... too carefully
August 13, 2001
In response to Naghmeh Sohrabi's "What
When a lover forgives infidelity, when a friend forgives the unforgiveable
trespass, forgiveness may be a willful blindness that's easier than facing
the pain of facts. This is the muddy rut of codependency, where the cycle
of transgression, tears, and forgiveness spins its wheels incessantly. This
is forgiveness that shares a bed with forgetting, and sleeps through any
lesson that might be learned. No surprise that it wakes up every day to
another drama, another trauma.
But that's not the only possible story. Sometimes forgiving an errant
lover or a failed friend is an act of courage, not weakness. Instead of
blindness, it's a vision of a bigger picture. Forgiveness sees the potential
of the relationship beyond the immediate sordid drama. It looks beyond the
hideous monster of one's own pain, sees the good in another person's heart,
and musters the courage to perform an act of faith and grace.
Faith and grace. Sounds like the stuff of miracles, no? Consider those
most mundane of miracles: healing and growth. But time heals all, you protest,
and what's time but another word for forgetting? Time may heal, but slowly,
and it's no guarantee of growth. The attrition of forgetting hardly adds
to the sum of experience we grow by.
True forgiveness -- without forgetting -- heals with miraculous speed.
Try it. You'll find you have to make a huge stretch to embrace all the painful
facts in front of your face at the same time as you embrace the bigger vision.
You'll find that you have to become a bigger person to hold all that at
once. That's growth.
If that seems too ambitious, then you're stuck with the miserly transaction
that is love without faith or grace, little more than a measured investment
of ego. If you keep accounts too carefully, for sure you'll come up short.
If your partner doesn't cheat outright, you'll find that the goods aren't
quite the quality advertised, or at the very least they're depreciating
rapidly. If you keep accounts too carefully, you will have a complete hesaab
to justify retribution. You'll have it all: accountability, justice, and
How does all this translate to the political sphere and the time frame
of history? Perhaps it doesn't, except as metaphor. Social movements have
their own dynamics and evolution which don't follow the same path as an
individual's psychological or spiritual growth. Or perhaps they do, but
we're still mired in some primitive, child-like state dictated by the lowest
Conflating retribution with justice makes sense when you're trying to
communicate values to a two-year old: "If you take Babak's toy, I'll
take yours. Then you can see how it feels." The point of the lesson
is not to stand firm on the idea that retribution is just. Two wrongs don't
make a right. The only point is to create an experience of empathy for the
victim so you can begin to move on to the next lesson: Do unto others...
Retribution as justice is at best a dead end: the accounts are cleared,
what's owed is payed. In actuality, and particularly when we look beyond
individuals to the fuzzy mathematics of social groups that rarely envision
a just world with exactly the same detail as their neighbors, retribution
unfolds in endless blood-feuds. Men with spears, or swords, or machine guns
acting like two-year olds.
But maybe we are evolving, experimenting for the first time in recorded
history with notions of justice that move beyond the immediate gratification
of sweet retribution: notions like reparations, restitution, affirmative
action. Maybe these are adolescent experiments toward a more mature understanding
of justice. As gangly, awkward, pimpled and inept as they are in their current
manifestations, they seem to be groping towards a sense of justice that
is more concerned with making things right than clearing accounts.
For eons, the priviledge of rewriting history has been a dynastic affair.
Only in the last century have dynasties been compressed into single generations.
(Ask most Germans how they view their parents' wartime past and you'll have
a glimpse of a society struggling towards forgiveness even in the harsh
light of historical accountability.) And now the pace of change is accelerating
to where individuals need only shift ideologies to play opposing roles on
the stage of history. Should we ask them to slow down in the interests of
tidy accounting? Should we insist on changing at the speed of the lowest
Or should we consider the possibility that individuals who think boldly,
who have enough courage of their convictions to act as leaders, perhaps
were not born with those convictions fully matured? Can we allow ourselves
the luxury of an education? The only people who don't have a past that is
to some degree at odds with the present are those who are too young to have
much of a past at all, and those who have remained in a state of arrested
development, confusing nostalgia with political ideals.
I'm not advocating amnesty and amnesia , but a more expansive spirit
to our understanding of accountability. There are crimes that no political
rationale can ever justify, crimes of cruelty to humanity and individual
human beings that we remain accountable for as human beings no matter how
our ideology changes. But if the ideas that seemed so shiny and true twenty
years ago were reprehensible in their results, then we should be commended
for having moved on, not called to account for what we believed then, or
asked to simply remove ourselves from thinking out loud in public out of
some sense of political shame.
We can begin reckoning a more enlightened accountability if we give credit
to memory: an account of what really happened, rather than accounting by
numbers. How do we tell the story of what really happened twenty years ago?
How is our past the story of how we got to where we are, and what we learned
on the way? If we can look at our own history as a process of learning,
face our actions and forgive ourselves in full acknowledgement of what we
have done, we won't have to make the same mistakes over. We won't be able
to, because we are not the same people we were twenty years ago.