

            “But –”

            “But what?”

            It is hard to comprehend how controversial this notion of going back to school was. In the United States, finding someone to look after her kids would be Denise’s biggest obstacle. Not so in Northern Ireland. When Denise was seventeen, she had wanted to attend university. But her parents told her to get a proper job. Her father worked at the shipyards, while her mother was a nurse at Belfast City Hospital. The Protestant culture of Northern Ireland teaches that the only honest work is work done with the hands. Paper pushing is not the way decent folks make a living. For a century, the Protestants had a monopoly on the jobs at the shipyards. Even today, young men aspire to being plasterers or joiners or bricklayers, though the jobs are scarce. More likely they will join the army. It is an informal caste system, and people do not aspire to move up in class. This is who you are, this is where you belong. Their life is a noble life. Going to university was seen as a betrayal of their culture. Anyone who did so faced the accusation of being a haughty social climber. To reach for a different life was to insult the life of those you were leaving behind.

            “When I told my mom I was going to university, she nearly had a coronary,” Denise remembered. “She is now very proud of me, because she’s seen I’ve done it. But back then, she said I needed to be home making dinner. She didn’t think the education would help me any. She offered to get me a job mopping floors at night if I needed money.”

            The Catholics did not have this reservation. They had been oppressed and ruled for more than 200 years in Ireland by the British, and in Northern Ireland they had been precluded by law from holding good jobs until the early 1960s. Education was their only way up. Thus, Brian was sent to university while Denise was not. In Northern Ireland the creed that worships tradespeople is so strong that a simple shop owner, like a butcher, is not considered a tradesman. Shop owners are considered capitalists, as if they descended from lords and landowners. And in a way, that’s a fair analysis, because Brian certainly had the entrepreneur’s mindset – with a bright mind, a little school, and some hard work, you can change your fate.

Change their fate they did. Brian started to learn computers, and he soon was working for himself installing and maintaining systems for small businesses. This gave him the flexibility to get through the day’s various obligations. Money was tight, but they made it. Brian went from being unsure he wanted children to caring for three several hours a day. He found he liked it, and he wanted more. Denise went through two miscarriages. When she took her final exams, she was three months pregnant with their fourth child, Conor. Her GPA was 2.2. “I barely made it!” she laughed. “I got such satisfaction though. I felt like a human being.”

A human being with a head full of ideas about feminism and political tolerance – which made it hard to go over to girlfriends’ houses to discuss window drapes and the new clothing on the racks at Mark’s & Spencer’s. Denise lost the last of her old friends in a short time. That was okay; she didn’t fit into her old self any more. She’d put on fifty pounds of mental muscle. She had grown up knowing who her people were. Now she was an individual. And she wondered where this new life was taking her. What was she going to do, now that she had a mind of her own?

She made an astute judgment: She did not ask herself what her intellectual strengths were. She did not analyze which fields were growing and which were shrinking. Instead, she looked for her purpose in what made her angry: the sectarian divisiveness that she had come to hate. Then she looked for organizations where she might do some good. Brian was already the capitalist in the family. He was starting to bring in some money. That freed her, in a way, from feeling like she couldn’t take a risk.

Her first job was with an organization that retrained former paramilitaries after they had served their time in prison. She turned them into productive workers again. She was good at it, because she had traveled a bit of this road herself. After two years she moved to another organization that helps train the police to understand the local communities. In Belfast, the police are considered a third religion. They have had to deal with so much violence for three decades that they have closed ranks, in a way, and have created their own way of life separate from the neighborhoods they patrol. Denise runs seminars with police that are part healing sessions, part cultural education.

Denise does not live in the dangerous neighborhoods of Belfast any more. But her work takes her back there, and she is known as a fair person. So she has unique access to both sides. She was able to drive me through some enclaves that only the locals get to enter, such as The Village in South Belfast, where UDA paramilitaries fly their flags over their bars, and Twinbrook in West Belfast, where unemployment is at 85 percent and one in three girls is pregnant by age fourteen.

            I have great admiration for Denise. In trying to save her children’s lives, she ended up saving her own. Not only had she and Brian changed their fate over the last ten years, but she was giving back, trying to fix what she can, one mind at a time.

Then Gary became a teenager.

Gary and Denise work each other constantly, pushing and negotiating. They do it with the furious pace of rap music, the longest sentence rarely more than a few words. On the way home from rugby practice, Gary convinced his mom to stop for some French fries from a Chinese take-out. Sensing a soft heart, he went for more:

            “Chips and fish, mum?”


