The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, September 20, 2013


Forgiveness.   There was recently a discussion of the concept of forgiveness.   Words are all we have, but they are partial.   Require additional explanation so that referents are as clear as possible.   I wanted to examine this controversy from my perspective.  I encountered multiple definitions, INCLUDING the concept of abandoning calls for punishment or restitution.

This last is problematic. To forgive a predator once one has determined that said predator can and probably will repeat the behavior is not in my lexicon.  This is not what I spoke of.
The definition: “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” Is closer to what I meant. 

The first allows whatever danger the person poses to the community to continue.   The second simply suggests that you give up YOUR negative emotions toward them.

The reason to do this is that carrying the negative emotions are damaging to YOU.   So Dan Moran, who suggested that forgiveness requires a transaction, was responding to the implications of the first definition: that without contrition, without being 99.999% convinced that this person will not repeat the behavior, no wish to punish them…or remove them from the community…is possible.  And from that position, I agree.

However, a person who is genuinely sorry for what they have done will not, I believe, ask not to be punished. They would understand that it is possible to pretend remorse.  If I hurt someone, I would want that person to be SAFE in the future.  If punishing me sent an example, I would want that punishment.  Would not ask for mercy.  It would be part of my restitution.

This is complicated—as I said, we have nothing but words, and it is often necessary to go deeper: what sense of a word?  In what context? In all instances?  And so forth.

So: Forgiveness means releasing the negative.  If the person is still a risk, you can enforce separation or punishment without negative emotions, as dispassionately as swatting a fly or wiping down a counter with anti-bacterial spray.  Nothing personal.  If they “got away with it”, if you’re going to use that negative emotion to accomplish something, and no other emotion will suffice, then go ahead and hold onto it…but release it as soon as possible.

BUT—if the person is incarcerated?  Or dead?   Or out of your life?  Or you are no longer in relationship with them or they no longer have power over you?  And you still hold onto the emotions even though you have no intent or opportunity of “punishing” or “communicating” with them, and those emotions are damaging your life?  Then for your own sake, you should seek a way of releasing those emotions, or they will poison your life, and those who hurt you continue to do so.

Forgive…but take whatever steps you need to be safe, and keep your community safe.  We hold onto negative emotions because we fear that without them, we will not be safe.  But if you learn the lesson, you can release the emotion.  If you can take action from an emotionally neutral position (admittedly more difficult, a higher level of action) you can act from duty, free of karma. 

You deserve a happy life, with love, and warmth, and healing.   The more we hang onto the damage of our pasts, the less we can have these things.  If you are not experiencing dynamic loving partnership, a healthy body, and a joyous contributory career that expresses your essence, unless there is a PHYSICAL issue, the problem may well be in the emotions you carry from your past.

We all have damage.   But I refuse to let my enemies win.   I won’t let them continue beating me, even after they are dead.

(And thanks to Dan Moran and David Gerrold for their comments)


Sarah said...

Your comments on forgiveness are interesting. It is one of the concepts I have trouble with. I actually seem to forgive too easily and too quickly for my own safety and mental well being. I think I am lucky that I have a basically sunny personality. I find joy in all kinds of every day things like today's bright sunny day or the smell of fresh basil or watching the beavers play in the pond. It seems, though, that this sunniness attracts those who aren't very happy. I don't know if it is because they wish to borrow come cheerfulness which I wouldn't mind at all. I am happy to give away what I can. Or whether it is because they find it irritating and want to destroy it. In my analysis anyway, the last man in my life was attracted to me in part because of the cheerfulness and then seemed either consciously or unconsciously to try to systematically destroy it. I value loyalty. I didn't want to abandon ship because he was in a bad mood or having a bad day. It got to the point, though, where the bad spell lasted months and he took it out on me trying to pick a fight every day. I found myself sitting one day thinking that if this was going to be my life I didn't want to live it. So I left. That was five years ago. It is really only in the last year that I have felt like I'm back to being me. I have no faith in my ability to not end up in that situation again. I think my internal meters need to be re-adjusted, but I'm not sure how to do it. There are lots of things I both need to do and want to do so I am focusing my attention on those and enjoying the sunny days :-) I know you are busy, but I would be interested in your thoughts on this if you have the time.

Steven Barnes said...

You will attract people at your energy level...and below. Some of those people will be vampires, but more are just afraid to believe that your positivity is real, and will test it. You have to be careful to only open yourself to people who can match and complement your energy. You can help others, but don't let them into your intimate space: it can be like splicing your veins to a leper. Feed them, care for them, throw them a life preserver...but don't let a drowning swimmer drag you down.


Sarah said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I hadn't considered that my sunniness and optimism were being tested, but it does make a certain sense. I have a set of rules that I try to live my life by that I came up with in my early 30s (almost a couple of decades ago). I have had to rethink all of them in the last couple of years. I tend to think of things in a mathematical framework. As you probably know any system can be described by different basis sets. For example, three dimensional space can be described by(x,y,z) or (r, theta, phi) or you could come up with some other scheme. After much thought, it is clear to me that I don't pay enough attention to the basis set others use to define their life and the world as they see it. I am not either willing or arrogant enough to say that the basis set I use is right. It is, though, the one I have come up with that works for me. I can't exist in my intimate space with anybody who doesn't at least see things with the same basis set. This is one of the undeniable facts to come out of the last relationship. I would say how you view forgiveness is part of that understanding which is why reading your posts about forgiveness made me think again about the last relationship. He was somebody who couldn't and didn't want to forgive. He felt that if he forgave then it meant that he was saying those he felt had wronged him (which probably now includes me)hadn't done anything wrong. We must have had over a hundred conversations about this before I gave up. It wasn't an academic question because he had anger about the events in his past that was as intense as if they had just happened in the present. There is nothing, in my opinion, that you can do with such anger. The people are long gone. You can't argue with them or let them know how much they hurt you or do anything. I know that anger serves a survival purpose in life. Keeping the anger, though, is like introducing static to a signal. Enough static and you lose the signal. Well. I felt really bad when I left. I felt like I'd failed, but I do not have infinite energy, patience or love. I didn't think my being there was doing either of us any good. I know it wasn't doing me any good and he wasn't happy. I figure if I know that it is my job to find a way to be happy, then it also has to be other people's job to find their own happiness. It still makes me sad when I think about him. Who knows maybe he has found his way to being happy since then.