Monday, February 18, 2008

What if Forgiving Someone only Fuels Their Hatred?

When I don't post for this long, I seriously toy with the idea of "hanging it up." I no longer prioritize this blog and I certainly don't have the desire or time to update it as much as others. But, just when I am ready to say goodbye to blogging forever, it occurs to me that to give this up is to give up a powerful outlet for my more "philosophical" thoughts that I will never publish or work on in any serious way. I went into the philosophy because of my tendency to reflect quite a bit on the meaning of peoples' behavior or the struggle to make sense of difficult choices, but I learned quickly that these sort of musings aren't really appropriate for research and publishing. Nonetheless, I am still occupied by them and if I don't put them somewhere, I feel lonely--like I have something to share but no one to share it with.

So, I continue. Perhaps not at the pace I once did, but . . .

I spent a lot of time thinking about the theme of forgiveness again this past week. My colleague is flirting with the idea of teaching the Senior Seminar on the topic next year and this got me to thinking again about what I find so difficult and problematic about forgiveness.

To elaborate, let me think out loud about a conversation I had with *I* yesterday about our siblings. Both of us seem to be locked into serious sibling rivalries and yet neither of us perceives ourselves to be in competition with our sibling. Perhaps there are subtle ways in which we are or unconscious ways, but in our everyday mode, we don't think about how accomplishing X or getting recognition for Y will once again establish our superiority over our sibling. Nonetheless, both of our siblings respond to us as if we are trying to make them feel bad about themselves by rubbing our own accomplishments in their face.

In fact, we share this common experience of trying to sincerely compliment our siblings only to have them hear it as haughty and patronizing. And, once they hear it this way, then the attack mode goes in full effect and we find ourselves scrambling to defend ourselves against a portrait they have drawn that we in no way find ourselves captured by. We both do what we are trained to do--marshall good arguments, evidence and "facts" to demonstrate why we are not the people they think we are. But, those tools may work in a ideal world of philosophy argumentation (and let's face it they don't really fare that well there either), but they are no defense against perceptions.

The fact is that sometimes people have perceptions about you that no evidence seems to contradict. To put in the language of logical empiricism, there is no falsifiability principle at work in some peoples' perceptions of us and hence we are rather ineffectual in defending ourselves from them. And, being unable to defend yourself against what you take to be horribly unfair and insulting accusations of you is maddening---especially when the skills you have developed totally fail.

It is this kind of painful situation--magnified because it is in the context of familial ties--that calls for another analysis of forgiveness. What is really needed to ever repair a relationship beset by sibling rivalry is forgiveness on both sides. However, here is the quandary: if I choose to forgive my brother am I only fueling his anger? Damn my ego! I no longer care about defending myself or being right. What is to come of it? I just want peace and more particularly access to the parts of him that I love and miss. But, I can find no way in and nothing I have done ever seems to break his perception of me. He is locked into a narrative that he needs--at least from my standpoint--to fuel because it is doing work for him.

Moving away from my particular failed relationship to more general observations, it seems that when we confront people who need to maintain a certain perception of us, it is because to consider the alternative is way too difficult--it would require looking themselves and the need they have for certain narratives. And, I think we have to accept the probability that this will never occur. Given this state of events, what role does forgiveness play? Is forgiveness possible? Or, would forgiving them only fuel their animosity?