            “Two chips then?”

            “Okay.” Pause. “Get two and share them with your siblings.”

            “One for me and one for them?”


            “I’ll just get one then.”

            “No, Gary. Get two. And share them. And that’s it.”

            “But I don’t get much food put out for me!”

            “You’ll share them, Gary!”

            Which he did. Neither ever wins a negotiation free and clear. When he concedes he needs to take a shower, he tries to get something in return – such as a few quid for the next day’s lunch. When Denise agrees to drive him to a match, he begs her to drive him in the new car. There’s no quit in him. Or her. She keeps him just uncomfortable. They are two very strong-minded people.

            A couple years ago, Denise started to realize she was no match for Gary’s peers. She could take him out of Belfast, and thereby keep him from joining up with the gangs, but she couldn’t keep him from soaking up the culture – and the culture was already soaked with prejudice.

            One day he came home wearing a blue Rangers scarf. All the Protestant boys wore them, but if they wore it in the wrong neighborhood they could get shot. On one hand, it just showed his support for a soccer team. On the other hand, it was a statement, a symbol of political affiliation. Usually, its intent is to offend, to provoke.

            “Did this not cross your mind!?” Denise gasped.

            “It’s only football, mom!”

            “It labels you!”

            “Lay off, Mom.”

            Brian came in, took one look at the scarf. “So you support Rangers then?”

            “I do.”

            “Who’s their top striker then?”

            Flustered, Gary admitted he had no idea.

            Denise could challenge any outright racist comments Gary learned, but the cultural references were too ingrained to avoid. He didn’t yet have a job or a girlfriend or anything to stake himself to. In that vacuum, he glommed on to the culture as a form of identity.

            “I was asked what religion I was today at school,” he said one night.

            “How did you answer?”


            “Really? What church do you go to then?”

            “I don’t.”

            “Then how are you Protestant? If you don’t go to church?”

            “My grandfather’s Protestant.”

            “And Brian’s father’s Catholic.”

            “Brian’s father doesn’t take me to footballers, does he?”

            “Gary, if you were in America, and your father was Mexican and your mother was Italian, you could say you were both, right?”


            “You’re both, Gary. You are both and you are neither, because you don’t go to church and neither do we.”




            When they are at a certain age, it feels like nothing you say to your child makes a damn bit of difference. They are simply not listening to you, not trying to impress you. Gary did not even seem to notice how radically his mother had changed her fate. Every time he walked out the door, she feared the world would take him away. There was simply nothing to occupy these kids, nothing to do but loiter. Her work took her down to Cluan Place and Clandyboye, where there were masses of youths milling about, bored out of their skulls, drinking, shooting heroin, and she wondered how long it would be before Gary ended up here.

            “Going out?”


            “And where to?”

            “The bonfires.”

            “Really? What do you want to go for?”

            “It’s good craic. Everyone’s going.”

            “You want to watch grown men get drunk and throw up on each other? That your idea of a good time?”

            “Just be with my friends, mom.”

            “Women getting into catfights, women hitting each other with bottles, someone light up a pile of tires? Explain to me why that is an interesting evening and I will take you down myself.”

            “Sounds fun, actually.”

            “Kick everything Catholic while you’re at it.”

            “You went to bonfires when you were a girl.”

            “And you could get a burger and an ice cream. It’s sinister now. It’s naked sectarianism.”

             “What do I tell my friends?”

            “You tell them your mom took you to Pizza Hut and rented you two DVDs and we sat on the floor and watched them.”

            “Pizza Hut? Or Mexican?”

            “All right. Mexican.”

            “The new car?”

Denise decided to look into the history being taught at Gary’s school. They taught him about the kings and queens of England. They even taught him about the Mormon church and the native Americans. But regarding the history of Northern Ireland, they skimmed the Easter Rising and that was it. It was a typical British version of history, straight from the textbooks. Little effort was made to inform the students about the war dividing their own country. The school was doing nothing to counteract the prejudice picked up on the streets.

            Denise realized her only tool to shape her son’s horizons was to change his environment. She encouraged Gary to apply to better schools. Gary chose the school with the best rugby team, which also happened to have an esteemed academic reputation. The night he was accepted, Denise was over the moon, crying, so proud. Her friends and parents didn’t understand why it was worth the money, but Denise never hesitated.

Soon after, she and Brian moved into the countryside, to an old farmhouse 40 minutes from Belfast. It is a half mile from the nearest shop. There’s no way to get in trouble out there.

