We all have an obligation to be just or fair. If you decide to disobey traffic laws, for example, you could get fined or arrested. To be fair is your obligation. Yet, we are not under an obligation to be merciful. For example, if you receive a phone call to contribute to the local food pantry, no one will issue a fine or arrest you for saying “no.”
Yet, I think there are two instances in which mercy (and we turn now specifically to one form of mercy, forgiveness) becomes obligatory. The first instance is your overall pattern of living a life that includes forgiveness. It may be true that you are not under an obligation to forgive *this* particular person on *this* particular day for *this* particular offense, but if you are never forgiving to anyone under any circumstances, there is something there to criticize. Forgiveness, as a part of mercy, is a form of goodness and if it is ignored entirely then an aspect of goodness is ignored entirely. If we are to grow as persons, we are cutting ourselves off from one important pathway to moral growth.
The second instance occurs once you have deeply and consistently practiced forgiveness. Once practiced and accepted as good, forgiveness becomes a part of whom you are as a person. When this happens, to not be forgiving is to contradict the self, to go against who you are. It is here that you hold yourself to the high standard of making this virtue obligatory for you, even when it is difficult to do so. Of course, this does not mean that you quickly jump into the practice of this virtue when you have just been deeply hurt. Instead, the point is that you know you will practice it at some time when you are ready. It seems to me that the more deeply you understand and practice forgiveness, then the more quickly you will be ready even in the face of considerable injustice.
An article on forgiveness in The Times of India appeared today. I base this blog post on the following quotation from the author of this piece:
“Everything we do, while we are identified with body and mind is the result of conditioning and the choices we make are also influenced by this. Also, we don’t choose our parents nor siblings. Or the environment you lived in as a child or teachers at school.
Yet all these elements conditioned you into the person you are today. And they impact your choices. To know this is the beginning of awareness and compassion. The paradox is that real choice happens when we realize that there is never any real choice. So forgive and let go.”
We just had a materialist bomb drop on us. A “materialist bomb” is this: A person reduces human psychology to one and only one narrow area to such an extent that it looks like we have no free will. If we take neurobiology to an extreme, we could say that our brains make us think and behave in certain ways with no flexibility built in for our own innovation, creativity, or choice.
Or, rather than looking within for a material cause of our actions (the brain is an interior material cause), we can look to social conditioning such as positive reinforcement or punishment to explain why we behave as we do. After all, if someone bops you on your head every time you say the words “free will,” for example, you will probably end up cringing whenever you hear those two little words. You have been materially conditioned to cringe at the words “free will.” It is not your choice to cringe. Something in the material world is making you do this.
All well and good until we practice reductionism and make the rather difficult-to-make claim that none of us really has any choices at all. It is our brains and social conditioning that make us who and what we are.
Is that all there is to us as persons? If so, then there is no true right and wrong, no injustices against you because, well, the person’s brain is wired in a certain way and the social conditions of his or her environment have made the person this way.
There is nothing to forgive because no one chooses to hurt you. The person could not help it. Forgiveness is rendered useless. More dramatically, forgiveness is an illusion.
But, is it true that there is nothing but brain structure and social reinforcements to explain who we are? Whoever says “yes” to this, then I have the following thought-experiment for you. It comes with a warning label because the thought is violent.
Imagine that you are a parent. Your daughter was raped in Central Park. You are fuming. At the trial, the defense lawyer says this, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. We all know that our society has perpetuated the idea that women are men’s property. This has fostered an unintended sense of aggression in my client toward women. We all know that our society reinforces men to exploit women, not that they want to do so, but they are taught that. There is nothing my client could do but rape the one woman who happened to be jogging by that day. And let us not forget testosterone. That, combined with negative norms about women and the social reinforcements all ganged up on my client. He could not help himself. Therefore, I strongly request the dismissal of all charges against him.”
A show of hands, please, from anyone who agrees with this lawyer. We all know why we disagree with the request. It is because no matter what the norms are in society and no matter what the accused man’s social conditioning or testosterone levels were on that day, he had hundreds of choices of how to act. To say that he had to act in this and only this way is to deny reality. It is to deny the raped woman justice. It is to deny her the possibility of forgiving because forgiveness is an illusion that we need to guard against, not embrace.
There are no choices? I choose not to believe it.
Forgiveness is alive and well because injustices do happen by people’s freely chosen actions, and sometimes those actions are wrong and punishable, not dismissed for the illusion of an exclusively-materialist cause to our behavior.
Forgiveness as an illusion? No. When someone harms you, he or she could have behaved in many other ways, including choosing—choosing—to be respectful and kind.
Decades ago, teachers would sometimes demand that a student stand at the blackboard and write with chalk 100 times, “I will not talk in class.” We have always wondered, at the end of the writing, whether the student is humbly repentant or more annoyed than ever. Well, the 2012 version of this punishment is being applied in an Ohio courtroom with an adult, Mark Byron, who is estranged from his wife. He wrote the following on his Facebook page, which is not accessible to his spouse, “If you are an evil, vindictive woman who wants to ruin your husband’s life and take your son’s father away from him completely, all you need to do is say you’re scared of your husband or domestic partner and they’ll take him away.”
Domestic Relations Magistrate Paul Meyers in January found Byron in contempt of a protective order. Byron can avoid a 60-day jail sentence and a fine by posting an apology, composed by Meyers, to Mrs. Byron on the Facebook page. The same apology must be posted every day for 60 days no later than 9 a.m.
The central question for us at the IFI is this: When is an apology sincere and must it be sincere to have an effect on the one who apologizes? It seems to us that the apology will only be effective for Mr. Byron if it comes from the heart, if he actually means it. Otherwise, will this end like it has for so many students, who, after scrawling their statements on the blackboard, do a slow burn because they were forced to comply?
I was searching the web for news of forgiveness today when I was faced with “Images of forgiveness,” a series of photos which are supposed to represent this topic. The image that caught my attention was from the national (American) magazine, Psychology Today. It is a plaque-like image with the inscription, “Forgiveness is not something we do for other people. We do it for ourselves to get well and move on.” It is stated so emphatically and so confidently….and it is so incorrect.
If forgiveness is not “for other people,” then it is not one of the moral virtues alongside justice and patience and kindness and love. What is it then? It seems as if the plaque-writer has reduced forgiveness to a psychological technique for oneself as a way to heal emotionally. If the other person who hurt us is not in this healing equation, then apparently we are free to dismiss him or her, to ignore him or her, to be indifferent toward him or her. Forgiveness as dismissiveness. I don’t think so. How can we heal when we still see the other as unworthy of our mercy and love? The plaque, with all of its fine-sounding rhetoric, ultimately is a formula for distortion and a lack of healing in either self or other. Beware the fine-looking and confident-sounding platitudes on plaques.