It would perhaps make more sense to begin by talking about apologizing, and conclude by talking about forgiveness. But I'm pretty sure that until we understand true forgiveness, we are incapable of true apology.
As I said in my last post, one of the worst things about forgiving someone is knowing that even if that person apologizes, she has very little idea of what she's being forgiven for. Unless the exact same thing has happened to her in the past, how could she know? She is the perpetrator, I the wronged. I have felt the brunt of her wrong, not she. An apology is an easy thing in comparison to the wrong I've endured.
This reality is true in a broader, cultural sense, as well. We carry wrongs deep in our consciousness for generations and generations. Most of the time, no apology is even attempted, but even if it were, how could it help? White people will never understand what it felt like to be a slave, to have that identity embedded into one's idea of race and culture. Men will never understand what it is like to be a woman, to always be the "other," to have to try to assimilate in order to be treated as equals. And on and on, through every wrong done, large or small, enacted upon millions of people or by one friend to another.
Yet, as I said in my previous post, we must forgive. So we must also apologize. And just as we learn to truly forgive because of our growing understanding of our own need for forgiveness, we learn to apologize and to accept apologies by the same token. It is so much easier to create divisions—to assign blame and put up defenses. To remind each other that no matter how many times apology happens, it can never make up for the wrong. To pretend that we—whether on an individual or cultural level—are blameless. To grow strong through our self-righteousness.
But that is not true forgiveness. True forgiveness is accepting an apology for what it is, with all its holes and flaws, with its imperfections, and holding it up as an example of what it means to love. Love is so deeply embedded in forgiveness that they are sometimes confused with each other, but forgiveness is not blind love—it is the clearest sighted of all the variations of love. Forgiveness lifts up an apology to the sunlight and smiles a little at the inadequacy of it, and then takes it anyway. It recognizes that no one is blameless, least of all oneself.
And the beautiful thing about apology and forgiveness is that because we are human, we are, in fact, united through the process. The person apologizing to me may not fully understand what he has done to hurt me, but he certainly understands what it feels like to be hurt. I am reminded of a beautiful quote from Diane Setterfield's novel, The Thirteenth Tale:
He didn't know, of course. Not really. And yet that was what he said, and I was soothed to hear it. For I knew what he meant. We all have our sorrows, and although the exact delineaments, weight and dimensions of grief are different for everyone, the color of grief is common to us all. “I know,” he said, because he was human, and therefore, in a way, he did.
It's too trite to say that we must forgive because next time, we may be the one asking for forgiveness. But the root of that is very true. We don't forgive as a safeguard against any future wrongs we may commit—we forgive because we are connected to each other. We are human, and we are wrongdoers, and we are wronged, and we are all forgiven, by God and by each other. And though the way in which we must ask for forgiveness is never quite right, it is all we can do. Thankfully, it is enough.
I've been thinking a lot about forgiveness. It began when I saw an old silent movie a few weeks ago, the plot of which revolved around someone who committed a pretty massive crime that needed to be forgiven. After seeing the movie, I was aware of just how angry I was. How quick I was to reject the forgiveness extended to that character. And I began to ask myself: what does it mean to forgive?
We are not a forgiving culture. In fact, I can't think of any cultures that have been. Grace simply does not come naturally. And one of the problems is that when it comes to forgiveness, there is a whole mess of feelings and ideas vying for dominance.
One of the most difficult things about forgiveness is that the question of blame becomes so important. If I have a wrong done to me, I should be given an apology, and I should then forgive. But because we are human, this spirals into fractals of complication, and there is seldom an occasion when pride does not come into the picture. The times in my life when I have been most reluctant to forgive have been the times when someone offended me so deeply that he or she didn't fully understand the crime.
Yet what troubles me most, in situations where I must forgive, is the hardness of my anger—the “them verses me” mentality that I let myself descend into. It's as if I have never done anything wrong in my life, as if I am of a completely different sort of human than the person who wronged me. I want to divide humanity up into Mother Teresas and Hitlers, assigning everyone a slot either on the side of good or evil. It would be easier that way. I could feel secure and safe in the knowledge that I am on the good side. I don’t want to admit that I have the capacity to commit wrongs, large or small. I don’t want to admit that I have within me the same stuff that is the stuff of great evil.
But there is a voice in the back of my head reminding me that we are none of us white knights, riding against the dragons of this world. There are things I understand about myself partly because of the creeds and words in the Bible that I have devoted my soul to, but also partly because I'm just plain honest with myself. So many of my decisions and beliefs center around an awareness of the evil in my own heart, and I believe that when we are truthful with ourselves, we all know that there are no good guys and bad guys. We are on a trajectory, not opposing sides, and until we come to that realization, I’m not sure forgiveness is possible at all. We must acknowledge the wrong that was done, admit that it was not okay, and extend grace anyway.
