Phil Halstead: Prince Harry, a bad costume choice and the art of forgiveness

  • Opinion
  • 09/04/2023

OPINION: I hadn't realised how much Prince Harry and I had in common until I started reading his book Spare a few days ago. I should have known better, but it had never crossed my mind. Allow me to explain.

In January 2005, Harry had a brain explosion. He had been invited to a fancy-dress party and didn't know what to wear. At the last minute, he had to choose between a British pilot's uniform and a Nazi uniform. Upon the advice of others - significant others, it seems - he chose the Nazi uniform.

The party seemed to go off without a hitch until someone who had taken furtive photos of Harry sold them to the press. Before one could say Jack Robinson, the photos went global.

The result was catastrophic for Harry. As soon as he saw the photos, he realised his folly - but it was much too late for him to do anything about it. The worldwide verdict was already in: Harry was "either a crypto-Nazi or else a mental defective".

I've had my share of brain explosions, too. I've kowtowed under pressure to people more powerful than me and as a result been humiliated. I've cheated, self-medicated and acted out in ways too many to mention.

I remember a taxi driver in the US once saying to my wife and I the only difference between the three of us and the people he visited in prison was that they had been caught and we hadn't. Touché.

Of course, it was very different for Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and a member of the Royal Family. When he was caught there was no place for him to hide. 

In response to these events, Harry's father made a sage decision: he arranged for Harry to seek help from the Chief Rabbi of Britain. No doubt, King Charles could have arranged for him to visit the head of the Church of England, or a renowned psychologist.

But no, he sent him to a person whose very people had been decimated by the Nazis.

I appreciate the wisdom of that decision. Having completed a PhD on the art of forgiveness, I've learned it is often only when we hear first-hand from the persons we have deeply hurt that we begin to comprehend the extent of our wrongdoings.

When we consider the effects of our actions on others long enough, it is then that we learn from our mistakes and move towards repentance.

Then we may attempt to make restitution, seek forgiveness, work to regain trust, and learn to respect and honour the individuals we've wounded in fresh ways. And perhaps, one day, we'll experience a new kind of connection - even reconciliation. 

Prince Harry is often portrayed as a rebel or a perpetrator of wrong. Yet he has also clearly been wronged himself. When people with deep wounds consult me on how to work through their hurts and forgive, I know I am entering sacred territory.

Forgiving is no easy matter - it typically takes time and involves a process following several steps. People need to wrestle with what actually happened and ask why it did, process their emotions and thoughts, let go of certain expectations, and determine how to move forward.

Throughout the pages of Spare, Harry tells his side of the story, an account that involved Britain's Chief Rabbi instructing him about forgiveness. As I'm working my way through his story I've been reminded of our differences and similarities.

Instead of judging, dismissing, relegating, denigrating or ignoring those who are different from us, wouldn't it be great if we truly listened to one another? Wouldn't it be great if we allowed ourselves to be changed by one another's stories?

Thinking about Prince Harry's and my own brain explosions, as well as the power of forgiveness, seems to be particularly applicable in Easter week. For me and other Christians, the timeless Easter message is a reminder of God's love and forgiveness personified in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

This message speaks of hope and responds to our current age with all its needs. It anchors our personal stories, that are embedded in the ever-changing context of the stories of our culture and time, in truth and wisdom.

Whether one is a prince or pauper, Easter demonstrates the power of forgiveness - and helps us recognise that our brain explosions no longer have to define us.

Dr Phil Halstead is a lecturer in pastoral care and counselling at Carey Baptist College.