Mon 20 Sep 2010
“Forgiveness is the triumph of future over past.”
The world is always starting over for us. Out attention shifts from one thing to another; after a good night’s sleep the sun shines again; Spring restores a world of life and growth from the ravages of Winter; a new year presents new possibilities. These recurrences punctuate our lives, breaking them up into units that can appear separate and self-contained; each a chance to start anew. But all of the things that matter in human life take time, extending over boundaries, tying moments together into meaningful wholes: Our attention is focused on the melody of a piece of music, carrying us over the interstices of moments and making a unit of them. A project or a relationship gives unity to our days, giving each meaning by what it contributes to the next. A marriage or a career or a family tie our years together, making them amount to something besides the passage of astronomical units that come and pass like the leaves blowing across the forest floor. Which of these is forgiveness like? Is it a fresh start that distances us from the past, leaving it behind, forgotten, or is it like learning to sing a new song, one that weaves in the past, but in a new way.
We like to think of wiping the slate clean, of making a fresh start for the same reason that doing so is often so difficult. (http://www.anselmphilosophy.com/read/?p=83) We long to be free from our pasts, and it is only our pasts that provide us with reasons for doing anything. We long to be an isolated instant of time with a will all-powerful to make ourselves anew at each moment. But the objects of our will, of our loves and cares, are always outside of us, binding us to objects and their futures. The freedom we have within an instant is always sterile and empty, perishing with the passing of that moment. The fact is, we are always in the middle of things. We never really start over. We are always spinning through time on the momentum of our past loves and hates, on the trajectories of triumphs and failures, careening into the future along the paths we have made for ourselves and that define us. If we started from nothing, began from nowhere, there would be nothing to get us started and nowhere to go. We are lucky that there are no fresh starts, no reset buttons for our lives.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. We sometimes hear that real forgiveness erases our sins, as if they had never occurred, and we often find it difficult to bring ourselves to the purity of such a forgiveness, or to even understand how we could make ourselves forget so completely. But we really don’t want to forget in this way. The love that makes us want to forgive and the love that made us feel harm are one and the same. Can a mother forget the murder of a child without erasing the child and erasing the very impulse to love that fuels forgiveness. Forgiveness is continuing to care about those who have harmed the things we cared about. You don’t forgive by erasing the harms and cares of the past.
To forgive, one must keep before us the harm we wish to overcome with love. When we ask for forgiveness, we do not wish amnesia on the person we have harmed. We want them to see us, in all our faults, and still find a place for us (not an edited version of us) in their hearts. The natural world has a lesson to teach us about forgiveness here. We do not want to erase the persistent essences of things and start the world over anew. We want the sun to shine as it always has, the green of the grass to glow in its light, and the evanescent clouds to shine in its constant light always and forever the same. And God’s forgiveness is nowhere shown to us as clearly in the independent functioning of eternal objects. No matter who I’ve become or what I’ve done, these things will remain the same for me, if I only retain the courage to accept and respond to them. No matter how inexplicable it may be that the sun shines still for the likes of me, the world, at each instant, welcomes me into its future just as it always has, for saint and sinner alike.
In the same way, unconditional love, does not ignore our faults and transgressions, but refuses to cut us off, dwelling forever in the past with them. In its essence, love, too, exists in time, always seeing more in our futures than our pasts can contain. Despite our transgressions, the infinite value of our individuality still functions independently, calling us to a future that transcends our sins. To love someone even in their sins is not to love their sins, but to see that person as not contained in the past, to see them always with a trajectory towards the future, living in hope that the good in them will function always and everywhere the same and fulfill itself in their future. Forgiveness sees clearly and feels clearly the harms of the past, but draws the transgressor back into our future in hopes that they will be more than their past. It does not start over with a clean slate, but writes a new story and sings a new song, in which our sins are not the end of the story. Forgiveness is the triumph of future over past.