To Forgive Is Also Human
words by Lauren Dundler & photography by Edana Isobel Jamora
"To err is human; to forgive, divine."
The discussion of thematic concerns which spread across many textual experiences once invited me to consider what sort of themes and concepts appeal to me at a deep, visceral level. When I looked to the books, films, songs and plays which have resonated with me the most throughout my life, I was startled at the conceptual thread which connected them: The act of Forgiveness.
I am not a forgiving person.
Honestly, that is a hard thing to confess, but if I am being self-aware, which I always strive to be. I do not forgive easily. I forget, sure: I leave issues and concerns behind me quite easily, as if they were a dirty piece of clothing I threw onto the floor after a weary day. However, my soul is littered with deep flesh wounds, each mark a reference to something I have chosen to forget without resolving. And the scar tissue remains subdued until I am reminded of the initial cause and it throbs and aches, inviting to remember that I am seeing or hearing or surrounded by something I truly dislike because of something that happened five, or even ten years ago.
“When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less” – Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things.
Like peas. When I was a small child I must have eaten a pea that didn’t agree with me. It may have been rotten or undercooked. I don’t actually remember. What I do remember is that a pea did something displeasing to me and I have never forgiven it. I now collectively avoid all peas as if my future happiness and health depends on it. I can’t actually tell you what that certain nefarious pea did to offend me so greatly, because I’ve left it behind. I’ve forgotten, but I haven’t forgiven the peas.
My complicated relationship with forgiveness, much like my relationship with peas, stems back to my childhood. My maternal grandmother was a sensible Roman Catholic who, like all sensible Roman Catholics, was greatly concerned with forgiveness. For as far as my memory stretches back, I will always recall her forcing myself or my assorted relatives to either apologise for a wrongdoing or accept the apology from a wrongdoer.
At a principle level I have no issue with apologising to someone. In fact, I think certain people/groups of people/governments should do so more frequently. Apologies are symbolic of acknowledging you have caused another discomfort, even pain, and you wish to acknowledge the result of your actions. However, what I disagree with, at a fundamental level, is forcing someone to apologise when they do not even understand the symbolism behind the words “I am sorry.” Those words carry great meaning, linguistically and symbolically, and they are diminished and disempowered when those who fail to possess the empathetic awareness of the words are forced to ventriloquise them. To truly apologise, you must embody the words you are saying. You are within a state of remorse that is physical and tangible within your bodily experience. As Walt Whitman rightly expressed “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” It is an act of empathy, not a sympathetic head tilt and trite pat on the shoulder. To truly feel sorry, you have to feel something.
Most children do not have the empathy skills to request or accept forgiveness. Before the age of six or so they literally have no understanding that someone could feel differently to themselves about anything. How can they possibly understand that something they have done, which more often than not is something they view as appropriate in their own eyes, has caused you discomfort or even pain? Instructing one to say they are sorry before they have reached a certain cognitive state of development does not teach them anything at all except that words are meaningless. And of all the flawed lessons we can pass onto children, I truly believe that teaching them that words do not possess power in society is one of the worst flawed lessons of all.
“A word after a word after a word is power” – Margaret Atwood.
So then, why, if I clearly feel so strongly about my problematic relationship with forgiveness do I find myself gravitating towards the texts which represent the theme so strongly?
Perhaps I should further explain the nature of these specific texts, because the theme of forgiveness is endlessly ubiquitous in the pages of literature and on the film screen. If you look hard enough, you will find most themes in most texts as our interpretation invites us to see what we want to see. And, fundamentally texts are human productions and in many ways attempt to convey human experiences. Thematic concerns presented such as: passion, hatred, curiosity, failure, ennui – can be seen everywhere in textual worlds because they unite us as humans. However, when I talk about these texts, I am talking about a very specific structure and depiction of forgiveness.
