What If Forgiveness Isn’t a Virtue?
Some folks say that you shouldn’t hold onto anger because it just corrodes you, that forgiveness is the great virtue when you’ve been wronged. I understand why people say that and frankly, I’m kind of in awe of those who have suffered grievous harm and are able to forgive those who have caused that harm. It is a kind of generosity I marvel at, something I’m not sure I’d be capable of, even though I know that in forgiving those that cause harm, those who do the forgiving are freeing themselves of the bonds of hatred, rage, and resentment that would likely eat away at them.
Living in an America consumed not just by the tragic losses of a pandemic, but by a virulent hatred stoked by a President whose rotted-ness and rage are a cancer on our body politic and on our nation, I wonder about the other side. What will happen if and when we emerge from this pandemic, and if and when he is gone from the White House. What will be left? How will I feel about all of that? And will I be able to forgive those who elevated him, who supported him, who egged him on, who imitated and embraced his every disgusting word and deed? Can I–should I— forgive those who express no remorse, no shame in having enabled something so grotesque, so harmful, so cruel, so dishonest? Can I–should I–forgive those who see nothing wrong in any of this? And does it matter to offer forgiveness to those who don’t want it, don’t feel they need it, who would likely even resent the gesture as a kind of patronizing thing, a judgement to which they feel they ought not be subjected?
I heard myself recently telling my husband that I will never forgive the people who made this possible, who embraced, supported, and profited from a spectacular array of cruel gestures, utterances, and policies. I know that letting go of my disappointment and yes, my rage, would be good for me. But is forgiving those who themselves do no penance even a meaningful gesture, or is it just the sound of one hand clapping?
I know a few people who are Trump supporters. One is a doctor friend of mine. After she brought up Trump during several social outings, leaving me biting my tongue to avoid letting loose about what I really think, I finally had to say to her husband, in an aside, that he really needs to get her to stop bringing that man up, because it’s going to be the end of our friendship. So I keep my views about her views to myself because I think, “Why bother? I won’t convince her to think differently, and if I share why I think her views are so wrong–and frankly so hypocritical–it will just leave a whole lot of hurt on the table. And there’s nothing productive in that.”
But what about those who are not friends, those who are distant folks, community members, religious “leaders” and others in more public-facing positions who stayed silent, who chose to look away, to not see, to not hear. Or perhaps more accurately, to do nothing about all they saw, and all they heard. Can I return to those places and spaces inhabited or presided over by the silent collaborators and just pretend that it’s all water under the bridge, that they bear no responsibility for the horrors that have unfolded on Trump’s watch? What mockery does that make of notions of morality, of responsibility, of shared purpose, of justice?
Some years back, my husband and I went to see a film about a German father whose only son had been killed in battle during World War II. Alone in Berlin tells the story of how that father took to channeling his grief by placing postcards of resistance around Berlin, calling fellow Germans’ attention to Hitler’s abuses and lies. The father was a machinist. His explanation was that his notes were like grains of sand in a machine. They might not stop the carnage, the horror, but they might at least slow its progress. And in combination with other grains of sand, who knows what might be possible?
I have thought about that film a great deal and wondered what might have been for America if each of us who saw and took seriously the horrors unfolding before us chose to be a grain of sand…