The latest eruption of forgiveness worship almost made my breakfast erupt from my stomach. Dear Abby (Keene NH Sentinel, 3/7/12) printed DECIDE TO FORGIVE in its entirety, and to give the enemy his due, I will do the same:
“Decide to forgive, for resentment is negative. Resentment diminishes and devours the self. Be the first to forgive, to smile, and take the first step And you will see the happiness bloom on the face of your human brother or sister. Be always the first. Do not wait for others to forgive. For by forgiving You become master of fate, a doer of miracles. To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love. In return you will receive Untold peace and happiness.”
Bah. Humbug. Forgiveness is one of the major, flagship products of New Age psychologists (i.e., often MSWs, usually women, who consider themselves psychotherapists). In this it merges with religion. It is wrought with happy, sappy, feel-good talk that is far removed from human experience.
Googling “forgiveness” will get you millions of hits. It takes a lot of mental gyrations to convince people that they can forgive any offense. Many sites acknowledge that forgiveness is a diffifult process; I would say that the way the forgiveness merchants construe it, it’s impossible, without serious mental gynmastics and a large helping of self-deception and denial (see below).
Let’s get real. Forgiveness cannot be a warm, fuzzy blanket for all foul deeds. In real life, people do horrible things to each other. To achieve the syrupy forgiveness that the New Agers preach, one must somehow understand the offender’s circumstances (it’s society’s fault!)…and even, they advise, rewrite history to make the subject the hero/ine. This is often unachievable except by lying to oneself.
Criteria for forgiveness
Why not face reality? Some things are truly forgivable, especially when (i) it’s a minor offense, (ii) there was no intent to harm you, (iii) the person genuinely intended to do otherwise and (iv) is genuinely repentant. This covers a wide range of behaviors – e.g., you get somewhere late because of unexpected weather or traffic – and true forgiveness is possible. Your relationship is unchanged. Even significant damage is forgivable IF it was inadvertent and the perp is genuinely sorry.
(BTW, forgiveness always comes from people. Having it come from the deity is a bad idea, because it allows clerical middlemen to decide when you’re forgiven. Way too much power.)
Ah, but how often is the offense heinous, the evil intentional and voluntary (even allowed by the regime in power), the offender unrepentant?
The Pope says he forgives his would-be assassin, but who knows what he really thinks? (”This guy is a crazy, murderous MFer, and I better convince him not to take another shot at me.”)
Here I submit that the best we can achieve is understanding of why the offender did what he/she did and of what our role was, if any, in making things worse. This may take away some of the pain and help us not to be obsessed by the offense. But it is not forgiveness.
Remembrance – and justice
I’m not saying that vengeance is necessary. Even as primitive a moral code as the Bible tells us not to bear a grudge (Leviticus 19:18). Just memory. To forget human evil is to allow it to be repeated.
You see, the sweet syrupy kind of forgiveness is tricky with words. It posits a false dilemma. It’s either forgiveness or resentment. Why not both? Or a third? You can have a little forgiveness (because of the offender’s circumstances), more than a little resentment, and a desire for JUSTICE (not the same as revenge) to be done. Typically offenders in power (e.g., prick VPs and military officers) get away with it, and there is no justice.
Maybe that’s why we like to believe in karma.
And it does sometimes happen that offensive people offend the wrong person and get what they deserve.
I was fortunate in that I never once endured bullying. (As Lewis Black said, “If there is a hell, it is modeled on junior high.”) Are you going to tell me that that you can forgive a bully, that the humiliations don’t stay with you forever?
No, you can’t. Nor should you. Don’t ever forgive bullies. Bullies unforgiven do not have to face consequences and are simply encouraged to continue their bullying into adulthood. The horror of school shootings gives us an unsettling glimpse at the wounds inflicted by bulllies and the vegeance that can follow.
The sweet syrupy kind of forgiveness says you have to forgive first, and by doing so you’re master of your fate. I would say: you’re responsible for what happens next. My guess is that your torturer, your abusing spouse, boss, or employer, will laugh his/her ass off at that.
Sadists don’t give a shit about forgiveness. If you’re in the wrong setting, a declaration of forgiveness might get you an extra shock to the genitals.
So forgiveness means understanding, to the extent possible, remembering what happened, but – and this is crucial, because it’s often all the New Agers can accomplish – don’t DWELL or obsess over it unnecessarily, get on with your life, but remember…and seek justice if possible.
