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On forgiveness - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2006-10-27 04:53
Subject: On forgiveness
Security: Public
Tags:personal, political
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.
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Patrick Nielsen Hayden
User: pnh
Date: 2006-10-27 12:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But isn't that kind of "consistency" overrated? At the end of the day McVeigh was still a guy who killed 168 people, and they were still dead. George W. Bush gets an enormous amount of undeserved slack for stubbornly sticking to disastrous policies and wrong beliefs. Consistency is often a lot more deadly than waffling.

People constantly talk as if the tendency of politicians to tack and waffle is their worst sin, and declare that what they want is leaders who will take a position and stick to it. Pray they don't get their desire.
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Kristine Smith
User: kristine_smith
Date: 2006-10-27 13:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
George W. Bush gets an enormous amount of undeserved slack for stubbornly sticking to disastrous policies and wrong beliefs. Consistency is often a lot more deadly than waffling.

But somehow over the last 6 years, that brand of consistency has been equated with moral certitude, rightness, manliness, godliness, and an entire laundry list of traits that some people apparently want to see in their leaders. I've been reading a lot about authoritarian cultism recently, and the concept does seem to apply.
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Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2006-10-27 15:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Principle in and of itself is not to be admired, only the heart and actual substance of that principle, I think you are saying? If so, I agree.
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towersofgrey
User: towersofgrey
Date: 2006-10-27 13:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
*Turns off lurking mode*

Great post! This is something I was thinking about last night too, that in some ways we are all hypocrites because we recant previous positions that we can now see were wrong (variety of reasons, maturity, exposure to new people, etc.). And I think the most encouraging thing about humanity is the ability to change/grow. I don't have to be exactly right, right now. I have to do my best with what I have, learn as I go, and when I discover I'm wrong, then I should change to what I now know is better.

I also do completely get your point about power plays. Having being bullied in school, and now swimming with the sharks in business, I see it happen all time. People realize they crossed a line, they personally don't care that they crossed the line, but they know that it will affect their power in the future so they go ahead and pretend to apologize to retain their social standing. *Fumes of rage*

And then there is the angle of not allowing people to change by being cynical about the appearance of their forgiveness. But I am starting to ramble.

To wrap up: for me it goes to the whole dilemma of being finite beings stuck in time who can only know so much. We just have to do our best, and hope everyone else is as well. Anyhoo thats my two cents, thanks again!

*Turns lurking mode back on*
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Lawrence M. Schoen: Publicity shot
User: klingonguy
Date: 2006-10-27 14:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Publicity shot
Here's a distinction you may find useful. It seems to me like you're conflating apology and forgiveness. The childhood bully who approaches you at the reunion and expresses remorse for past behavior may not be seeking your forgiveness at all. He's merely acknowledging that there was a time when he was a total prick, that he's come to understand and appreciate said prickitude, feels bad about it, and wants you to know that he's come around.

In such a scenario, forgiveness from you would be a bonus, but it may not be part of the ex-prick's motivation. Your forgiveness (or not) doesn't alter the insight the bully's gained on his past behavior. In many ways, it's not about you at all, it's about the journey of self-discovery the bully's been taking.

You, my friend, you have your own journey. Ain't it fun?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-28 02:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, I'm really not hung up on this. I can't even name those kids any more. I only brought it up as an examplar...the patterning, I guess, that helped form my opinions about abuse of power.

But yes, I am conflating apology and forgiveness. And in real life, I don't think there's anyone I haven't forgiven, when it was called for.
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Ann: GB decider
User: ann1962
Date: 2006-10-27 14:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:GB decider
profiting by seeking forgiveness

Exactly, exactly. He would only do it to benefit how he was seen rather than for the damage he did. It would still be all about him.

Bullying has one good effect IMO, in that it gives the people it was enacted upon, a very clear view of manipulation and deceit. And that gives us untold strength in viewing the world.
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User: bmalone
Date: 2006-10-27 15:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well I cannot say that I was thinking about this last night; nor do I have any 'class reunion' stories to relate, as I would not be caught dead socializing with the sort of losers that I suffered in school. But there is a point my commenting here: in JHS, at probably about the same age that you are talking about, I was the object of bullying from a small group of upper classmen. Fast forward three years and in high school I came across this same crowd of jerks, only now I was as big or bigger than they. For years I'd fantasized about turning the tables, forcing apologies, etc. But when I came across these guys in high school, and saw that they were the same witless jerks as they had been, and would remain so for all their lives (same as it ever was, so to speak). I washed my hands of them. When they had bullied me, they'd been kicking the dog, the impotent bastards, releasing their own frustrations and anger on someone (then) weaker. They weren't worth my time or the surely wasteful effort to educate them to their jerkhood. What I did instead was much better, actually. I got on with my life, happiness, success and all that. I realized that being physically stronger than the bullies was not important--there would always be someone bigger and stronger than me. No, what was important was that I was intellectually and ethically stronger than the jerks. The point here, I think, is don't forgive the bullies because they now 'feel bad' about past behavior after having a few drinks at some lousy reunion party, pity them for they will never be better than what they were.

