I got some iTunes gift cards for Christmas, and I used them (in part) to buy some books on forgiveness. My reading list so far consists of:
- The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness by Simon Wiesenthal
- No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu
- Forgiveness is a Choice by Robert D. Enright
Aside – Enright is the same person I quoted last week in Fairness and Forgiveness.
I’ve started reading The Sunflower, and so far I’m about 40% of the way through. It’s an interesting book. Simon Wiesenthal is a concentration camp survivor. During his years as a prisoner he was assigned to a work party at his former high school, which had been converted to a hospital. While he was there, a nurse pulled him aside to speak to a dying member of the SS, who wanted absolution from a Jew for war crimes he had committed. Wiesenthal shares his story, then 53 luminaries weigh in with their opinions on what he should or should not have said to the SS man, and what it means to forgive.
There is a lot of material in the book about the finer points of forgiveness, absolution and reconciliation, and their significance both to individuals and to groups. There is a lot of room here for theologians, academics and deep thinkers to weigh in and share a very meaty discussion. I’m enjoying it a lot. At the same time, as I read, I can’t help but feel a little uneasy in myself. That uneasiness comes out of the stark contrast between the petty nature of the affronts in my life and the large crimes experienced by Wiesenthal and many of the other contributors to the book.
What can I, as a middle-class, white, Canadian woman, really understand of profound suffering? I have never been beaten. I have never actually been hungry. I have never been deprived of my liberty. If I hold grudges over the small bumps and inconveniences of my daily life, what does that say about me? And what can I learn about forgiveness by examining a situation that is on an entirely different scale?
So far my best answer to my questions is that, by considering my relative good fortune, I can develop a sense of perspective. That is to say, I can understand that maybe it’s not worth hanging on to all of the little misdeeds that I have committed, or that others have committed against me. Hanging on to them doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t change the fact that they happened. It only amounts to so much baggage that I have to carry around with me, weighing me down. As I compare the weight of my baggage to the true suffering of others, I can see that there’s no value in clinging to old emotions.
Even so, I want to be clear about something. I am not saying that I don’t have a right to feel sad, or hurt, or angry when I have negative experiences. Certainly, this is a normal and human way to respond when bad things happen to us, even relatively minor bad things. If someone cuts me off in traffic my anxiety response allows me to react quickly and avoid an accident. It serves a very useful purpose. Being angry about that incident all the way home, ranting through dinner and staying awake tossing and turning over it doesn’t serve a useful purpose, on the other hand.
I am coming to understand that forgiveness is not about always being happy, or excusing people when they act carelessly or unkindly. Rather, it’s about framing a conscious response in my mind after the fact. This last bit is something I’m not terribly good at, and that will ultimately be my biggest challenge as I seek to learn how to forgive myself and others. I can say already, though, that developing a sense of perspective definitely helps in the process. When I have perspective, I can see what’s useful to hang on to, and what isn’t serving me. That can only be a good thing.
I wonder about your experiences when it comes to forgiveness and perspective. Do you find that hearing, seeing or reading stories of other people’s suffering helps to put your own into perspective? And if so, does that make it easier for you to forgive? I’d love to hear your thoughts!