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Keeping accounts
... too carefully

August 13, 2001
The Iranian

In response to Naghmeh Sohrabi's "What forgiveness?".

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 sweet retribution.

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 common denominator.

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 common denominator?

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for poet Zara Houshmand

By Zara Houshmand

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