            A funny thing happened to Denise and Brian when they moved to the countryside. There was practically never a moment to enjoy being in the country. They turned into a prototypical modern couple, stretched in all directions, constantly driving their children to their activities, and rarely eating as a family. Their entire lives became consumed by logistics. Their four children were in four different schools. One took the bus, one took a taxi, one rode with Dad, one walked a mile to a carpool pickup. Denise and Brian became ships passing in the night. Like most couples stretched thin, they managed to do all this by sleeping little. Denise had become a Supermom, burdened by her ambitions to do every part right. The sum was less than the parts.

            In theory, a woman with a background like Denise’s would be thrilled to have a modern mother’s problems. In theory, she would have that elusive trait we all crave, perspective. She’d be amused that her only challenge is to get her five year old to eat two more bites of pasta before he gets his ice cream. Nothing a modern mother goes through could upset her. But so much for theory. Denise was not above all that. She was consumed by it, same as anyone.

            And she found herself longing for the old days. Those days when it wasn’t just you and your husband against the world. Those days when you had grandmothers and uncles around, and neighbors to help out. Her own mother had not watched the kids in four years. Denise found herself longing for the sense of community she had known, growing up in The Sandy Row. The houses were tiny 2 Up/2Downs, and nobody had any money or sent their kids to special schools – but they looked after each other. Nobody bothered to lock their doors. As a little girl, when she walked down Abingdon Road, the people in every single row house knew her name. Her grandmother had worked as a nurse in the maternity ward of Belfast City Hospital, so Gran could honestly say to every single kid, “I held you when you were a baby.” Gran took care of Denise every evening while her mother worked the night shift.

            She was six years old back in 1974, when the Ulster Worker’s Strike brought down the Stormont government. And though it was a time of strife, Denise had nothing but fond memories. In the eyes of a child, it was like a big carnival. For a while, nobody had any food or electricity. The schools were closed. Denise wandered along the railway wall, where families propped up corrugated iron to make lean-tos, and they turned over oil drums to light fires to keep each other warm, and she would walk campfire to campfire, be handed soup and toast, sing songs. Everyone stuck together. Everyone shared.

            Denise knew she had made a tradeoff. She knew she had chosen to leave that way of life. But it hurt. She became desperate for a sign that it was worth it. Desperate to know all she had done in ten years actually made a difference. Would it ever pay off? Would she ever know a day that her children would think for themselves, with their own clear judgment?

If she saw Gary at home, it was to bookend his day, twenty minutes on either end. He seemed to change girlfriends more often than his underwear. He got a job at a restaurant bussing tables, but who knew what he might get into there?

            Then one February day Gary came home from school and announced he was going to America. Denise thought he was kidding.

            “You are, are you?” she smiled.

            “I am, mom.”

            “California, I suppose?”

            “Nope. Somewhere called Youngstown, Ohio.”

            “What are you getting on, Gary?”

            “My school nominated me. Do you know what the Ulster Project is?”

            “You’re in the Ulster Project!?”

            “You know it then?”

            “Yeah I do.” Every year, a dozen Catholic and Protestant teenagers from Northern Ireland did a two-week exchange program with teens from Ohio, to broaden their minds. “Gary, you’re in the Ulster Project!”

            “Didn’t I just say so?”

            “But why you?”

            “Dunno mom. Maybe because of all that charity work I did.”

            “What charity work?”

            “For Make A Wish.”

            “The class project?”

            “It wasn’t a class project, Mom. Me and my friends, we did it on our own.”

            “Those candles you sold?” Denise couldn’t believe it.

             “Yeah, the candles, the donuts. And the t-shirts we made, and that cross-country run we held.”

            “Gary, I thought that was a class project!”

            “No Mom, you were always saying do something worthwhile.”

            “Gary! How much did you raise?”

            “Three thousand.”

            “Three thousand!”

            “More than anyone in Northern Ireland.”

            Denise’s eyes filled with tears. For so long she and Gary had been pushing each other that she never really knew where his mind stood. But now she knew. It had been worth it. Worth every moment.

            “When do you go?”

            “In July. But we start meeting at St. John’s next week.”

            “With Catholic kids?”

            “Yup. Mom?”


            “Good thing I told them I was Protestant when they were asking, huh?”

