Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

On forgiveness

Another brief excursion into my inner landscape. I was thinking about this last night, and a comment of pnh's this morning highlighted the issue for me again this morning. (This is another one of those tough posts.)

I'm very bad at forgiveness.

I don't mean this in a day-to-day social sense. I'm very quick to forgive, or to offer apologies, when offense is given or taken. Forgiveness is an emotional lubricant and a learning opportunity, at least for me. As mentioned before, it's important to me to get along with people, and I am genuinely horrified when having given offense, most especially the unintended kind.

But long-term forgiveness, when, for example, someone has a change of heart, can be a real challenge for me.

I went to elementary school in the early-to-mid 1970s. I was often at the receiving end of bullying, including a few fairly serious incidents, as well as years of day-to-day minor harrassment. This was an era when the standard response to bullying, from both school authorities and from my own parents, was "What did you do to antagonize him?" For example, the day in fifth grade I wound up in the corner of the classroom under a pile of desk chairs when the teacher had stepped out for a few minutes, I was the one sent to the counselor's office, and given detention, for disrupting the class. Let's just say this childhood history has given me an extreme response to power dynamics.

I've had people tell me stories of going to class reunions ten, fifteen, twenty years after the fact, and being approached by someone who said something to the effect of, "I was cruel to you in school, and I want you to know I'm very sorry about that." I would be hard-pressed to accept an apology like that. Here's where I run into being bad at forgiveness: I cannot shake my underlying conviction that someone who abused their power (social, physical, political) when they were in a dominant position, then wants forgiveness after the benefits of that abuse have become immaterial, is profiting at both ends of the situation. They got the satisfaction of their power play at the time, and they get the later satisfaction of absolution.

I don't want to give it to them. I'd make a lousy Christian, for that reason alone.

I recognize this is a basic character defect in me. In real life, meaning face-to-face contact, I don't live up to this hard-edged bitterness -- I'm not nearly tough enough to look someone in the eye and tell them to bugger off in a circumstance like that, and I don't want to be that tough, thank you -- but when I look at larger abstractions, this world view tends to inform me.

Hence some of my political anger.1 To go to cases here, if Bush were to stand up today and say in all sincerity, "I was wrong about Iraq, I have ruined both our national honor and their entire country, and now we will make an orderly withdrawal and every effort to effect an honest reconstruction of the damage we have done," I would have a very hard time accepting that. I would not reject the result of such a declaration, in fact I would celebrate and support it, but the idea of Bush profiting by seeking forgiveness for the very acts he thought to profit by doing in the first place would offend me deeply.

This is not a healthy outlook on my part, but it's deeply embedded. This is another place where I have a lot of doublethink in my own head. The tendency toward bitter anger at people who played their power for gain at the expense of others is very real, but my desire for social inclusiveness nearly always balances it out. I don't think of this deep suspicion of forgiveness as a positive aspect of my character or personality, but I have to recognize it for what it is, and take steps to make sure my emotionality doesn't run away with me in the heat of the moment.

1This is one reason I revile Lee Atwater, particularly. From another angle, to take it out of the immediate realm of electoral politics, contrast Ted Kaczynski with Timothy McVeigh. When the jig was up for Kaczynski, he folded like a cheap suit, frightened of the consequences of his acts. The power he'd wielded as an anonymous mail bomber transformed into pleas for judicial mercy when he no longer had that power. McVeigh, one of the most vile and despicable characters in modern American history, at the least had the courage of his convictions -- he was willing to die for what he was willing to kill for, eventually halting his own appeals process. He didn't turn away from the consequences of his exercise of power, even after his power as a terrorist was taken away from him. I don't think either one of them deserves an iota of forgiveness, but at least McVeigh was consistent.
Tags: personal, political

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