Saturday, April 12, 2014

What We Do Is Who We Are

If you read this blog with anything even close to regularity, you know that I'm an atheist and also that I'm a serious believer in mercy and grace.  And you also know that I marvel at forgiveness.  

Perhaps it's that combination of things that drew me to this column by Giles Fraser in the Guardian. Fraser is, the Guardian tells us, "priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral."  But really, I don't care about his titles or his job. What I'm intrigued by is the idea.  We think about forgiveness wrong.

We have this idea.  Forgiveness, we think "involves person A coming to have warm and kindly feelings towards person B when person B has done them some enormous harm."  There are, in fact, cases. I've written about more than a few of them here.  They're noteworthy precisely because they're so remarkable, because they demonstrate something of the capacity of the human heart. 

Of course they're outliers.  They have to be.  Fraser puts it this way.
For the problem with forgiveness, as a kindly feeling towards a wrongdoer, is that it is impossible for most of us, maybe even for all of us. This I know: if you harmed my children, there is no way I am going to think kindly of you. Not ever. 
But if that sort of thing isn't within reach, maybe there's this.
A more realistic, and indeed a more politically useful understanding of forgiveness is, I think, that it is a refusal of getting even, a refusal of revenge.
Think of it as the anti-Blecker, the response to he who thinks insisting on getting even is the goal of life, who believes in wallowing in the hatred, not just the hatred of those who did him wrong, but the hatred of those who do anyone wrong.  Hate 'em all, thrive on it, seek revenge (but call it retribution and insist it's something other than revenge), revel in it.

Revenge, of course, is the model of the feud.  Each stroke must be repaid.  Hatfield kills McCoy, McCoy kills Hatfield.  Hatfield must strike back.  Ad infinitum.  

Ad nauseum.
Forgiveness, as in the refusal of reciprocity, does not make us feel good inside. In fact, as Nietzsche rightly pointed out, it does probably the opposite. We are still bitter and angry. But if this is the burden we have to bear for peace, then so be it.
There's room in that formulation for those who would hate, perhaps.  Fraser suggests that they could find peace by choosing not to act on the hate, and thereby give it up.
Forgiveness breaks the cycle of revenge and makes possible a future that is not trapped in the violence and hatred of the past.
Frankly, I think that's fanciful if forgiveness simply means not acting on the hate.  But then he's a priest and I'm just a lawyer.  Still, I get something of his point.
One of the things I have always liked about the stories of the Bible is that they are mostly uninterested in a person's inner life. They don't say much about how Jesus feels. But they say a great deal about what he does. Likewise with forgiveness: it is not fundamentally something that you feel, but something that you do.
Maybe.  There's a simple eloquence to that formulation - not what you feel but what you do.  Fraser knows better, I think, than really to believe it's that simple.  Because his whole point, finally, is that the act of forgiving ultimately brings peace and eases hate.  

But there's this, too.  There's no figuring in this whether the object of the forgiving is deserving.  The act of forgiving is an act of giving.   Like mercy, like grace, it's about the giver, it's about what we can and will do. 

Which is why it ultimately heals.  Because in the long run, what we do is who we are.

1 comment:

  1. You're pretty close, even for a lawyer. Speaking in generalities, people are incapable of forgiveness. Vengeance is a little different. Most people are capable of some serious vengeance. Do me a wrong, and I don't want your eye or your tooth. I want to hamstring you and let you watch while your family dies in a fire. Then I'll take your eyes and let you spend the rest of your life fumbling around in the darkness, living in a State funded 'convalescent center', cared for by a series of minimum wage slaves. Yep, vengeance is something people do real well. But forgiveness? Eh... not so much.

    This is where Divine intervention comes in. While we, the Great Unwashed, are incapable of forgiveness, the Lord is not. Not only can the Lord forgive us, the Lord is willing to forgive us and will provide us with the heart we need to forgive everyone who has ever wronged us. Since you no longer have an unquenchable thirst for vengeance, this is how you can get some peace in your life. See?

    Now in my case this whole Divinity thing was pretty easy to believe. Religion is supernatural, offering no more proof to the unbeliever than the Bible and a group of people willing to tell you that the Bible is right about something that's outside your senses. Supernatural stuff. Now me, I've lived in haunted houses twice, I've encountered psychic people on numerous occasions and I had a very close brush with the evil one. So the whole born again business was only a matter of learning how, instead of discovering such a thing would even be possible. For you it might be a little different.