And yes, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld cannot be forgiven. Forgiveness is irrelevant unless and until the criminal is first punished. Then talk to me about forgiveness.
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2006-10-27 15:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Apology, forgiveness, understanding, sympathy, empathy . . . and Schadenfeude, the dark triumph. I really struggle with that one--but if Bush admitted he's been the worst president ever, I don't think I could keep from publicly smiling all day. (Though some of that would be relief.)
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2006-10-27 15:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Schadenfreude. I know German, I don't know how to type.
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Twilight: History
User: twilight2000
Date: 2006-10-27 15:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:History
I think most of us have a problem with that kind of forgiveness. The gal who my kid brother *still* wanted to beat the crap out of when he was 25 (and thus I was 30) for making many what-should-have-been-joyous occasions miserable in highschool is but one example. She wouldn't get much out of me if she sought me out and apologized today -- at least not at first.

The "please forgive me for all the years of hell I put you through" apology doesn't cut it for me -- but living your life like you meant it *after* the "conversion" experience is something else. George Wallace, one of the most reviled Anti Civil Rights Bastards of the 60's really *did* change and really *did* spend the rest of his life fighting FOR Civil Rights after his near death shooting experience. Him I could believe -- because he *lived* that way for many, many years.

It takes more than a well worded apology. It takes a permanent change in behaviour. It takes living like you *meant* that apology.
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mevennen
User: mevennen
Date: 2006-10-27 15:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My own religious tradition, such as it is, appears to suggest that rather than offering the other cheek, one goes round to the offender's house with a large sharp implement and then mounts their head on a pole.

This may be why modern Druidry is a revivalist, rather than an unbroken, tradition.

More seriously, I wasn't particularly bullied in school because I beat the shit out of a couple of girls who tried it. This is not a particularly healthy life lesson to learn, but it has been a useful one. Generally, I don't bother with forgiveness, but I do bother with acceptance. If you get abused by people, I think you have a personal duty to cut them out of your life as far as humanely possible and then just move on, rather than wasting any more time on them. Karma usually does catch up with them sooner or later in some manner.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-10-27 16:44 (UTC)
Subject: Beat the shit out of the bullies
Good for you, that was my policy too. It has to be done every time you change schools. Leila
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mevennen
User: mevennen
Date: 2006-10-27 21:45 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Beat the shit out of the bullies
Luckily, my reputation preceded me into secondary school. But usually you are quite right. It's not nice but it does mean you get left alone.
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Jeremy Tolbert
User: the_flea_king
Date: 2006-10-27 15:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You talked about Christianity's concept forgiveness for a second. I still think that's the most valuable teaching by the guy, and the least followed one at the same time. It's inhuman to forgive that easily, in the sense that it's against our nature. If we were to forgive so easily, we would be taken advantage of ad infinitem. Forgiveness is tied into trust a lot. I think there's an idea that when you forgive someone, you give them a little bit of trust that you took away. It's a balance that we all struggle with; to be human, and yet transcend humanity and be something a little bit more, anyway. (Even athiests like me. I can still respect the philosophy of the thing.)
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España Sheriff: deadwood-alandbullock
User: cmdrsuzdal
Date: 2006-10-27 16:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:deadwood-alandbullock
Not to get too touchy-feely but as far as I 'm concerned, forgiveness isn't really about the person you're forgiving. I think forgiving is very important (you can tell by how hard it is) to one's own emotional well-being.

I think (sincerely) asking forgiveness for things we regret is important as well, whether the person forgives us or not, or even cares or remembers what we are apologizing for. Again, to a very real degree it's not entirely about them.

Finally, I like to think people can change, but agree that asking for forgiveness is less important than making changes .

