Saturday, October 20, 2012

Life Without Forgiveness

I've been thinking about forgiveness recently, and while I am probably fairly untainted by my past - certainly more so in the last couple of years than at any other time - there's a lot that I don't forgive.
Society, both Christian and otherwise, commands us to forgive, and is unforgiving of those who can't. And as I was typing that last sentence my mind conflated two Christian slogans, and came up with something that amused and pleased me:
It is better to forgive than to forget.
Whilst it came up as a slip of the tongue, or perhaps a slip of the mind, it is probably worth a second look, since we are so programmed to claim to "forgive and forget" (whilst storing every memory). So what, exactly, are forgiveness and forgetfulness? We think they are easy to describe, until we give them a second thought - then they become slippery customers indeed.
To me, with experiences enhanced by a couple of years of post-brain-incident fogginess, forgetfulness and the act of forgetting seems to be associated with losing the "lane-markers" in the traffic of the mind. It is my considered opinion that I have not become stupid, nor have I become incapable, but I am so adrift in time and forget so much of what I should be doing or other important stuff I should remember, that it is extraordinarily hard to organise myself for any kind of meaningful work. Prior to then, forgetting was something I did as a process of living through extended periods of time - even the heat of direct emotional or physical pain would fade and be forgotten by the simple accrual of time. And perhaps those out of my past who might consider that they have done something that I seem to have "forgiven" are mistaken - perhaps I merely forgot through time and more recently through the process of being unanchored in my own head.
And forgiveness? To listen to people of all faiths preaching about forgiveness, it would seem to be a positive act, or an object that you can offer to another person, so it is spoken about. Offered to another person, it might be the "that's okay" we routinely offer to an apology, if we really mean it and if it is not just a form of words that slip out of our mouths habitually.
A friend of mine recently told me that they have a troublesome friend who once told her that they have to make a conscious daily habit of forgiving her for something in their past in order to be able to face her and maintain the friendship. It sounded like a struggle, it sounded difficult and time-consuming. But surely, if you have forgiven something, it is forgiven already and doesn't need to be re-forgiven the next day or the next time you see them? Forgiveness is letting go, is turning your back on the problem and wiping the slate. Forgiveness offers a fresh start. If the slate is still dirty enough to need another wiping, forgiveness hasn't happened.
"Forgiveness is letting go," my own words. But nobody knows more than I do how hard it is to let go. Injustice burns. Loss burns. Pain burns. And as anyone who has been ignited will tell you, after the flames have been beaten out, it takes a long, long time for the pain to go away. I believe the vast majority of people are in my camp when I say that no matter how good my intentions, I find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to forgive things when they still burn. People have counselled me to "let go", but it is not a conscious act. Like a petrol-burn, an emotion-burn will heal at its own pace - you cannot hurry it, you cannot voluntarily "let go" if it is still burning, and it is only when both kinds of burn stop generating more and more heat in the affected tissues that any kind of healing can happen.
So, along with forgetfulness, "forgiveness", or "getting over it" or "letting go" is to a large part, a function of the passage of time and is extremely closely related to forgetfulness. It is not voluntary, not something you can counsel someone to do. And those who think they do it consciously as a matter of choice - is it possible, perhaps, that they have consciously chosen to ignore or repress it instead?
In my opinion as an ethicist, some kinds of forgetting should never happen at all. If we forget the wrongs of history and society, the harm to many that sociopaths and megalomaniacs cause to others (in the names of things like "patriotism" for example), we run the risk of allowing ourselves to be ruled by such people again, instead of sensing the warning-signs and removing from power any future Pol Pots or Hitlers before they embark on genocide again.
I recall from my reading on the Persian Wars of ancient times that one Greek leader led a foray into a Persian town  on the east coast of the Mediterranean - I've forgotten exactly which town and general, sadly - to find that all the able-bodied men were gone from the community, off to fight in other locations. So they killed the elderly, the infirm and the children, but worse, they let the mature women live, their breasts crudely amputated with swords and knives, to die slowly of shock, blood loss and infection. Not a single person survived. Some of us call Tony Abbott a misogynist, but I'm pretty-damn-sure he doesn't advocate amputating the breasts of every single Labor-voting woman and allowing them to die in agony, untreated!
Historians and the odd individual remember the wrongs mankind has wrought upon mankind. But the general populace, in order to feel comfortable with itself, forgets. We like to see ourselves as "good people", and descended from "good people", so we turn a blind eye to anything discomforting in our history so that we can get out of bed, go to work, play with our children and sleep again, comfortable in our image of ourselves as good people. But that blind eye that we turn, it allows other motivated and cruel people to rise to positions of power in our society, unseen until it is too late ...
So yes, in that sense, it is in fact better to forgive than forget. Cultures that haven't forgiven wrongs that happened centuries ago are still warring in some parts of the world, but it is almost as bad to have forgotten the lessons of history and leave ourselves vulnerable to really bad leadership. Was it Gandhi who said "You cannot prepare for war and then expect peace"? We need to prepare for peace: reduce international threats including everything from sanctions to armed forces as one half of that preparation (and yes, I do know I have a child in the military with a career-path in front of her leading to command), and make ourselves as peaceful as possible by temperament: accepting of others and their beliefs, colours, behaviours and values, being unwilling to judge those we do not know, being prepared to compromise even at the loss of face (or money). This is not about forgetting competitiveness, but about actively remembering it, and actively choosing another path.
Then, and only then, will our Zeitgeist be able to forgive itself and move unencumbered into the future. Society's forgetfulness is a problem, but personal peace, which begins with forgiving those who have wronged us, is a function of personal forgetfulness.
You cannot step away from your hurt, any more than I can. This is why I don't forgive, when I have something personal to forgive - because I know I can't, not without doing something unhealthy like repressing or ignoring the pain. Time will work its magic, both on me and on you, and allow the pain to lessen, fade, disappear entirely, as our memory of it fades.
My ex-partner was once very judgemental (bordering on visciousness) to a friend of mine, who had lost a newborn baby twenty-something years earlier, and was able to talk about it without tears. We were friends at the time, whilst my ex didn't come onto the scene for decades, and I'm here to say that my friend suffered terribly. The "one year" that her counsellors suggested was normal for intense grieving stretched into quite a few years.
My partner, meeting her a lot later, didn't see any of that. All she saw was a middle-aged woman, talking calmly and dry-eyed about the events that led up to the death of a baby. She told me that my friend was inhuman. I knew my friend wasn't inhuman at all - she had just eventually healed, at last. My ex-partner, on the other hand, held onto a lot of pain from her past and niggled at it, like a cat chewing out its surgical sutures or a proud person getting off crutches too early and delaying the healing of a bone, and had deliberately refused to allow time to heal her.
So in retrospect, my advice would be this: feel what you feel at *that* moment. If it is intense, really feel it, and don't forgive. If it is not intense, don't feel guilty about that - it is a sign healing is starting to happen, and for the gods' sakes, don't keep prising the wound open like my ex did, to extend your pain further into the future! Allowing yourself to heal at your own natural speed is the only way that pain can go away healthily, and the only way you can really forgive someone who wronged you.
So no, I never make any effort to forgive anyone. And I never will. And I am not ashamed. And, you know, there is probably not anyone in the world at the moment that I need to forgive - none of my past problems are still a problem. Try it - you'll like it.