Sunday, May 26, 2002
( 4:35 PM )

DELMAR: Preacher said my sins are warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo!
EVERETT: I thought you said you were innocent a those charges.

DELMAR: Well I was lyin’ – and I’m proud to say that that sin’s been warshed away too!

O Brother, Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers

I’ve been stalling a long time before getting around to the topic of forgiveness. Here are some of my ruminations on forgiveness; they do not carry any official imprimatur, and I’ll probably change my mind and emend them as you point out the weaknesses in version 1.0.

When I say, “Forgive me,” I mean something different from “Let’s pretend it never happened,” or “It doesn’t matter,” or “Just drop it.” “Forgiving” certainly doesn’t entail forgetting, or discounting; it may be the only way to take an offense with adequate seriousness. Forgiving entails recognizing a wrong, looking at it clearly and honestly, assessing responsibility for it, and resolving not to permit that wrong to determine our lives from thence forward.

Pretending something never happened may be a workable approach to some utterly insignificant , but even then it’s liable to misfire when it turns out that the un-happened event affected you more deeply than me, or when the aftereffects of the incident in question bring the original transgression to the fore again. “Forgiving” involves no pretense—the offense really happened, and we’re living in its aftermath.

“Forgiving” likewise precludes claims that the offense “doesn’t matter”; if something doesn’t matter, then it doesn’t need to be forgiven. When we say that something doesn’t matter, we take ethical considerations off the table. Under ordinary conditions, it doesn’t matter whether I put pepper on my fried eggs. When on the other hand I know that Margaret—who is quite devoted to pepper on her eggs—hasn’t yet had the chance to season her breakfast, and I finish off the contents of the pepper-shaker, it certainly matters that I chose to pepper my eggs. The consideration may amount only to a misplaced sense of mischief, or may extend to spiteful malice, but if I deliberately deprive Margaret of her morning’s repast, it definitely matters.

Overlooking wrongs–just letting them drop–falls far short of forgiving. An offense overlooked remains available for resuscitating at a later convenient time. “Remember that time you finished the pepper before I could even season my eggs?!” Overlooking wrongs leaves room for the offender to repeat the offense, thus making a habit of the wrong. It doesn’t allow for exculpation or mitigation, simply leaving the offense compounding interest in the aggrieved person’s imagination. Overlooking offenses doesn’t deal with anything, buying placidity at the cost of honest engagement with another.

Forgiving wrongs requires us to take them utterly seriously as injuries to one another and to the relationships of which we form a part (each of us the central part of the network of links that join us, loosely, to our significant other, to relatives, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, citizens, bowling club members, the strangers we encounter). Asking forgiveness means allowing oneself the self-reflection that assesses our self accurately in all its glory and shame, its generosity and selfishness. Asking forgiveness means observing the damage we’ve done to those we care about–and for almost every soul, that damage amounts to much more than we care to admit. I speak here not of “total depravity” or of self-abasement, or inadequate self-esteem; I speak of looking into the eyes of my dearest, and seeing reflected in her eyes a self who has casually inconvenienced, wounded, neglected, and short-changed someone I profess to love. Our linked-ness to the world of others, our dependence on the world, measures far higher than the extent to which we accommodate, avoid offending, take care of others and of our world.

To avoid seeing that disproportion, I tell myself, “It doesn’t matter”–but I am not the one who may make that discernment. I’m not in a position to know how badly Margaret wanted pepper on her eggs, nor even of whether she ought to have wanted pepper that much. I’m an interested party to the evaluation, and when I decide in my own favor–“having that much pepper isn’t good for her,” or “she’s over-reacting”–I ought better to recuse myself from the case.

Yes, everyone falls short of what we might ideally do if we marshalled our fullest efforts. But honest recognition of that shortfall doesn’t let me off the hook. To the contrary, it means that I already know that I’m inclined to injure and offend, so that all the more I ought to work to avoid causing injury or offense.

In such a context, “forgiveness” involves both “reckoning a wrong” and, emphatically and, resolving not to permit this past wrong to determine where I go from here. I have injured my beloved; I need (for my own sake as well as hers and for the sake of our relationship, and our relationships with our children, our friends, especially our friends who themselves have uniquely intimate relationships which reflect and model my loved one’s with me, even for the sake of strangers who may observe us at a restaurant) to make my recognition of my wrong effective in endeavoring to live differently hereafter.

So, to conclude the first round on what will almost certainly be a topic I’ll have to revisit, for “forgiveness” really to be “forgiveness,” it must involve my recognizing that I have wronged another, that my vivid (not morbid) perception of that wrong include a degree of resolution to avoid repeating my offense, and my effort to live out a life characterized by the manifest embrace of a better way forward. No denial, no self-deception, no exaggerated sense of the importance of my sins–but love set in motion for living, and loving, better.

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