My lover and I are eating lunch outdoors. My usual habitat being the coastal sub tropics I’m cold in this southern city in winter, and swathed in a shawl, wool coat and boots. He laughed when he saw the number of garments I needed before I ventured outside.
“One of the most amazing things to me about human beings,” I tell him this day, “is our capacity for forgiveness.”
He looks at me as if I’ve said I believe in God, and says, “There are people I will never forgive, and I’d still do them harm if I could.”
For a moment I think he’s teasing me.
The topic of forgiveness is of great interest to me, so much interest, in fact, that I wrote a whole chapter of my doctoral thesis on it, an argument for the reclamation of forgiveness from religion, for a secular forgiveness that belongs in the discourse of human rights and has nothing to do with any transcendental exteriority. So I stare at him with my mouth open.
“You don’t know my story,” he says, and gives an account of events many years ago when he was wrongfully treated and as I will never know the other side of the story I can’t make any assessments and it doesn’t really matter because what strikes me with such force is that the man sitting beside me, whom I love, is apparently a long-time nurturer of vengeful desires who has just scoffed at me for thinking humans have the capacity for forgiveness. It ought to frighten me, that I’ve opened my heart and mind and body to someone who apparently carries resentment and the desire to harm about with him for decades and thinks that normal, and as I suddenly feel cold and my food tastes odd, I suppose it has.
I have no idea how long it’s sensible to give sustenance to deep grudges against someone we feel has done us harm, but from experience I’d say as little time as possible because who wants to live with that kind of darkness and as I argued in the thesis, forgiveness is primarily a release for the victim rather than the perpetrator, not to mention the advantages to society if we manage to refrain from poking out one another’s eyes and making the whole world blind.
The experience of being injured is not a pleasant one. It fundamentally disempowers. The urge to pay back with commensurate harm is strong. In the early post-injury stages people do all kinds of things that they may later regret (or not) but if the initial desire for revenge stays in my life for years, I’m inclined to think the perpetrator has won.
As Derrida points out, the problem with forgiveness is that the word itself is so imbued with religion it’s difficult to think of it without that baggage. Professor Charles Griswold of Boston University wrote a philosophical exploration of forgiveness in which he seeks to provide the concept with a secular context, however, as I argue in my thesis, Griswold creates a framework of requirements for forgiveness that strongly resembles a dogma, a crypto-theology that presupposes an unidentified, unacknowledged authoritative presence that corresponds to a supreme being. In this, Griswold’s exploration mimics religion. Many of his requirements are difficult if not impossible to attain, with ideal, baseline conditions that must be met before entry is granted into the state of forgiveness. In the absence of these requirements, Griswold concludes, forgiveness is impossible, or inadequately if not delusionally partial.
My own concept of forgiveness is grounded in the acknowledgement of a common humanity, of our existence in an unavoidable state of constant vulnerability to one another, a state that defines all sentient beings. In the emergency room of the hospital is a sign that reads “We see the person behind the behaviours” which is, if you think about it, an extremely difficult thing to do when the behaviours feel injurious. I’m not even sure if it’s possible to separate the person behind the behaviours from the behaviours, or if those behaviours constitute personhood, but I think I know what the sign means.
There are in my experience times when the person behind the behaviours is all one can see. I think of my stepfather, a man who almost literally killed me, and through the aftermath of his actions made my life difficult to this day. Over a period of three days, after my mother left him taking their two children with her, he worked on killing himself. I was sixteen, and I witnessed, alone, his first day and his last. What I remember of those three days is my increasing desperation that I could do nothing to help this man, which is quite a burden for a sixteen year old girl. When I saw him in that extreme state I didn’t think of his behaviours. I thought only of the man’s despair, and I knew that he was dying. I grieved him as a human being, without considering his behaviours, and I suspect, with hindsight, that was the beginning of my engagement with forgiveness, one that would take a long time, there was much to forgive, but one that ultimately gave me freedom from the horrors of my past. One does not necessarily forget, that isn’t a requirement for forgiveness. But one remembers without hatred, and the desire for revenge.
Of course, the problem for my lover in refusing to countenance the possibility of forgiveness is that, like everyone else, he needs and will continue to need to be forgiven. None of us is so good as to never inflict injury on another, and some of us inflict serious injury. Our lunches were when we talked and teased one another, and sometimes, if we were sitting side by side, he would suddenly bend his head and kiss my lips, forcefully, as if a surge of desire had coursed through him that wouldn’t be denied expression. This is one of the things I loved about him. That he allowed himself when we were out in public to be overcome by his need to place his mouth on mine, and lost himself entirely in that moment. When, after one such kiss he told me his story of long-held grievance I was alarmed. He didn’t seem to know that there is a crack/ a crack/ in everything / that’s how the light gets in… and I feared for both of us.
However, if forgiveness isn’t an option there’s always the advice given, I think, by Confucius: Like when kicked by a donkey, there are some injuries one should always overlook, when considering their source.