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User: aries_jordan
Date: 2006-10-27 17:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:strangenude
Replying to both of the above... one of the many ways in which bullies hurt someone is by taking away his faith in humanity and ability to trust others, which are essential to happiness. By acknowleging the injury and apologizing for it, the ex-bully may be trying, insofar as is possible, to undo that part of the damage he did to you, and perhaps restore some of your faith.

True forgiveness isn't a gift to him -- it's a sign that you have healed. Obviously, you can't force it. Inability to forgive isn't a character flaw, it just means that you're still hurting.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-10-27 17:55 (UTC)
Subject: Injustice
Are you saying that you can't forgive injustice? And the use of power to do injustice? If so, I don't think you need to get over it. Leila
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gvdub
User: gvdub
Date: 2006-10-27 18:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This very subject came up a few weeks ago in kingcadillac's journal in reference to the Amish community expressing forgiveness in the case of the recent school killings. I'm taking the opportunity to post here a variation on what I said then.

Forgiveness is not saying "we're all friends", nor is it forgoing anger. It is also not saying, "That's okay." Forgiveness is essentially saying to God (or just to the rest of the world, if you're not into the God thing), "Don't punish this person for my sake." It's forswearing revenge in all its forms and believing that the ultimate judgement is not in our hands, but those of a greater power. It is also understanding the negative load that such feelings can put on your spirit. One does not grant forgiveness, one comes to it, sometimes slowly, however it is first necessary to say, "I forgive you" to start on that journey. Forgiveness is not something others can ask for, it is a gift we give.

It's not healthy to hold a grudge or harbor ill will towards others, either physically or mentally. Look at research on what stress does to both body and mind, and ask yourself what is carrying that anger around with you but harboring stress. How much baggage do you want to cart around with you, anyway?

Later in his life, George Wallace made it a point to go to civil rights groups and individuals and apologize for his behavior during the early years of the civil rights struggle and say that he'd come to realize that what he'd previously believed and stood for had been wrong. Rev. Joe Lowery, who was one of the major movers in that civil rights movement became a friend of Wallace and believed that his apologies and repentance were sincere and heartfelt.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-28 02:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As I said to klingonguy, I truly don't hold a grudge, against my childhood bullies or anyone else, really. I was just using that story as an example of how I was sensitized quite early to abuses of power. I do have a lot of anger, but it is fed by continuing events rather than an endless bubbling stream of past hurt. And for the most part, I think I do a good job of letting go, though it took me many years to learn to do so.

And, yes, I can respect George Wallace.
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User: ellameena
Date: 2006-10-27 18:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There's a difference between forgiveness and making up. We forgive mostly for our own benefit, not the benefit of the other. But offering forgiveness is not the same thing as offering to be best friends, be a doormat, or even have any further contact with the person. Additionally, a person may make a wonderful apology, but they also have an obligation to right the wrong that they did. I don't know how you make reparations for bullying someone. There's a huge amount of harm done to the other person. And certainly not something that's going to happen within the space of a high school reunion party or any other chance meeting. I think twenty years worth of lawn mowing might do it. Maybe.
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John A Pitts
User: bravado111
Date: 2006-10-27 19:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Anyone familiar with a 12-step program knows that accepting the things we did to someone and apologizing to them is required to live a healthy life.

As others here have said, you are under no obligations to forgive this person.

I think klingonguy has it right.

My more immediate concern would be the pain and anger you are carrying around. That keeps sucking energy from your life in ways you might not even see.

Perhaps you do.

I've seen this destroy someone I cared a great deal about. My advice is, if you can't forgive, then at least do not harbor ill will. There is a major difference between forgiving and forgetting.

Forgiving them their trespasses does not mean trusting them ever again.
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User: blzblack
Date: 2006-11-01 00:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"What did you do to antagonize him?"

Ah yes, I know it well. It is good to think about what you may have done, but then not assume you were to blame. My mother still used this on me when a kid I'd never seen before yelled at me, "Dude, you're gay!" He repeated himself when I turned in case I missed the comment. I just laughed at him.

When I told Mom this, she wanted to know what I'd been wearing to make the 13 year old say this. "Mom," I said, "the kid is probably mentally defective, insecure, and/or gay himself." It's weird how we assume that strangers have secret knowledge over us.
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pingback_bot
User: pingback_bot
Date: 2011-07-01 20:44 (UTC)
Subject: No title
User gooddamon referenced to your post from No title saying: [...] 6;s entry about bullies and forgiveness [...]
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