Friday, November 5, 2021

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, November 6, 2021 - From a Distance


The subject of forgiveness has always been a fascinating one to me. Not surprisingly, my opinions about it have sometimes been at odds with established ways of thinking about it. 

For instance, I absolutely deny the usefulness of ideas like “forgive and forget.“ What good is forgetting if there’s something to be learned? And we often learn quite a bit in the moments of experiencing something for which our forgiveness might later be requested. Drama is often in need of forgiveness. But never forgetting. 

Mainstream religious thought contends that we will not receive forgiveness until we ask for it. However, I believe it’s more about perceiving than receiving. We don’t perceive forgiveness until we hear ourselves ask for it. In my belief, since according to tradition God knows our hearts and actions long before we ever commit them, we are pre-forgiven for our actions. But even the term pre-forgiven isn’t quite right because if we are so deeply understood by God, then how could we ever truly be held in a place of unforgiveness in the first place? 

I think forgiveness is a human action. From God's perspective it’s just pure understanding. If we had pure understanding of ourselves and others, I think we would approach those who trespass against us much differently. I think in encouraging the tradition of asking for forgiveness, however, God is in actuality encouraging us to forgive ourselves, and then make better choices thereafter. The reason we are encourage not to judge others, is because once we get out of the habit of it, we start to see the humanity we have in common. 

It brings to mind the recent trend of books and movies over the past two decades that fill in the backstories of some of our more famous literary and cinematic villains. I think of Gregory Maguire’s book series Wicked and its sequels, which fill in the blanks of just how Frank L. Baum’s infamous Wicked Witch of the West character gained her wickedness. We can see ourselves in her shoes and wonder whether or not we might have made the same choices if we were in her place. 

Likewise, the recent Maleficent films, starring Angelina Jolie, take a very empathetic stance on the villainous character from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It’s hard not to love her. 

Are these stories coming to the forefront in our society because we are starting to become sophisticated enough to realize that human behavior isn’t quite so black and white? The marketplace does not dictate our desires so much as they’re responding to the statistics of what we’re consuming. If we are seeing more film and television and books that give the human angle to what makes a criminal, it’s because they know that’s what we’re looking for. What overall effect on our judicial system, or educational system, or even our healthcare systems might be the end result of it? 

Does understanding what makes someone behave in a negative way make it easier for us to forgive them? Does it make it easier for us to figure out what the right and loving solution is rather than simply arresting them and locking them up because we think the problem is too big to solve? 

But on the practical, every day level, we need forgiveness in our lives. Even if we can’t be in a direct relationship with someone any longer because we are still vulnerable to their harm, we can still forgive people from a distance. Even if they haven’t asked for it. We can remind ourselves that only hurt people hurt people. And the size of their own hurt is usually proportional to the size of the harm they cause. Feel for them. In all likelihood, it is far worse to be in their shoes than yours. 

Can one truly have empathy for someone who has harmed us? That is what the masters teach us, after all. Why might they teach it? It can’t be that it’s impossible, or unadvisable. Christianity, as well as other faiths, teach us to love our enemy. Why might they do that? Is there value in this?

I have enough faith to believe that there must be some value to the action of forgiving others. I have enough faith to believe that loving my enemy is very likely good advice. Which means that it must be that forgiveness and safety can occur simultaneously. Forgiveness cannot mean continuing to subject ourselves to harm on purpose. That’s the forgetting part of ‘forgive and forget.’ Don’t forget. Stay safe. Forgive from a distance.

You don’t even have to tell them that you’ve forgiven them. In fact, it even comes across a little arrogant if offered without having been asked for. But it’s just as well. Because forgiveness given without having been asked for is purely for yourself. It is to end the cycle of inner anger and resentment that poisons our hearts and brains. It corrupts the delicate balance of our body and our brain chemistry. Even the microbiome of our gut is deeply impacted by our stress levels. And that can impact all manner of systems including in your immunity. Go easy on yourself. 

Forgiveness does not mean relieving someone of their accountability or responsibility for their actions. Our job is to make sure that our judicial system is fair and works to rehabilitate people rather than just lock them up and throw away the key. Retribution is an easy road out but a rough trail to walk back on. We will always pay a price for the miscarriage of justice.

As soon as our culture really learns to incorporate a model of empathy and forgiveness into its approach of those who have caused harm, we will continue to cause it. We will continue to perpetuate old cycles of violence and retribution. It doesn’t need to be this way. 

Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with you. 

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