Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Virtue as Vice

Over the past few months - as I have pursued and received a diagnosis of complex post traumatic stress - and over the past few years - as I have initiated and maintained sobriety - I have thought quite a lot about the nature of forgiveness.

Culturally, notably in Christian culture, forgiveness is perceived as a defining virtue. We ask God for His forgiveness for our mortal failings, and we are charged to forgive others who may have harmed us. And in sobriety, we are encouraged to make amends to others - not exactly to ask for forgiveness, but to offer our most sincere apologies and our intentions to change, and to remain changed. 

I can see the value in that. It makes a lot of sense to me to apologize and to actively strive for personal growth and permanent change. And I can see the virtue in believing in a greater force that accepts us for who we are and who encourages us to do better. I suppose I am a big supporter of saying, "I'm sorry."

But I find that I am not so thrilled about the idea of saying, "I forgive."

Perhaps because the latter is so rarely preceded by the former. 

The constant crush of our cultural cruelty has further encoded this seeming necessity for forgiveness. Victims of violent crime, of oppression, of bigotry, are all carrying the burden of our collective values - when we read about the aftermath of crimes we often read words of forgiveness, as if moving forward from tragedy requires a selfless act from the people who have been harmed the most. 

And I can see, if a survivor's well-being rests on their religion, that forgiveness might be a way forward. If one's comfort is one's god, that god sets the terms. I understand that, though I cannot, for myself, believe it.

But I think we do need to talk about things that are unforgivable, and about people who do not deserve the efforts of those who have been irrevocably damaged. A few examples, though there are many more --

Human beings who are crammed into concentration camps at our border should not ever, ever be asked to understand and excuse the depravity of their captors - to make sense out of intolerable behavior, to have compassion, to grant absolution. 

Victims of hate crimes will receive no apologies, no promises to change. People who are marginalized by the majority are granted no dignity, no humanity, no love - why, then, should they give those considerations to the people who hate them?

Survivors of mass shootings have not only lost friends, colleagues, children, parents, but have lost any sense of security that a just society should guarantee. How can they then turn to the (white, cis, het) men - who are so bitter and broken and desperate and pathetic - and offer a way out? 

When we look at what is really happening, right now, in our country, we have to let go of normative notions of social exchange. And then we need to turn that inward and consider if we, too, have forced ourselves to yield to that force, that drive, to make pain look pretty. Virtuous. Holy. 

Looking in at my traumatic memories, I've realized how much I have felt the need to forgive things that will never be corrected, and to have a self-immolating compassion for the damaged people who have caused me harm. I have, against my own will, submitted. And I'm right on the edge of realizing how incredibly unnecessary that struggle has been. There's been no reason to forgive - to move forward, yes, always, but not to say it was okay.

For survivors, it is so easy to look to others and say, that person had it worse, or, it's not like it was that bad. But that denial of the self is a type of forgiveness, I think, of the people who caused the trauma. Because they could have been worse. Because they didn't do every other bad thing. 

Because we know how other people are broken - we know why certain people behaved the way they did, we know their own hurts, their own traumas. We know about their mother, or father, or family friend, their hunger, their poverty, their helplessness - we know, maybe, that once upon a time, they had it worse. That they were doing "the best they could."

But I look at our culture and I would never, ever, ask anyone else to offer forgiveness. Not for money, not for public perception, not for family, and not for God. Why, then, should I demand it of myself? 

The world isn't making amends. Our national abusers aren't apologizing, aren't making changes. Cruelty and selfishness are, for them, their own rewards. And how many of us have people in our past who will never even attempt to make things right? Why cling to those people, to those scenarios, and hope against hope for true change that will never come?  
I am happy to offer forgiveness to the people who say they are sorry. That's the way it should be. And if someone in public life - a community leader, a representative, a politician - changes their views and then enacts change, I support them in full. But neither I nor you should ever bend down to embrace the unchangeable - the irredeemable. That goes for everybody - family, friends, community members, leaders, politicians, police.

Because sometimes our social values are toxic. And we've got to move forward, to stop clinging to our hurts. 

Sometimes we shouldn't say, "I forgive," because we need to say, "Goodbye."

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