To blog is to forgive?

02 May 2005

In the movie “The Interpretor” Nicole Kidman stars as Silvia Broome.  She grew up among the Ku, in the fictional nation of Matobo.  When someone commits murder among the Ku, they are allowed to live for a year.  Then they are dumped in a lake with their hands tied.  The victim's family members must decide whether to plunge into the water and save them, or let them drown.  The prevailing wisdom among the Ku seems to be that those who save the murderer, in effect forgiving them, and releasing themselves from anger and resentment, are better off for it.
Many thinkers agree with this idea of the Kus, that forgiveness is good for the forgiver.   Thus Francis Bacon:

This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well. 

And Ann Landers:

One of the secrets of a long and fruitful life is to forgive everybody everything every night before you go to bed.

So perhaps it is a good idea to forgive others, to insure one’s own peace of mind, so that resentment doesn’t gnaw away at one.

But do the ones we forgive always merit being forgiven?  Doesn’t forgiveness fly in the face of the demand for justice?  Besides, to continue the quote-a-thon, there is Nietzsche’s insight. 

If there is something to pardon in everything, there is also something to condemn.

But then, H.W. Longfellow seems to have a point when he says:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each person's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

But then so too does George Bernard Shaw:

The secret of forgiving everything is to understand nothing.

Can we make sense of the bevy of insight?  Or should we just start over?

Something Empirical

At there is a summary of an interesting article by Brenda Goodman.  Goodman reports on the research of Jennie Nell from the University of Cincinnati, who studied 55 girls who had been sexually abused.  She was interested in the effects of various aspects of forgiveness:

  • giving up the desire for revenge
  • letting go of anger
  • moving on with their lives
  • reconciliation with the offender

If forgiveness is taken to include the first three, the results of forgiveness are positive for the lives of the forgiver, as Ann Landers, Francis Bacon and the Ku and Nicole Kidman (at least at the beginning of the movie) suggest.

Noll found that abused girls who had let go of both anger and the desire for revenge had higher self-esteem, less anxiety, fewer symptoms  of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and better relationships with  their mothers.

Reconciliation is a different matter:

But when the girls wanted to reconcile with their  offenders, who were sometimes their fathers, they were more anxious, had  more symptoms of PTSD and dissociation and were more likely to have bad  relationships with their mothers.

The researcher Noll advises therapists:

Do some work with them that lets them get over their anger, gets them over wanting to hurt this person, but don’t encourage a  renewal of that relationship,” she says. “It could put them  at risk and make them feel powerless again.

Getting the me out of it

According to this week's guest, Charles Griswold, Bishop Butler's take on forgiveness was that it required foregoing revenge, but not resentment.  But the resentment ought to be proportioned to the offense.  The way to do this is to think about what a disinterested spectator would take to be the gravity of the offense.  (Disinterested in the sense of objective, impartial, and the like, not in the sense of "uninterested" or not giving a damn.)  A sincere forgiver --- in Butler's framework, this means a Christian who is trying to follow all those injunctions in Matthew to forgive your enemies seven times seventy times and love more or less everyone, and to forget about the eye for an eye philosophy of the Old Testament  ---  need not get all teary and gushy about it, and need not have anything like feelings of love for the offender.  To be such a forgiver, I need to get rid of the surplus of feelings and desires for punishment that have to do with the offendee being me.  From an objective point of view, that person isn't worse for having insulted me, or not repaid money to me, or run over me, or pillaged my home, than for having done it to anyone else.

Remember Michael Dukakis, when asked in a Presidential Debate with George I how he would feel if his wife Kitty was raped and murdered --- Dukakis disapproved of the death penalty.  Dukakis' reply was in accord with Butler, as I understand Butler (via Griswold), although, of course, terrible politics.  He gave more or less the answer he might have given if the question had been about the proper treatment of the rape and murder of an anonymous person X.  Even then it would have been bad politics.

The fact of the matter is that Longfellow, Shaw, and Nietzsche all have points about the merits of any offender most of us are likely to be called on to forgive.  (I.e., not  Hitler, or Jeffrey Dahlmer, or others of their ilks, about whom Longfellow seems wrong).  It's pretty likely that the nature of the interactions they have had with us don't reflect very well their sum total of vices and virtues.  We are likely to over-generalize.  We should try hard to look at the offense to us from a disinterested point of view --- although not before having taken the time to recognize and feel the negative emotions we eventually want to let go of, otherwise we won't do a very good job of letting go.

A couple of years ago I gave a very nice introduction to a speaker at Stanford, who then spent the first ten minutes of his talk berating me for a metaphor he found unfortunate, and deftly related the sort of people who would use such a metaphor to war, pestilence, ecological destruction, and most other ills of humankind and animal-kind.  As I sat there, embarrassed and resentful, I imagined the speaker in Dante's Hell, suspended by his heels over a vat of something unpleasant, while hot tar was poured on his feet.  (I don't think this is the worst circle of Dante's Hell, so even at that moment my early training in Christian Charity had effect).

As time passed, I was able to look at it objectively.  For one thing, it wasn't a very good metaphor.  Then the Longfellow point, who knows what miserable childhoods or chemical imbalances underlies this fellow's life?  Finally, the Nietzsche point, everyone is capable of really rotten behavior.  Finally, the Butler strategy.  He did behave like a jerk.  Maybe he is a jerk.  But being a jerk isn't the worst thing in the world, far from it.  Indeed, the fellow has many talents, and has generously helped many people, all that in addition to the nice things I said about his work in the introduction.

So, no desire for revenge, at least not of the hot-tar-on-the-bottoms-of-the-feet variety.  But also, no desire to get into the same situation again.  I don't want to get into any position where this person is given an excuse to morally assess me, or make a cutting remark.  I shouldn't treat him like a despicable human being, but there isn't any reason I shouldn't treat him like a bit of jerk.  That's exactly how I would have assessed his offense to me, if someone else had been the target.  And I would have found the situation sort of humorous in a pathetic sort of way, which indeed it was.  How's that for Christian love and forgiveness?

That's my deep thoughts on forgiveness.  I'll have deeper and better ones after our talk with Charles Griswold later today.

Comments (2)

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Thursday, May 25, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

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Frank Gonzalez

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Thursday, May 25, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

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