These texts involve the surrender of a character to its audience; completely and utterly. These are the types of books, films and plays where we are exposed to all of the character, or what the character has experienced – usually depicted through first person focalisation and or narration – and the audience is invited to witness every shitty thing that the character has done in their lives. We are then, upon completing the text, left with a feeling of connection and a sense of affinity with the character, rather than repulsion and rejection of their experiences. When I think of these texts I see Ammu who brought destruction upon her family due to her love daring to thwart the Indian caste system, and her children Estha and Rahel whose lives are destroyed by their inability to contradict an authority figure. I picture the Chase sisters, Laura and Iris, whom lived lives of lies and ripped apart their family in the process. I resonate with the manipulative and problematic Saleem, the Midnight Child and Theodore Decker, the not-so-notorious art-thief. I see and I feel, deep within my bones, the body of Esther Greenwood as she crawls like a broken, dying animal underneath her childhood home and attempts to bury herself alive.
These texts show me all the shitty things that people have done and can possibly do and then they look me dead in the eye and ask me to forgive them. And I do. I forgive them and feel for them so deeply that it bothers me. I am bothered by my inability to forgive those who wrong me in my actual life, but for fictional characters forgiveness wells up in me so boldly that I cannot control it. When I finished reading the final pages of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin – those final pages where the story that has been woven reveals itself and you are asked to forgive it for all it has put you through – I wept so hard I thought I would choke.
“You can look at a picture for a week and never think of it again. You can also look at a picture for a second and think of it all your life” – Donna Tart, The Goldfinch.
Instead of forgiveness pervading the rest of my life like it does my relationship with texts, I am often hearing my partner say to me “Why can’t you just be easier on people?” He is not the only person who has said that to me and normally I can shrug it off on my high expectations and tendency towards perfectionism. However, I can acknowledge that these excessively high standards that I expect myself to uphold do not apply to all, and interestingly, I do not apply them to others. My reluctance to forgive stems from elsewhere within myself.
I have, like all these characters I have mentioned, have done shitty things in my life. I will continue to do shitty things. Nearly all people do. It is another one of those universal human experiences that unite us. Most people don’t mean to do shitty things, but all people who do or say something which makes someone else feel varying degrees of discomfort and pain do. I was once told that we judge others by their actions and we judge ourselves by our intent and this idea has resonated with me for a while now. Making someone feel shitty can simply involve doing something you think is right, but isn’t right for everyone else. In our lives we will do a lot of wrongdoing and many will do wrong against us.
That’s not a complicated concept. But how we learn to deal and accept with all this wrongdoing is what causes many people great concern. How do we forgive and then forget all of this wrongness?
For myself, I believe my inability to readily forgive others is interpersonal, rather than a reflection of my relationship with people. I don’t forgive myself either. In fact, I am harder on myself than I am on other people. I remember moments of great shame and wrongdoing from decades ago as acutely as if they were occurring contemporarily. I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced this sensation, due to the neurological structure of memory, however, I don’t think I want to feel this way for much longer. I think I would like to resolve this tension and my inability to forgive in the same way that the characters I referred to did. And sure, that might sound incredibly cliché – “forgive yourself before you can forgive others.” But I have always been a believer that some clichés exist for a reason, usually because they were popular and relatable to many. Of course, the use of some clichés shall forever remain unforgivable – I’m looking at you all the D-grade creative writing pieces I’ve read over the years.
I want to expose myself – completely and utterly – and surrender to my audience. I think I already have. Admitting you have done and intend on doing shitty things is rarely an easy thing to do. And I want you, my reader, to find some sense of affinity and connection with me. In return, I will endeavour to find the same sense of affinity and connection with the next person or experience that causes me discomfort and pain. To forgive, but not forget because remembering the experience of forgiveness is important for the development of our inner-selves. To know you have the sense of accepting and embracing a wrong done against you means you have that ability within you, possibly forever.
Now, excuse me whilst I go track down some peas.
“To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world” – Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.