Getting what they deserved
Why do we love to see celebrity assholes get their comeuppance? Because it satisfies our yearning for a narrative of crime and punishment — a narrative often missing from our own lives.
After centuries of persecution and passsivity, Jews are taking responsibility for their own defense and doing a magnificent job (not without $4B/year of American aid). They’re arguably a special case: persecuted and massacred with impunity for so long by so many nations. They had to kill back; they had to show that you cannot kill Jews with impunity. Hence the revenge killings for Munich, the hunting down of Nazis, the assassination of Muslim extremist leaders, etc.
But every group wants to close the arc, land the KO blow.
Osama hiding among our so-called friends (they knew, believe me)? I don’t think so. The US government/military was accuser, judge, jury, and executioner, and you didn’t hear a peep of protest from this nation, which was spared the spectacle of trying this man.
Sometimes justice is served quickly and quietly. (I hear the SEAL team op is going to be a great – and controversial — movie.) Not every criminal deserves his day in court. Yeah, I know, there are probably liberals who think Osama should have been be tried in NY. Maybe, but it’s better this way. He killed 3,000 people because there were Americans on his stupid holy soil. Deserved what he got.
Yes, the most the New Age ladies can accomplish if the offense is grievous (child abuse, torture) is to help you prevent rage and vengeance from consuming your life.
Widening circles of forgiveness
The Dear Abby column also includes an ever-widening circle of daily forgiveness affirmations, but as soon as it gets beyond people and off into “forgive across economic lines” and “forgive other nations,” it’s total nonsense. Nations aren’t people. They act crazy because they are collectively crazy, run by incompetents who mean you and me no personal harm. Nothing to forgive. Ridiculous.
I certainly don’t forgive religious fanatics – or believers of any stripe. They allowed their children’s brains to be molded at a crucial age, just as theirs were. Their pastors/rabbis/imams may be in the grip of a psychosis, but somehow, but they don’t have to close themselves off from reality, not all of them, at least. There are some secular Muslims out there – I know there are.
Nor do I forgive religious zealots, those orthodox wingnuts (Jews are really good at this) who excommunicate and ostracize their own children if they intermarry or are gay. May they burn in hell.
Others I don’t forgive? A long list, certainly including my last wife, who refused even the most reasonable requests, and David Dirt (pseudonym), the tyrannical, lying, brown-nosing, employee-marrying ex-boss who’s been rewarded by retiring to photography in the Southwest. I don’t think much about him, but when I do, it’s with the hope that he gets bitten by a rattlesnake.
Forgiveness and choice
The sweet, syrupy forgiveness is not only unrealistic (cannot realistically be applied to all offenses); it’s anti-humanistic. It completely abnegates the choice that the offender had to do what he/she did. Did Jeffrey Dahmer have a choice? Does everyone have a choice, even the schizophrenic whose voices are telling him to do it? But to blanket-forgive is to take away choice, a fundamental aspect of our humanity.
Was there choice in a particular offense? If the act was a crime, then that’s for the justice system to decide. As we all know, it seldom delivers justice and can be forgiving to a small degree (i.e., when mercy seasons justice, as in the famous “quality of mercy” speech in The Merchant of Venice): Minor offenses are played down or pled out. Sentences are reduced or commuted. There’s time off for good behavior. And a pardon from outgoing Governor Haley Barbour because you controlled your murderous instincts long enough to be his houseboy, polite and docile (this is the setup for a murder movie).
Aside from that, there’s justice: do the crime, according to the system, and you do the time. Some of the crimes, including all non-violent drug offenses, are not criminal at all, but the overlap between the justice system and actual justice is only occasional.
As for those offenders who go unpunished, we must not let them obsess us. Nor can we forget what they did. We cannot condone or excuse, much less forgive them. We can show that we disavow them. Modern Germans have made an outstanding effort at repentance, but the original offenses of the Third Reich won’t be forgiven. It’s just that today’s Germans won’t be blamed for them.
One last manipulative use of words, preceded by an implied “You are to take it as true that…”: “Only the brave know how to forgive. A coward never forgives.”
It’s NOT true! I submit that forgiveness has nothing to do with cowardice. A simple practice of realism and remembrance, coupled with the desire for justice or karma, and a general getting on with one’s life – that’s much better than lying to yourself and rewriting history.