Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Why It Is Hard to Forgive

I have been travelling quite a bit the last few days--from Maui to Molokai, back to Maui, then from Maui to Phoenix, where I sit awaiting my flight to Baltimore. I had a lot of time alone yesterday, in Molokai, to reflect on things that I don't usually reflect upon. My father travels to Molokai every Monday to treat the islanders there who would otherwise have no quality healtcare. While he and his wife met with patients, I drove around the island, took a walk to see the former leper colony, and finally landed on a beach, where I sat for a couple of hours.

It was during my spell on the beach that I started to think about forgiveness. I don't know about you, but I find forgiveness to be a hopelessly abstract concept. What I was trying to work out in my head was how you can forgive--truly forgive--someone who has wronged you without giving your tormentor the sense that he or she has done nothing wrong. Or, how do you forgive someone without the other believing that, well, you finally came to your senses and realize that you were just being too hard on them? Or, how do you forgive someone without allowing that person to take advantage of you?

These are hard questions for me. And, frankly, no careful arguments seem to sway me one way or another. I believe that this is something more profound--experiential--and therefore all the more murky. I want to forgive some people that have hurt me--and frankly continue to hurt me--but I am not sure that I could ever allow these people to have a significant place in my life. I also worry that my desire to forgive comes from a selfish place. That is, I hope that if I forgive, then I will no longer be weighed down by the anger, the hurt, and the disappointment. I carry that around everyday and I am not sure that it has any purpose. So, I thought if I were to forgive them then I would feel at peace.

Ok, sounds interesting. But, this is still so abstract to me. Why would I feel better if I forgive people who have hurt me? Does something magical happen to my soul that finally frees it from the pain and anger? Or, am I telling myself a story about why these folks did what they did in a way that I can empathize with their weakness and mistakes. The latter seems to appeal to me. It seems possible that I can give some account of the hurtful actions of another in such a way that makes sense of why they made mistakes, why they hurt others, and how this came from a vulnerable place--a place that we all have.

Forgiveness is such an interesting concept. It is not only worth debating when and who we should forgive--are there some we can never forgive? But personally I am struck by how dangerously close my sense that I should forgive is to being moralistic. And by moralistic, I mean believing myself to be above reproach, being better than the Other. This is an uncomfortable place. The discomfort only intensifies my need to forgive; to rid myself of the anger. So, how do we forgive?

If I ask my Dad, he would tell me to pray and ask for help. And the philosopher shakes her head--pray to whom? Why? How will I know if I have been heard? If I ask my colleagues, I am sure one of them will encourage me to be generous, to see that whatever pain I feel, the one who causes the pain is worse for it. Ok, I can buy into that. But, alas, I am still left with a fear that by forgiving, by being compassionate to one who has hurt me, I am somehow letting the Other off the hook. I don't know why I am stuck, but I am.