Thursday, December 13, 2012

What does it mean to forgive?

I teach a weekly workshop at the middle school on close-textual interpretive reading.  A few weeks back, a question came up:  "What's the meaning of impressionable?  Does it mean easily impressed or does it mean good at making an impression?"

"I think it means both," said one of the brightest of these bright children, having learned her lesson too well: when you don't know, it's best to split the difference, never take a stand you're not sure you can defend. 

There are words like that, words that mean both.  Cleave for example.  Though it's always seemed apt to me, the way carrot coins cleave to the cleaver that cuts them apart, the way cheese chunks cleave together even after they are cloven.  The way a husband and wife cleave and cleave between them.  There are also words that should be opposite but are not, like ravel and unravel. 

But impressionable is not one of those words.

Is forgiveness one of those words?

This month I keep saying forgive, forgive, handling it so much that the meaning starts wearing away beneath my fingers. Already I'm not sure if to forgive means to forget or to remember.  Already I'm not sure if I'm forgiving so I can understand others, or so I can understand myself.

Or if I'm trying to understand so I can forgive
These acts of forgiveness, like everything Emma writes, reject always the easy fluid gesture in favor of the hard, knotty path – forgiveness not as absolution but as an act of knowledge, with all the intimacy and difficulty knowledge always entails.  [Moria from  Moria in Excelsis ]
But I wonder if my knotty insistence on trying to know is blocking me from the fluid gesture of grace?  I am finding that in order to forgive I have to re-enter closed rooms of anger.  Is anger knowledge?  Is forgiveness a kind of anger?  I hear in one ear:
Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.  Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something is not right.  Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self -- our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions - is being compromised in a relationship.  Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give.  Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth.  (from The Dance of Anger)
I hear in the other ear:
Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.  And if any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.  But if any man love God, the same is known of Him.  (from 1st Letter to the Corinthians)
Is forgiveness an act of knowing? or an act of love?  An act of cognition and boundaries? or an act of recognition and embrace?

What is forgiveness?  Not absolution (which sounds like what some people are looking for in the bottom of a glass of vodka.  But even looked at soberly I can't help but feel absolution is too extreme an unction for me to ever have power to grant). To err is human, to forgive divine  suggests that only God can really forgive. 

I , the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all  suggests that only God can safely not forgive. Suggests that forgiveness is a kind of hygiene we mudborn bodies need, a kind of maintenance that keeps our frail boats afloat.  So, is forgiveness just a more loaded word for repair?  In her post  a becoming whose arc may extend no further, Moria posits that
. . . repair, like forgiveness, isn’t very nice. It’s not comfortable or easy and it doesn’t really make you feel better. What it does is enable you to survive the present without making claims on the future. The reparative gesture allows you to cohabit with damage, loss, and failure without being destroyed by them.
But Moria says she doesn't really believe in forgiveness.  I do want to believe in it.  Faced with the dire and unwieldy realities that come with adopting an older child, that come with the daily care of an aging parent, that come (let's be honest) with being an aging older child myself, I have need for something more generative than reparative.  More regenerative.

I love the different ways Moria's commenters define forgiveness.  The healthy utility of Flavia's:
I think about forgiveness a lot. The most useful statement I’ve come across on the matter is “forgiveness is giving up the possibility of a better past.” So yeah: it’s about being able to let go of anger in order to survive and be whole oneself — and as such is a relatively selfish gesture. And I can get behind that.

The generosity of Renaissance Girl's:
 I too think about forgiveness a lot, and while I agree that it’s about letting go in order to survive (which may have some selfish motivation), I also continue (naively?) to believe that it’s an efficacious and selfless act, something like allowing the forgiven to be wholly selved in all complexity without the expectation of conforming to my will.

I want that wholeness they both mention for myself.  And  suspect that I can only find a whole self in that clearing where I allow others too to be "wholly selved."

So I'm not sure how helpful it is to just say I forgive you, which can be said so repressively, judgmentally, so primly and stingily, so grudgingly.  And to say these words in a public space like this can come off sounding more passive-aggressive airing of grievance than a peace-making clearing of the air. I'm beginning to suspect -- no, I'm beginning to fear that to forgive requires more of me than just words and a feeling of measured benevolence.  I'm afraid forgiving is going to require me to make stands I may not always be able to defend.  I think forgiving is a little dangerous. 


NWG said...

Excellent, insightful.

Forgiveness includes recognizing (many would say acceptance but I have found that many struggle with this word because of its implication that to accept is to agree or to approve) the reality of what is. There is a humility involved in recognizing. As we forgive, we recognize that people, including ourselves, are flawed.

John Romeo Alpha said...

If the sun were to go supernova and annihilate me, would I forgive it? In no way that would be meaningful, no, I am able to respond, because I can project that the supernova would destroy the I that would have become. Similarly, we don't forgive that which we project will go on destroying (altering, defacing) the I that we would have become. So long as we go on permitting that destruction of I-becoming, forgiveness is impossible, meaningless. If I am to nurture the I that would become, I must forbid that which would destroy it from doing so, and find the way to strengthen that forbidding through knowing and understanding.

Lisa B. said...

This whole project, while perplexing to me, is still resonant, and I keep checking back in. Also, I've taken a renewed purpose from it--to understand better how to forgive oneself. And I am brought up short--in a good way, I think, by that last paragraph:

>>I'm beginning to suspect -- no, I'm beginning to fear that to forgive requires more of me than just words and a feeling of measured benevolence. I'm afraid forgiving is going to require me to make stands I may not always be able to defend. I think forgiving is a little dangerous.

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