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Saints and Monsters
In talking to people about forgiveness I've been surprised at the resistance that some smart, sensitive people feel to this subject. They believe that to forgive is to condone somehow the harmful things people have done; that it's not only a pardon for past crimes but a virtual license to commit them again; that to forgive is to lack the guts to call a spade a spade and to condemn what deserves condemnation. They feel that the admonition to forgive is a kind of coercion that takes no account of the offense, the presence, absence, or degree of contrition in the offender, or the emotional readiness of the victim to let go. I have a friend who told me point-blank, and with some passion, "I don't believe in forgiveness," largely for these reasons. But she admitted, "Once I understand, I can't hold a grudge any more. That's the big thing for me. Understanding."
"So you do believe in forgiveness then," I said.
"How do you define forgiveness?"
"Allowing someone back into your heart."
She thought a moment. "Yes, if that's how you define it."
What tarnishes forgiveness for some people is a churchy moralism that ignores ordinary human feeling. An extreme example was reported in the press when high school students in a Christian prayer group in West Paducah, Kentucky, responded to the shooting deaths of three of their classmates on December 1, 1997, by announcing with large placards, "We forgive you, Mike," to the disturbed boy who committed the murders. Ordinary sensibility is struck dumb. Leaving aside the question, Who are they to forgive this, and in such a public manner?, one wonders if they allowed themselves to experience the terrible losses involved, let alone to deal with them. Such fanatical piety feels shallow and misguided, even repugnant, especially to those most immersed in the hurt, including the boy and his family. There is always something deadly about inauthentic forgiveness. Often it is little more than a cover for contempt.
In a famous dilemma, created by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg as part of a study of the psychology of morality, a man named Heinz has a wife who is near death from a rare form of cancer. One drug might save her, which has been discovered and produced by a local druggist. The drug is expensive, costing the pharmacist $200 per dose to make, and he sells it for $2,000. Heinz, a poor man, goes to everyone he knows but can only borrow $1,000. The druggist, insisting on his right to a profit, refuses to sell it at that price or to let Heinz pay the balance later. So Heinz, in desperation, breaks into the pharmacy and steals the drug. Kohlberg asked his child subjects whether Heinz was right to do so.
Years later the same fable was revived by Charles Enright for the study of forgiveness. A psychologist asked adult subjects if they thought Heinz could ever forgive the pharmacist if he were unable to get the drug and his wife died, especially if the pharmacist showed no remorse or change in behavior. "Yes," one subject responded, "despite his anger toward the druggist, he'd still love him because he is a human being worthy of respect and love. Heinz would be angry at the druggist's actions, but not at the druggist himself." This answer was taken to reflect advanced moral development.
It does sound enlightened. Stigmatize the behavior, not the person. This is the way we often try to train children. But there are two realities here. One is the reality of who the pharmacist is, which is probably quite complex, including admirable and lovable aspects, wounds that might cause us to sympathize with him, and perhaps some feeling of bitterness on his part toward a community that he may feel has cheated him in the past. The other is the reality of how the bereaved husband feels in the wake of his monstrous behavior--he is unlikely to take that complexity into account and can't be expected to. So, for me, this is not a human response. In fact, I suspect that most people who report such responses are voicing what they believe they should feel, rather than what they do feel. I would be more encouraged about the possibilities of eventual, authentic forgiveness in the subject who says he wants to "kill the fiend" or "string him up for eternity." The overly humane response--"I would be angry at the druggist's actions but not at the druggist himself"--just doesn't ring true, not among non-saints anyway. I think people who speak this way tend to be afraid of their own aggression--afraid of what will happen to themselves or others if they express it--and so they straitjacket themselves into a strict, unnatural goodness. In such a rigid state, where you are not allowed to be bad, where, in fact, you are determined to be so pure that you dare not indulge any wish to hurt, to be mean, or to hold a grudge, hatred--denied, hidden, disfiguring--hardens into rock.
