Forgiveness, part 2 (or 3, depending on how you’re counting)

People speak of forgiveness’s being “granted” or “withheld”; of people “seeking” it or even “earning” it.

These usages seem wrong to me.

Forgiveness is one of those things, like love, or hunger, or belief, that happen to us, rather than our deciding to “do” them. Sure, there are things we can do that will make it more likely that others will forgive us, or that we will forgive ourselves, but for the most part, forgiveness is almost an exogenous event – all we can do (though to be sure, it’s a lot) is prepare the soil for it.

Similarly, the mirror images of forgiveness – resentment and judgment – are almost meteorological in their manifestation: they wash over us, unbidden, and tend to stick around, polluting our experience, our existence.

Where this all gets complicated is in our relationship to resentment, and to judgment. Many of us become so familiar with, accustomed to, our judgment and resentment, whether of others or ourselves, that we begin – consciously or otherwise – to reinforce it, daily, hourly. When we do this, the resentment, the judgment, doesn’t follow its normal course, the normal course of all emotions, which is to dissipate, slowly, like smoke in a gentle breeze. Instead, we fan its flames, keeping the embers hot, the fire burning.

In my previous post on this subject, I was perhaps unclear, or incomplete, in my thoughts. Several readers (mis-)read me to say that somehow, once wronged, we have an obligation to forgive. I don’t believe this. I cited the example of the crimes of the Nazis as wrongdoings I simply have no interest in forgiving. As my friend, Omniwhore, wrote in his (cogent, thoughtful) reply to that post, many African-Americans harbor lingering resentment and anger toward white Americans – descendants of slaveholders and not, alike. And why not? We whites (the first members of my family didn’t arrive on this continent until fifty years after the last slave was freed) continue to benefit from the vestigial economic and sociological effects of slavery, regardless of whether our ancestors were slave-owners. And who am I to demand forgiveness, or exemption from judgment, when this is true?

More personally, what if someone harms me, physically, emotionally, permanently? What if that person feels no remorse? Or even if that person does feel remorse? Do I, in some sense, “owe” her forgiveness? Of course not.

But… What of myself? What of the harm I have done to others, to myself? And what of the harm I continue to do myself? This is, to me, the most toxic, most pernicious form of wrongdoing. The stories I tell myself – about my self-worth, my desirability, my basic goodness – have the potential to be liberating and empowering. But they equally can be crippling, restraining, limiting. I can’t undo the harm I did in the past, but by holding fast to self-denigrating views, I deprive myself, and the world, of the good I could do, could become, starting today. Milarepa could have sat and moped in self-recrimination for the rest of his life. Angulimala could have done the same. But instead, each picked himself up, dusted himself off, and started all over again. To great effect.

This is what I mean by “nothing is unforgivable.” It’s why I so like the tale of Angulimala – it neatly demonstrates both the impossibility of forgiveness in certain situations, and the possibility of redemption in all.

And finally, a postscript:

Resentment, whether of self or other, is toxic. None of us owes anyone forgiveness. But while resentment courses through our veins, happiness, calm, peace surely are hard to come by. So the (very difficult) challenge for those of us who have suffered grievous wrongs is to liberate ourselves from the prison of anger, resentment. This isn’t the same as forgiveness – it’s simply to say that if we can’t let go of resentment, it won’t let go of us.

(For another day: I’ve written briefly about this before, but anger, for me, is a secondary emotion, not a primary one. It’s borne of fear, or sadness, or loss, almost always: if I scratch an angry feeling, inevitably I can find one of those other, more basic emotions lurking. Anger often is a safer emotion, one that makes me the agent, the subject, rather than the object.

And for another day: resentment means, literally, etymologically, “to feel again.” It’s the memory of a wound, not the wound itself. Simply seeing that often, but alas not always, has the power to loosen its hold over me.)

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