I’ve saved the hardest for last. What does one say about injuries that we “can’t imagine forgiving,” offenses that are “unforgiveable”? (I should have waited on the Pet Shop Boys, to enlist them as the epigraph for this blog, not using them up a couple of days ago; but then that might have seemed insufficiently sober an introduction to so very serious a topic.)
First, as the question itself implies, we ought to distinguish those responses. If we say, “I can’t see how Sara can forgive Bill after what he did,” we leave open the possibility that someone who has a more capacious imagination might indeed find forgiveness. When we say that we can’t imagine forgiving someone, we confess our own limitations as much as we describe the scale of Bill’s wrong-doing. (Sorry, Bill, whoever you are—but you oughtn’t to have treated Sara that way.)
When we categorize a particular kind of evil as “unforgiveable,” though, we rule out the possibility of forgiveness—indeed, we often go so far as to argue that offering forgiveness in such cases allies the forgiver with the transgressor, it makes the forgiver into an accomplice.
Both the “I can’t imagine” and the “unforgiveable” claims meet resistance from the awkward persistence of forgiveness in the face of our limited imaginations and even our flat assertions about what can or cannot be done. The other day I linked to the example of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, some of whose members exemplify an extraordinary commitment to forgiveness (MVFR itself exists to oppose the death penalty, and does not expect its members to necessarily to forgive). Desmond Tutu advocated forgiveness for South African whites, even those who participated actively in the hideously violent subjugation of their black neighbors; an anonymous correspondent calls my attention to an article in the NY Times (free subscription required) that sketches forgiveness from a variety of perspectives, with special attention to Tutu. When we call an act “unforgiveable”, we repudiate the healing work by which some well-known and many more unfamiliar souls endeavor to heal some of the world’s wounds.
At last, we should acknowledge that Bill and Sara may find themselves at odds in ways that defy their capacities for forgiveness, but not because some deed can’t ever be forgiven, nor because they don’t want to forgive, but because the relationship has been fractured in a way that impedes forgiveness. The impediment may be circumstantial—if, for instance, Bill died before Sara could resolve her ambivalence about his malfeasance. Sara may need more talk with Bill, more time within which he might show himself reliable and gentle, time and talk that death has made impossible. Or Sara may have betrayed Bill’s trust so radically that he can’t understand any basis on which they might come together to begin the work of repairing the breach. Our news reports overflow with accounts of child abuse; can one truly ask a child who has been so heartlessly exploited to forgive the abuser? Our headlines repeat tales of bombings and shootings and destruction; can one legitimately ask the relatives of those who die in military or paramilitary violence to forgive the killers?
I’m not in a position to ask that of anyone; such misfortunes as I have experienced pale in comparison to the wounds that any reader could cull from the newspapers or from her or his own heart’s history. Even when a forgiver calls everyone to come toward the freedom that forgiveness makes possible, some aggrieved souls won’t see the way toward that goal, or won’t see the goal as worth striving for.
Does it help if we frame this situation in the terms I described earlier? If we can aptly suppose that forgiveness requires a narrative context, we can understand that sometimes some of the characters in the narrative don’t see a convincing way forward toward a resolution of the plot that includes forgiveness. Sara considers the various outcomes she foresees from trying to reach out to Bill for forgiveness, and she sees no alternative that she can live with. Bill reflects on his childhood and sees only suffering so intense that he can’t bring himself to live out a path that seems in any way to palliate or soft-pedal his abuser’s crime.
Point One: No one benefits from my telling Sara, “You really ought to forgive Bill.” It doesn’t do me or Bill any good. I ought to know better than to try to exert that kind of spiritual compulsion on someone else; and Bill needs a stirring from Sara’s heart, not from her advisor’s repertoire of Good Counsel. Doesn’t help Sara; it’s liable to pile guilt and defensiveness on top of the wounds she’s already suffering.
Forgiveness comes from grace, and grace can’t be arm-twisted.
Point Two: So far as I can tell, the most powerful obstacle to forgiveness arises from our own readiness to take forgiveness seriously. As potential recipients of forgiveness, we prefer to be lat off the hook than forgiven; or we doubt the genuineness of our forgiver’s good will; or we cling to a familiar guilt rather than take the chance that we, once released from the determination of our past wrongs, might offend again; or any of a vast reservoir of reasons to duck the stunning freedom of forgiveness.
As potential forgivers, we see a world in which retribution and reciprocity govern our us. The amount of social attention that US culture pays to forgiveness amounts only to dust beside the prominent mountains of attention paid to striking back, getting even, restitution (in the non-Weinbergerian sense)—to taking revenge, whether in prettified dress or in its cruder manifestations. We aren’t nourished with narratives in which forgiveness heals the world; we are fed the junk food of blood lust and vengeance, and we develop cardiosclerosis, hard-heartedness, which constricts our capacity even to consider any other way of dealing with our injuries.
Point three: If we yearn for a world in which forgiveness make sense, we can’t stop at blogging about it, hair-splitting about conditions and definitions, thinking charitable thoughts in a general way. If we want to live in a world where we may plausibly hope to be forgiven our blunders, and even our spasms of malice, we must begin to make that forgiveness real in the parts of the world that our lives touch. Not congratulating ourselves or chastising others, not finger-pointing, and especially not presuming on others’ grace; forgiving with the full power of honesty, love, humility, and hope that bring forgiveness to vivid life in our own imaginations, and perhaps even in our neighbors’. Love set in motion for living, and loving, better.
I’d like to leave this topic alone for a while. If I receive a packet of emails to which I need to respond, I’ll do that—but I need a break from Heavy Blogging.
That said, I want to thank the anonymous reader whom I cited above for provocative reflections on forgiveness in Buddhism; compassion and detachment provide a different path for dealing with injuries, and I respect much of the teaching that builds on those premises. In the end—and probably a fair ways earlier than the end—those premises differ enough from my own that I have to take a different path. It would be a joy if the two paths turn out to converge somewhere.
Thoughtful readers Steve Yost and Kevin Marks note that forgiveness isn’t just a nice idea–it can be shown game-theoretically to be in our best interests (“It’s not just good, but good for you” as Steve entitled his email to me). Kevin’s Non-Zero blog referred Steve to this article that they find a convincing argument in favor of altruism in the “classic ‘iterated prisoner’s dilemma’ test environment.” I don’t have any business evaluating this kind of theoretical argument, but hey, David Weinberger never lets that stop him, so I’ll just say that the lab results look promising–but I’d try to live a more forgiving life even if the Journal of Artificial Societies (I thought they all were pretty artificial) and Social Simulation didn’t recommend it.