Saintliness attaches itself to the idea of forgiveness like a cat to a warm pillow. Philosophers and theologians have traditionally argued that forgiveness is a gift that the victim bestows on the wrongdoer and that this gift must be unconditional. No strings should be attached, no demand for apology or atonement, no promises of better behavior in the future. This is the Christian ideal. It emphasizes that forgiveness is an internal process, a choice that we make, and that we choose it as much for our own spiritual well-being as for the wrongdoer's. It should not be held hostage to the recipient's state of mind.
Each of these tenets of the forgiveness ideal makes good sense. But we get caught in some impossible binds when we turn them into requirements. Forgiveness has many faces and proceeds by degrees. Each opening toward the other person, however minuscule, however incomplete when measured against the ideal, is important and may even be immense in its own way. To spare the druggist's life, if it were in one's hands to do so; to gradually let go of one's rage and bitterness; to be willing at some point to entertain the thought of him as human; to allow him his wish to apologize or atone--each of these are steps in a process that can legitimately be linked to forgiveness, even if they take a lifetime. And each step represents growth for the person who takes it, so that he is not quite the same as before.
The process of forgiving can be complicated, both internally and interpersonally. It can be premature, such that one's legitimate protest gets lost. It can be more related to submissiveness or compliance than a genuine act of strength, of giving. It can be real and yet coexist with hatred or resentment. It can come piecemeal (as is often the case with parents or ex-spouses) because there is so much to deal with and because you open up gradually as you grow, as you recognize your own complicity, as you accept the humanity of others and therefore allow them their flaws, as you see their suffering or contrition, as you understand their struggles. We are so complex and capable of such creative means of parsing reality and dealing with it that forgiveness can take an infinite number of shapes. Anger, protest, and the wish to hurt back may all play a vital part. Even the style of anger, its murderousness or warmth, will indicate subtle movements in the forgiveness continuum. Contrary to the saintly view, anger is not anathema to forgiveness. It can coexist with it. It can be its harbinger.
Like many people, I have at times been enthralled by saints. As an undergraduate, I was riveted two nights in a row by successive screenings of Buñuel's film Nazarin, the story of a village priest imbued with the wish to emulate Jesus, and I was completely unaware that Buñuel, who admired his protagonist, was also commenting on the folly of such an effort. But the saintlike man who most captured my imagination is Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin, the title character in his novel The Idiot.
Dostoevsky was passionate about Christianity and the person of Christ. In his story "The Grand Inquisitor," embedded in The Brothers Karamazov, Jesus appears during the Spanish Inquisition, which is being carried out in his name. He is taken into custody and sentenced to death. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell and explains to him why mankind is better off without him: People do not want to be free in the way that Jesus wants them to be free. They want to be fed and told what to do by authorities who speak in his name. Jesus, who sees all the way through to the core of this man, past his imposing power, his authoritarianism, and his defenses, right to the soul and all its buried suffering, plants a loving (and deeply rattling) kiss on the old tyrant's forehead before being led to execution.
In The Idiot, Dostoevsky tried to create a convincing representative of such a divine nature in a living human being. He built into Prince Myshkin an extraordinarily loving and empathic nature and the capacity to stay focused on the deepest, most important things. Myshkin comes to Moscow after having spent much of his youth in the care of a Swiss doctor who treated him for epilepsy. There he is soon surrounded by a swarm of characters from all strata of Russian society, each one compelled by this intense, earnest, startlingly direct, compassionate, and childlike man with little sense of social proprieties--an "idiot" according to some.
A young man named Ipolit, who is suffering from tuberculosis and will not live long, is not sure whether to embrace or detest Myshkin. Ipolit is one of Dostoevsky's brilliantly dark figures, bitterly cynical, a snarl almost permanently attached to his lips, tormented but unable to accept anyone's caring. Late in the book, he and Myshkin have a climactic encounter. They speak awkwardly of Ipolit's impending death and of the way certain famous Russians of the past have faced death. Ipolit is torn between seeing the prince as absurdly naïve, warmly sincere and deeply spiritual, or cunning and wanting to trip him up. As they speak, Ipolit keeps finding reasons to take offense. "Well, all right, then," he says half-tauntingly, "tell me what in your opinion would be the best way for me to die? I mean so that it would be as . . . virtuous as possible. Tell me!" Myshkin responds in a low voice: "Pass on by us and forgive us our happiness." It is a stunning moment in which the prince, with uncanny simplicity, addresses the agonizing envy that eats away at this young man. Ipolit's cynical laughter breaks the silence: "I knew you'd say that," he says.
Myshkin also becomes entwined with Lebedev, a degraded and self-degrading individual who is a compulsive and shameless conniver. He repeatedly betrays the prince only to confess and wheedle, plead weakness and poor moral fiber, and beg for forgiveness. Myshkin is exasperated but always forgives. If you are the average person (that is, not a saint) and you are confronted with someone who is repeatedly late, even if it is just ten minutes, after a while an apology won't satisfy you, no matter how heartfelt it is. It will simply not be enough. You are going to want to know why, and you will want the lateness to stop. If he repeatedly steals from you or undercuts you, or leaves you in the lurch, the situation will be that much worse, and he may, after a while, never be able to get back in your good graces. But Myshkin is not like you or me in this respect. He does not need an apology, let alone an explanation, let alone cessation of the offense, for there seems to be no response that is beyond his capacity to tolerate or forgive. He experiences Lebedev's humanity in all its abject corruption, experiences himself in Lebedev, and loves him, as if he were his own errant child.
When Myshkin first arrives in town he finds lodgings with a young civil servant, Ganya, who lives with his father, mother, and two younger siblings. As a result, Myshkin, along with a number of family friends, witnesses a feverish conflict in which Ganya behaves viciously and is on the verge of striking his sister, Varia. The prince intrudes, catching his arm and exclaiming, "Enough--enough!" Ganya is infuriated:
"Are you going to cross my path forever, damn you!" cried Ganya; and loosening his hold on Varia, he slapped the prince's face with all his force.
Exclamations of horror arose on all sides. The prince grew pale as death; he gazed into Ganya's eyes with a strange, wild, reproachful look; his lips trembled and vainly endeavored to form some words; then his mouth twisted into an incongruous smile.
"Very well--never mind about me; but I shall not allow you to strike her!" he said, at last, quietly. Then, suddenly he could bear it no longer, turned to the wall and murmured in a faltering voice: "Oh! how ashamed you will be of this afterwards!"
The prince's words were not a retaliation but an act of tormented compassion and warning. It is as if Myshkin had said, "Oh, my God, what have you done to yourself!" Seeing this scene in a Russian film version of The Idiot when I was twenty-one compelled me to read the book. Its majesty suggests the pettiness that normally consumes us and sheds light on the unexpected possibilities of love.
But this, of course, does not change the fact that you and I are not like Myshkin. We take the slap personally; we feel, at least initially, and often for a long while after, "Oh, my God, what you have done to me!" This reaction is natural, deeply rooted, and not to be sloughed off, even with Myshkin's example staring us in the face. And yet we are prone to expect such heroism from ourselves. I think, for me, the appeal of saintliness was, in part, that it offered me a way around my own aggression. I was terrified of my own aggression, convinced it made me a monster, unfit to live among other human beings, who would cast me out when they saw it. Saintliness offered a new kind of power, if I could only rise to that level.
I now believe that forgiveness, to be a realistic option, has to take into account the full reality of human psychology, including the strength of our negative passions. Any effort to promote forgiveness by encouraging people to be saintly or Christ-like strikes me, as it once struck Buñuel, as folly. We are not saints and we are not meant to be. We get hurt, we get angry, sometimes murderously so, and, from there, growth or reconciliation either proceeds or doesn't.
From the Trade Paperback edition.