Of course, there are those who will try to take advantage because of grace. As my brother Joshua pointed out in a recent conversation, this is an abuse of trust. “The division is not in the ability to do wrong, but in the ability to truthfully ask forgiveness,” he said. “Ignorance is understandable, but willful abuse of trust is different.” We must be wise about those who continue to do harm through supposed apologies, but we must also stop turning a blind eye upon ourselves.
It’s so much easier said than done. As much as people pay lip service to forgiveness, and remind each other that it’s impossible to move on until forgiveness has occurred, it’s just so hard to forgive. It’s the hardest thing in the entire world, sometimes. And forgiveness always feels inadequate, because the person who needs to be forgiven never really knows exactly how much they’re being forgiven for. They haven’t had it done to them, so how could they? They will never know what it cost to forgive them.
And still I go back to it: I forgive because I have been forgiven. Greatly forgiven. There was nothing at all easy about that forgiveness. It shook the sky and the Godhead. When Jesus was walking around on earth he didn’t paste on any band-aids. He turned over tables and told people to shake the dust off their feet. But he also told them, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:37) There it is: the reminder that as much as we want to set ourselves up as the innocent party—as much as we sometimes are the innocent party—we have the capacity within us to forgive because we know the depths of our own depravity.
There’s no forgiveness without those depths, and forgiving does not necessarily mean trusting someone again or pasting over the wrongs done in the world. Those evils need to be exposed and dealt with. But forgiveness does mean having a clear picture of the state of our own selves, and understanding that the muddle of human existence is filled to the brim with people who need forgiveness.
As hard as it is to admit, we all need it desperately—and must therefore extend it.
Tomorrow: thoughts on apologizing.
Sometime in the last couple of years Facebook took some kind of giant leap from being a side project that people used to stalk crushes, to being the primary source of news and connection for all of us. (Congrats, Mark Zuckerberg.) Several times over the past year my Facebook newsfeed has exploded with an even greater abundance of opinions than usual—people posting pros or cons about the news, decisions, and conflict that has gripped our nation this year.
Each time one of these above-average newsworthy events has happened, I’ve found myself incredibly conflicted. My first thought is a panicked: I must post my opinion and I must post it NOW. There is something in my subconscious that becomes anxious when I see all of the opinions thrown out there, and mine not among them. I feel compelled to toss my voice into the mix.
My second reaction is one of withdrawal. It’s far too messy to get involved, and there is so much conflict and misunderstanding online that it seems better to withhold my own opinion. So each time, I have held off. But then, like clockwork, the first voice sneaks back in and whispers: So are you ashamed of your opinion, then?
And there it is: the great Facebook lie. Really, it’s the great internet lie. Somehow, we’ve landed on this idea that if we aren’t comfortable sharing our opinion in a status, we’re ashamed or afraid. You can see it everywhere—in Twitter debates, and Facebook posts, and too-honest blogs. In YouTubers who make their living by telling all their secrets. And their friends’ secrets.
The hot button issues of the past year have gotten me thinking about this phenomenon quite a lot; thinking about how much the advent of Facebook as a forum to comment on the world has turned into some kind of strange self-bullying. Bullying ourselves into feeling compelled to share thoughts that are complex and nuanced. Bullying us into taking topics that should be week-long conversations and 200 page books, and instead collapsing them into 200 characters. Bullying us into being face to face with every opinion on every topic from every friend all at the same time.
It’s so good to have opinions, and to share them, and to engage in conflict with people who have different opinions. But it’s so bad to hide behind our keyboards and let Facebook do all the talking. My friends and I almost never talk about topics of conflict in person. If you want to know where someone stands, you have to watch their newsfeed. How is that possibly better? I have thoughts about things that I would need several hours to explain, and I would need eye contact and inflection and forgiveness. And yet instead of engaging in this kind of dialogue, I’m sitting at my computer feeling pressure to type up a status.
So I’m giving myself permission to say no to the realm of Facebook. I’m giving myself permission to have an opinion and not share it with the world, because maybe it’s not ready to be shared, or maybe it’s better shared in person. People used to have opinions about their own family and their own cities, and far off in a corner of their minds about the country as a whole. The connectedness of our world makes it possible for me to worry about what’s happening in Japan, or Mexico. That’s not a bad thing, but I think we need to acknowledge the overwhelming nature of the amount of information and anxiety we’re all accountable for now, and give ourselves permission to step back.
We are connected; we are informed. We have the ability to share our opinions freely. We must employ the responsibility to do so wisely.
- Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
~ My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman
~ The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton