June 11, 2021
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
When looking through the Syntopicon under “F,” I find Family, Fate, and Form. Yet, the more I think about it, I want to find Forgiveness.
Merriam-Webster defines “forgive” as: to cease to feel resentment against; to give up resentment or requital; to grant relief from payment; to cancel an indebtedness. It comes from Old English (OE) “for-gifan” which had various meanings, none of which are equal to today’s usage. Rather the OE version had more to do with giving and bestowing as in gifts or rights. Today, we use the term as an act of generosity, or goodwill, or something of that nature. It often implies that the one being forgiven has done something wrong, which is mostly absent from the OE verb. So, clearly, the notion of forgiveness has evolved over centuries, informed by lived experience and a variety of societal structures.
The history of such a word interests me because of the complicated nature of relationships. In this case, having a sense of the dictionary definition of forgiveness in no way helps one to understand it. It has evolved away from simple meanings into a more complex nature due to similar changes in societies. Akin to the nature of justice, forgiveness does not come naturally. It takes a lot of painful work and dialogue. It asks us to reach toward a higher self, which, at times, feels inaccessible.
For example, if someone hurts me deeply and they too are ashamed of their own actions, how do I feel about them? After moving through stages of grief, I decide to forgive them. At first, forgiveness appears like pity for them, for their actions, for their shame, but that does not seem like forgiveness. It makes me think of Jane Eyre, leaving Mr. Rochester because he failed to disclose his previous marriage. Thrown into a whirlwind of emotion, she finally lands on pity. Either she has not fully forgiven him, or she has not yet forgiven herself. This leads to the idea that forgiveness is not a static state of being, but a very dynamic process.
Next, I imagine that I could, perhaps, forgive someone’s negative action toward me, but that might lead me to feel less respect for them. Again, is this really forgiveness? If someone hurts me, isn’t the nature of our relationship forever changed? I return to Jane Eyre. What allows Jane to return to Mr. Rochester? Though he hurt her greatly, at the end of the novel she returns to him with full love. She thinks, “There was no harassing restraint, no repressing of glee and vivacity, with him; for with him I was at perfect ease, because I knew I suited him; all I said or did seemed either to console or revive him. Delightful consciousness! It brought to life and light my whole nature; in his presence I thoroughly lived, and he lived in mine. Blind as he was, smiles played over his face, joy dawned on his forehead; his lineaments softened and warmed.” Their journey, of course, survived months of separation and pain, of conscious effort at forgiveness and reconciliation. She harbors no resentment, no pity, and no disrespect. How does she arrive at a more complete healing?
Another text which complicates forgiveness is Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Antonio treats Shylock with disdain, as does everyone, simply because of Shylock’s Jewish religion. Treated as sub-human, he angrily reacts against their hateful rhetoric and actions. The play ends with excruciating and unresolved anger. Unlike Jane Eyre, it offers no moment of redemption. Though Antonio barely escapes death, he does not improve his treatment of Shylock. Shylock, too, receives no justice and becomes embittered rather than healed. Shakespeare’s play provides no paths for healthy dialogue, forgiveness, or healing.
This short article on forgiveness mentions a couple of key ideas. First, after working through a few steps in the forgiveness process alone, one must begin to repair the damaged relationship. Repair occurs before full forgiveness but is not equal to forgiveness. Secondly, they state, “Learn what forgiveness means to you. Up until now, you’ve probably thought that forgiveness is more for their benefit, not yours.” In my mind, the notion that forgiveness is somehow for the one who has been wronged (rather than the one who committed the wrong) is a huge key to the idea’s complexity. In forgiving another’s transgression against us, we are actually in some way benefiting ourselves. I find myself without suitable words to express what this means or how it functions, though I know it to be true.
The more that I think about forgiveness, the more I want to develop it into a great idea. It interacts with many other great ideas such as: change, democracy, honor, happiness, judgment, love, man, memory and imagination, reasoning, same and other, truth and will. I am sure that it could relate to more as well. Furthermore, ideas of forgiveness directly relate to our increasingly global worldview. In such complicated societies, we must spend more time with the notion of forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive ourselves, a neighbor, a spouse, a politician, a criminal, or government? I see forgiveness as an increasingly vital element of society which directly impacts our future happiness.
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