Oct 082012
 

[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.

  7 Responses to “Forgiveness”

  1. I love this post. I like it when you make me think, and introduce ideas I haven’t considered, or stories/parables I don’t know. Thanks.
    Have you ever read The Book Thief? http://www.amazon.com/The-Book-Thief-Markus-Zusak/dp/0375842209

    The tumblr blowjobs running alongside aren’t bad either.
    xx L

  2. II have to agree with Lizzie, I love this post and I love your blog in general. It is without a doubt one of my favorites.

    As a non-Aryan man who sleeps with men, Nazi Germany would have terrified me. But I lived in Germany for many years as both a child and an adult and have to say that with one exception I was never met with anything but kindness.

    That being said, I’m not Jewish and thus can’t relate to Hitler in the same way that you do. I’m half black, so for me the closer issue is slavery in the US. The wrongs committed by slave owners were different than those committed by Hitler’s regime, but they were definitely wrongs that affected entire generations. Sometimes I hear about black people who still hold slavery against white people, who still demand reparations, and I don’t get it. I feel that some of their issues stem from their own inability to let go. I mean Obama would never have been elected president if the mentality that propagated slavery still persisted—why then cling so dearly to the pain of the past? I feel that both the offender and the victim have to be able to move on and accept the things they cannot change if progress is to be made.

    There is a quote from the film The Interpreter that I think is apropos:

    “Everyone who loses somebody wants revenge, on God if they can’t find anyone else. But in Africa, in Matobo, the Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. lf someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There’s an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He’s taken out on the water and he’s dropped. He’s bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the dead then has to choose. They can let him drown, or they can save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they’ll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn’t always just… that very act can take away their sorrow.”

    I think it would be wrong to pretend that the atrocities of the Nazis (or the slave owners) never happened, but I think it is equally wrong to judge the descendants and the country they have built by the actions of their forbearers, in the same way that I think condemning all mankind for Adam and Eve’s original sin is wrong. I like the story of Angulimala; it reminds me of the conversion of Paul the Apostle, who also did horrible things but then became an important Christian advocate.

    I’m not trying to belittle the traumatizing effect the Nazis had, but I feel that as with the (what is the current PC term in the States?) African Americans, the trauma can at some point become self-perpetuating. The victim has no obligation to forget or to necessarily forgive, but an inability to see how a person or society has changed for the good is more harmful to the victim in that the victim gets stuck in the past rather than working on moving forward.

    I’m sorry this got so long, but you wrote an insightful post and I felt it warranted a proper response.

    So yeah, what was that about hot blowjobs? 😉

  3. I get better now why you have a “visceral dislike of the language”… 🙂

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