            Gary went to Ohio last July. They met with the governor, and then the two dozen teens flew to Washington, D.C., where they took mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception, one of the largest Catholic churches in the United States. That afternoon, Gary called his mom. She went to bed that night with two images that defined her life. Sixteen years ago, Gary’s father had walked out the door. Sixteen years later, Gary sat for mass in a Catholic church in America. There is no higher reward for a mother than knowing your child has turned into a fine human being.


I would like to ask you now to see Denise’s story another way. Take it beyond the peace walls of Belfast, beyond the borders of Northern Ireland, and back over the ocean into your home. What’s the connection? Belfast, to me, was like a big extended family, locked in a grudge, unable to get over its anger, with a few siblings crying out “Come on, get over it!”

The Hughes family was able to change its fate because Denise and Brian have been willing to see each other for who they are, not who they used to be. They were willing to believe that life did not always have to be this way. They were willing to change. This is a remarkably simple truth, and it’s not even controversial – we need to be willing to change! – and yet how often are relationships ground down by people who are unwilling to give up the past? That day in the butcher shop, Denise did not see a meat cutter, and Brian did not see a woman who had forgotten what happiness felt like. Each saw a good person.

When I was in Belfast, I found myself thinking a lot about what’s involved in forgiving someone. What does someone in your life need to do to be forgiven by you? What must happen, if anything, before you are willing to see them for who they are today, rather than for what they did to you long ago? How does someone redeem themselves, in your eyes? Do they need to admit what they did? Do they need to repent? Do they need to have changed their ways, and if so, for how many years before they have proven to you they are truly deserving?

The irony of Belfast is that despite the Protestant-Catholic street war of the last 35 years, it is hardly a religious place. Only twenty five percent of people there go to church more than twice a year. It is not a religious war, it is a political war. That said, there are religious roots behind it, which have created two very different philosophies of forgiveness and redemption. The Protestant notion of redemption is different from the Catholic notion. Both have merit. These are ideas we all struggle with, when we consider forgiving the people in our family.

One school of thought evolved from the Calvinist idea that good people are chosen by God before birth. Their souls are predestined, and they do not redeem themselves (God or Jesus did the redeeming for you). Character is fate, and one who acted badly in the past will probably act badly again. It’s that hard-liner mentality, very suspicious of anyone who argues “Hey, but I’m nice now.” People who hurt us in the past are to be regarded with great skepticism, and we must be wary that their cleansing ritual wasn’t just an empty pantomime. Every time someone screws up, that is proof they have not really changed. This is the guarded voice in our ear, the one that wants to lay out tests before forgiving. At heart, it’s the voice of someone deeply hurt, who wants to never be hurt again.

The other school of thought evolved from the Catholic notion that everyone since Adam and Eve has screwed up. We are all marked with stain and sin. Only through continual self examination of our faults and repentance can we redeem ourselves. Not only can our fate be changed, but it must be changed to lead a good life. And what goes for me applies to everyone else, too. We are expected to believe that people can change. We are supposed to give them the benefit of the doubt. We have to forgive them, from the moment they confess or atone. In fact, in this school of thought, true atonement is a private examination – it does not have to happen in public, meaning there does not have to be a public confession. This moral examination must indeed happen, and it must be sincere, but the person who wronged us is not required to show remorse or beg or admit everything they ever did wrong. Under the other school of thought, the burden of proof is definitely on the atoner. In this school of thought, the burden shifts to the forgiver. It is hard to forgive someone when they simply tell us they’ve changed, but they haven’t really offered any proof. This is the voice in our ear that says we need to forgive people in order to move on – regardless of whether they have properly apologized. This is the voice that knows holding on to resentment is poisonous. This is the voice that wants to let go of that anger, wipe it clean, despite legitimate fear we might be opening the door to being hurt all over again.

We all have these two voices in our heads. For some, one voice is dominant. Some people set themselves up to be hurt over and over. Some people live rigidly, accepting ever fewer people into their kingdom.

No one can tell you that you need to be more forgiving, or that you need to let your guard down. No one can say that you need to accept everyone in your family for who they are today, ignoring what happened back then. But hatred serves no purpose, and there is no profit in hanging on to a grudge. The way you think about forgiveness is probably not the only way. There are many approaches to forgiveness that cultures have developed for thousands of years. These are taught and passed on, like languages. If your way is not getting you anywhere, you might consider others. Learning how to forgive is another right of passage every family must figure out.

Forgiving your enemies is the easy part. The hard work is in forgiving those you trusted to care for you, those precious few you believed would keep your interests in mind, the one person you thought would never do that to you. Forgiving those you love is not something you do once, like a ceremony. It’s required of you, in some form, every single day.