On forgiveness

Forgive yourself your sins

Lloyd Cole, “Sweetness” (Rattlesnakes, 1984)

The subject of this week’s post was suggested by on of my readers, Phil Harris. I welcome further suggestions via the comment section below, although of course I reserve the right to ignore them 🙂

In English, we speak of bearing a grudge. I like this expression; it brings out the way in which a grudge, which is the refusal to forgive a real or imagined wrong, is a thing to be toted about. It has a cost to it.

Of course we might feel that the cost is worth it. I don’t imagine most Jews are going to let go of their grudge against the Nazi Party any time soon. I’m not sure about the Palestinians with regard to the Jews, but that isn’t looking too hopeful either. Closer to home, when will the French and English embrace one another as brothers? Or the English and the Scots, for that matter. There are rights and wrongs and everybody knows what they are. People disagree, but they are always right. And people like to be right. If the Internet has done nothing else for us, it has surely demonstrated that beyond any possible doubt.

What is it that we find so difficult about forgiveness? I ask this for myself as much as anyone. It’s not as if an individual act of forgiveness has earth-shattering cosmic consequences. If I gave William the Conqueror a free pass, not much would change. Not much more would change, frankly, if I extended the same courtesy to Jeff Bezos or Boris Johnson or that git who was my headmaster at junior school. That is to say, the world would go on much as it did before.

And for myself, wouldn’t I be the lighter and freer for it? Not that I spend that much time and energy brooding over the Harrying of the North, but such time and energy as I do spend is surely wasted. Any judgement on the old miscreant’s soul would have been passed back in 1087, and even if I’d been around then I don’t suppose my opinion would have been taken into account. The world kept on turning, much as it does today.

I have heard of an individual case where a Holocaust survivor, much later in life, was able to forgive the guards. This is forgiveness on a heroic scale, but if that is possible, surely anything is.

For a lot of these cases, forgiveness is obviously the remedy, and I do try to apply it where I can. I could certainly do more in that direction; most of us could. What I find harder – and I speak for myself, as always in these posts, but not, I think, only for myself – is to forgive my own shortcomings.

None of us, after all, is perfect. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” as Kant said, “no straight thing was ever made.” I have done things that I regret, and so, dear reader, have you. Sometimes we can make amends, but all too often we can’t. And then?

And then all we can do is to make sure we don’t do it again. That may not sound like much, but actually this is what atonement means. Becoming a better person means not screwing up in the same way we screwed up before. Of course human beings are what they are, and we will find new and original ways of screwing up, but then you just rinse and repeat. If you do this often enough, you may well find you have become an okay person.

Which is what it seems to me we are called to do. To invoke Kant again, what would happen if everyone did this? The world would be full of okay people, and Facebook would be out of business. I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a future worth struggling for, even if it does mean letting go of that unpleasant incident in 1971.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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