Filled with fear
Possessed by pain
I’m crying again, no
I don’t know when
I lost the will to live
And I found the will to forgive
— “Forgive to Forget,” from Deep Natural by Michelle Shocked
One element of forgiveness that I skimmed over yesterday involves time. An inescapable element to temporality lies implicit in my observations relative to practicing forgiveness; as forgiveness involves a transition from a problematic past to a more hopeful future, narrative includes an inescapable narrative element. Yesterday I did something wrong; today I admit that wrong and seek reconciliation; tomorrow I will not commit the same offense again [at least, I’ll try not to].
Moreover, such a narrative involves more than just one person. One of humanity’s persistent mistakes comes in underestimating the ramifications of our wrongs. As advocates of recycling, civil activism, culture jamming, vegetarianism, internationalism, and countless other causes remind me, my casual disregard for the cumulative significance of my trivial actions effects a larger, more morally weighty body of actions and complicities. In personal terms, where we are most likely to care ardently about forgiveness, we typically concentrate on me or you, whether I can or should be forgiven, whether I can or should forgive you. Offender and offended form the foci of an ellipse, but the ellipse includes many, many other people whose lives absorb (or amplify or refract) the shock waves our wrongs generate. We don’t have the capacity to limit the scope of our actions; the cast of characters whom we affect extends beyond what we could possibly imagine (as our best novelists so vividly remind us).
In broader social terms: sure, it might not matter that much if I just toss just these two spent AA batteries in the trash instead of seeking out the designated disposal site; but by not making the effort to handle my battery waste in a responsible way (and here, in public, I acknowledge this specific shortcoming) I tacitly endorse handling hazardous waste carelessly. The perception that no one disposes of batteries properly derives its convincing force from the fact that so few of us do, and from the invisibility of the pains that some take to dispose of batteries properly. As Steve Yost wisely points out, just such small habits as these shape the ways we handle larger-scale questions, and they teach others about our patterns of judging what’s important; we become implicated in the plausible inferences people draw from our behavior.
So forgiveness becomes a tremendous question in the exquisitely complex interactions of lovers, families, communities, strangers. If we opt to disregard apparently-small offenses, we set in motion the social expectation that any of us can afford to aggrieve another so long as we think it’s a small matter. If we practice disregard for our trivial behavior, we presume on others’ patience and resilience (and we’re liable to feel that we have been offended if their patience doesn’t match our expectations). Margaret reminds me (and Halley, and Marek, too, in a differently beautiful way) how forgiveness falls beyond our grasp when we can’t sustain even <em>relatedness</em>—whether by reason of general estrangement or because distance or mortality have separated us from those with whom our injuries are intertwined. Our lives may limp from old wounds, apparently incurable now that those who wounded us have left us behind—or we may regret our neglect of opportunities to forgive others who now are removed from us.
We are wiser by far to take daily life with a higher degree of mindfulness, demonstrating our concern for others by seeking forgiveness when we offend, and not presuming ourselves to be in the right when others report their dissatisfaction. (*This’ll take some nuanced expansion later on–I’m not saying, “It’s your fault if anyone ever thinks it is.” If a narcissist runs you over and then complains that you dented his bumper, you have good reason to hesitate before accepting blame.)
All this has concentrated on my relation to forgiveness as an offender, probably because we have great difficulty in recognizing our own need for forgiveness, whereas others‘ need for forgiveness practically leaps to our attention. More, if I begin talking about forgiving others before I sketch out my own culpability, my reflections on forgiving may lose their integral relation to my accepting forgiveness. Someone who knows her own weakness has a sounder position from which to weigh another’s wrong than does someone who judges from the default position that “I’m not the one who offended.” That will have to wait for tomorrow, because I’m too weary to write any more about important things tonight.