A friend referred a couple to me for divorce mediation. I had yet to meet with the couple when the friend saw fit to issue his personal apologetic caveat:
“If anyone can mediate these two, Mel, its you. I apologize ahead, though, they are extremely contentious and very difficult, so much anger. I hope you get passed the first session, and either way please forgive me!”
My favorite mediation sessions are those that challenge. In any event, professionally, I could not rely on the word of the referral source, I would have to ascertain for myself if the couple would work for mediation or not and so I put the words of caution aside.
It came time for the couple’s first session. My method involves explaining the mediation process, taking questions and then diving into the urgent issues that may require immediate resolution, such as transitions, interim parenting plans and interim support.
When the pair arrived at my office, they looked forlorn, defeated, sad and a sense of bitter anger gripped the air. We commenced in an atmosphere that indeed could be cut by a chainsaw, seemingly far worse than the average strained atmosphere I have become so accustomed to in matters of divorce.
So I started the session a little differently this time. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out two token gold coins. I placed one in front of each of the parties and said the following:
“I am not sure if you recognize the face of the man on these coins – it is Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and former South African President, Nelson Mandela. You probably know exactly who he is (this was a couple years ago, before he died) and you probably know that peace came to entire nation, in what might otherwise have been a bloodbath. This man, despite his bitterness and anger, a natural response to 27 years in prison because of apartheid, said after he was released: “I will not allow my anger and bitterness to be my ultimate jailer.”
I am asking you each to hold onto one of these coins, which is my gift to you, in your hand and to consider this metaphor – you will see the inscription around his face– it says “ Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – A long walk to freedom.”
Your 3 children comprise 'your nation' and you will have to find ways to move into a space where you can put their interests ahead of yours – ahead of what you each have been through in this relationship. Avoid the emotional bloodbath and dont allow yourself to be further trapped by your bitterness and anger. It can be done – whether you are able to forgive as Mandela did, or not, at least you can hone your anger into something constructive, and that is the work we can do here.”
Of course, forgiveness is relative and very personal, and we all talk about it for mediating couples all the time. In this case the symbol of Mandela, represented by a face on a coin, seemed to have a magical impact.
It was is if they breathed a collective sigh of relief in that moment of holding their newly acquired coins, and everything became relatively relaxed in that room. I dont know - maybe it helped put things in a new perspective. The ice was broken and the path opened to an attainable benchmark. I realized I had found a physical tool! Something for people to clutch on to as a reminder of what the human is capable of accomplishing.
The tool put a face to the fact that indeed forgiveness can be accomplished. Whether actual forgiveness is ever realized or not, matters less than the very consciousness about it, and its possibilities. Hence its path as goal, is in and of itself a helpful concept, which opens the door to a productive discussion and provides the ability to recognize when anger is getting in the way of settling the issues.
I have now started to use these token Mandela coins and the legacy story as a tool in my practice, when necessary.
Of course the more expensive commemorative coins can be found at the South African Gold Coin Exchange.