[Warning: another, non-sexy, somewhat pensive post.]
Are some sins unforgiveable?
Some people irredeemable?
I’ve been thinking about this question lately.
I don’t like going to Germany. I’ve been there a few times, and every time, I’m haunted by twin thoughts: what would have happened to me if I had been in this spot in 1942? (I’m Jewish.) And, I know what happened to my great-grandparents; what happened to the great-grandparents of all the people I encounter (or, more precisely, what were they doing)?
I’ve discussed this with friends of mine, friends who say things like, “For God’s sake, N, get over it – look at all they’ve done,” or “It wasn’t her fault (pointing to the woman sitting across from me on the U-Bahn, or whatever).”
And here’s the thing: I don’t blame the Germans, exactly, for the Nazis. I understand that the Nazis were a product of a unique, highly contingent constellation of events and individuals, and that while it’s true that there are characteristics of German culture and history that may well have made the Germans more susceptible to Hitler, to the Nazi ideology, than other societies might have been, it’s equally true that people in general are manipulable, susceptible to poor, or cruel, or inhuman leadership and direction. I don’t believe that I’m in any way “superior” to those who were “good soldiers” under the Nazis, Or even to those who were leaders of the Gestapo. I don’t even imagine that I wouldn’t have been as bad or worse than any of them under the same circumstances.
I think it’s true, for the most part, that West Germany, and many (most?) Germans, did an admirable job of atoning for its sins, of redeeming itself, themselves. (East Germany was distracted with other woes.) And I even have a few friends who are Germans.
But you know what else is true?
I don’t give a fuck.
I don’t have to forgive a people, a country, that murdered most of my great-grandparents, that tried really hard to murder my grandparents, and, failing, left them horrifically scarred and traumatized in ways that my child is still paying for in the neuroses and pathologies that have been transmitted down over three, and now four, generations.
I don’t owe those fuckers forgiveness. I don’t owe them shit. All the rationalizations in the world don’t matter – I’m still not interested. This isn’t a hatred of Germans; it’s a description of how much I hate being in Germany.
But what about where the sins are closer to home – the sins of our parents, our lovers, our families? God knows, I’ve done more than my fair share of wrongs. I’ve benefited from enormous forgiveness from T, for which I’m unendingly grateful. Evidently, what I did was forgivable, at least by T, as awful as it was.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about atonement, about amends, about the idea that forgiveness is “giving up the idea that the past will have been different.” I think, in 98% of circumstances, this formulation works. But not for the Nazis, not when the wrongs we’re talking about are wrongs that include murder or torture or worse, wrongs that affect not just an individual, but extend forward across generations.
I recently heard myself saying that I don’t believe there is such a thing as an unforgivable act, only an act that hasn’t yet been redeemed. I wasn’t pressing myself hard when I spoke that sentence, but, having chewed on it for a bit, I think it’s mostly right. (Though to be clear: many acts never are redeemed, many actors never seek redemption.)
There’s a Buddhist story, the story of Milarepa, a young man from a prosperous family whose father died. Milarepa and his mother were taken in by his father’s brother and his wife, an evil, cruel couple, who mistreated Milarepa and his mother, and stole the family’s wealth. Milarepa, who had trained in sorcery, conjured a storm that killed thirty-five or so villagers (but somehow spared his uncle and aunt). Shortly thereafter, he came to feel remorse for his actions, and devoted himself to his own redemption, studying for twelve years before attaining the state of Vajradhara, or complete enlightenment. Milarepa was believed to be the first person ever to achieve this state in just one lifetime. (There’s a great movie called “Milarepa” – gorgeous, evocative. Worth seeing. Netflix has it.)
There’s another, even more apt Buddhist tale, that of Angulimala. Angulimala (the word means “finger garland”) was told by his teacher he had to kill one thousand victims, to gather the fingers of the victims, and to bring them to the teacher as a gift. (Rivalrous colleagues of Angulimala’s, in jealousy, had persuaded the teacher that Angulimala had seduced the teacher’s wife; the gathering of fingers was intended by the teacher to be punishment.)
The story picks up after Angulimala’s 999th victim – who would be the thousandth? First, he thought he would kill his own mother, that she would be his thousandth victim. But then he saw the Buddha, and decided the Buddha would make a better thousandth kill. He drew his sword and began running toward the Buddha, who was walking, slowly, away from him. But no matter how fast he ran, Angulimala couldn’t catch the Buddha. “STOP!” Angulimala called. The Buddha explained that he already had stopped, that it was Angulimala who should stop. The Buddha clarified: he had stopped harming living beings; Angulimala should do the same.
After that day, Angulimala joined the Buddha as a monk.
Many stories follow of Angulimala’s redemption, but also, of the workings of karma. Angulimala became a humble, devoted monk, well loved and revered, but occasionally, he would be attacked by angry mobs when he was gathering alms. The Buddha was clear with him: this was just part of his life, the consequence of the actions he had taken before becoming a monk.
I like this story because of its nuanced handling of the problem of evil-doing: Angulimala was a bad guy, a murderer, a thief. He ruined people’s lives. But in the story, he did it because his teacher had commanded him to, so Angulimala was “just following orders.” And the story makes clear both that the harm he had done was lasting, and inescapable, but also, that it was not the sum total of who he was, for the remainder of his existence.
To those whose children, whose parents, Angulimala killed? This story is superfluous. He was a murderer, and just as I have no particular interest in forgiving the Nazis, they would, should have no interest in forgiving him, even as his subsequent life was exemplary.
Some could never forgive him, they could never see past who he had been; others knew only who he was now. Which was the “true” him? Was he redeemed? Or was he accursed? Or both?
Angulimala managed to salvage a useful existence out of a horrific past; we should all be so lucky.