In the last post I sketched out some of my ideas on what forgiveness isn’t. It’s not forgetting in the sense of erasing betrayal from our memories. It’s certainly not returning to our adversaries to be victimized again. For many of us, it’s not instant or easy.
Yet many faith traditions are clear on the importance of forgiveness. So what is it?
Well, it’s not what I usually do with people who have crossed me, that’s for sure. Being conflict-averse and forgiveness-impaired, I don’t confront, I don’t scream or yell, and often I don’t try to work through anything with the alleged offenders. I just disappear, ignoring their emails or messages or whatnot. In today’s lingo, I ghost them.
That can’t be moral, or virtuous, or anything God intended. Just as bad, it’s not conducive to letting go of the bitterness I harbor toward them. When I ghost people, I cut off new input or fresh insight about them; I let in nothing that could possibly soften that bitterness. It leaves me stewing in my own psychic juices.
Perhaps by divine grace, ghosting has become more difficult for me in the past year, when time and again I find myself “stuck” with people I cannot stand. They are part of organizations to which I belong and, more important, will not abandon. Even worse, I have to work with one of these folks on a regular basis; another I will see at big gatherings now and then (if only across the room).
What to do? I think I’ve found the beginnings of an alternative, and it starts with accepting a fundamental fact about homo sapiens: each of us is a mixed bag—we do things and think things that are magnificent and good-hearted and banal and stupid and even vile, sometimes within the same day.
So I look at my adversaries through this lens, and I see how X, who once sent me a borderline-threatening email, has provided valuable service to our organization, and how Y, whose decisions left me on the margins of the organization, can be remarkably caring depending on the context. (I also look at myself and see my own mixed bag of good and evil.) For my own safety and self-care, I may need to minimize my interactions with my adversaries, but I can also clearly see their “good side” and wish them well (or at least not wish them ill).
That sounds like a low bar, but it just might possibly be forgiveness.
It enables me to move forward with them in some kind of relationship—even if it’s simply remembering them in prayer now and then—without lying to myself about their past actions or submitting myself to further abuse. It enables me to see these folks in a more nuanced light, or rather to see them for who they are: humans, deserving of dignity, tragically flawed and occasionally good.
And if “forgiving people seventy times seven,” as the Jesus of the gospels directed us to do, means bending my heart toward that kind of outlook, I think I can do that. I hope it’s enough for God.
In closing, it’s worth repeating last time’s blog post caveat: all of these thoughts are embryonic. I’m still trying them on. So if you have an insight about them that’ll make them better, I’d love to hear from you.