Thoughts on Forgiveness

by Ralph Lelii, English department

I am reminded that in the fall of 1997, Chip Poston and I arranged an opening days faculty retreat on the theme of forgiveness. At the end of the activity, as I was walking up the hill, a deeply respected member of the community sidled up alongside me. She told me with great candidness that she had been moved by the experience of the day, that she had tried to let go, even momentarily, of the anger she held toward her ex-husband, but she could not do so. I remember with vivid clarity her claim that even though her inability to forgive him had deeply damaged her capacity for happiness, she could not do it, she could not forgive him.  She was tearful, thanked me for listening, and broke off on her path to another part of campus. She has since retired, and years later, at her banquet, I asked her if she had ever forgiven him. She answered no, but she had made peace with the fact that she could not.

Prior to that retreat, in the summer, I had attended a two day conference at Villanova University on forgiveness. Elie Wiesel was there, as were many spiritual and cultural luminaries, but what distinguished the conference most for me was the inclusion as speakers of many ordinary people telling stories of their own struggles to forgive. Again and again, someone would take the podium and reflect upon the difficulty of letting go of the resentment, the anger, the hurt, the betrayal. Some spoke of it as an addiction, a condition where they might feel they had forgiven a particular offense for a period of ten years, and then it would rear up again, and they would have to wrestle with it once again in some dark night of the soul. Always though, the paradox of the human condition came through: we willingly suffer unhappiness rather than surrender our unwillingness to forgive.

In his novel, The Sunflower, Wiesel creates a poignant scene. In it, a former SS officer who had overseen the death of thousands of human beings in gas chambers, lies dying of cancer. A camp survivor enters the room and the SS men begs forgiveness from this elderly Jewish man. The former camp inmate looks at him and says that he has not the power to forgive such things, that a man could only hope for his God to forgive him. At the conference, Wiesel spoke of that scene and asked us to contemplate the possibility, or even the desirability, of forgiveness for such monstrous things, the kind of horrors that Kant would call categorically evil. While that question seems to me an eternal one, it is in the everyday living of our lives that I find the question of forgiveness most interesting.

It seems to me that over the course of the years in any human institution, as colleagues work alongside one another, anger and betrayals and a thousand myriad slights and hurts, both conscious and inadvertent, can fester and impact our willingness to hear another point of view or to grasp the true intention behind a proposal, and to acknowledge the inchoate drive we all have to reinvent ourselves, to be better, to move toward the light of our particular God or ideal. I have at times in my life struggled mightily with forgiveness, and on those occasions when I think I have found clarity, I see that my unwillingness to forgive might be grounded, at least in part, by the sense that I might surrender some portion of my dignity if I let someone off the hook. It also seems possible that like so many human problems, its origins might also lie in our desire for certainty, for at least partially,  I think, to forgive requires a modest surrender of our tenuous hold on the moral high ground, perhaps the most precious real estate in all of our psychological landscape.

Douglas Steere said once that while we seek contact with the divine in our meetings, that even though we try so diligently to seek oneness with the spirit and unity with each other in the life of the community, we could not erase the messiness of human experience, the pettiness and egoism and grouchy suffering that is part of the human condition; I agree with him. Our meetings for business are often suffused with idealism and a genuine love of, and seeking for, the Good, but they are also on occasion times where human beings- tired, worried, anxious, perhaps occasionally both unforgiven and unforgiving-struggle to put those things aside for the sake of the greater good. It is never easy, I think, but it is worth contemplating. Though we are perhaps no longer a Christian religion in the sense that George Fox originally intended, we are clearly the linear descendants of that tradition, whose essence is, in my view–first, last, and always–forgiveness and redemption. We are blessed, I think, to hold as an institutional ideal the possibility of unity and communal transcendence, no matter how imperfect and infrequent its successful execution.

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