How To Be Good: Forgiving and Unforgiving

I’m becoming less forgiving and less tolerant.

It’s not a pleasant development, but this is a time of injury. No matter how skilled the healer, some wounds fester.

I would love to tell you that we can forgive all those who wrong us. I would love to tell myself that, but I cannot because it would be a lie. A comforting lie is a lie nonetheless, so instead I bring a not-entirely-bitter truth.

Every day, unforgivable things happen all around us. Every day, people forgive them or unforgive them. Sometimes they forgive the unforgivable. Sometimes they are right to do so, sometimes not. Sometimes people break each other over trivia.

This election has been particularly bitter. The stakes were higher than in recent memory. One of the candidates ran as a strongman rather than a politician and that candidate won. History teaches us to avoid what we now have rubbed in our faces.

Many people helped cause this problem.

Some of them couldn’t have known any better. Some of them should have. Some of them knew better but should have done better. Some of them were careless. Some of them didn’t care. Some of them are bad people doing bad things on purpose.

Who do we forgive? There’s no question there’ll have to be forgiveness going on. Too many decent people made bad choices for us to just cut them off. Even if it were practical, it would be wrong.

This is going to be a hard question for people to face. I have my own lines drawn, but I wouldn’t recommend copying my work. My life has been too particular for my pattern to fit your equally particular life. But I do have one thought.

So many people I know have separated themselves from their families of birth. One would hope that would be an unbreakable bond. A bond one would not want to break. And yet for so many people, the bondage of such intimate ties is unbearable. Something has gone wrong where things are supposed to be right. Sometimes it’s abuse, whether physical or mental. Sometimes it’s lack of acceptance. It’s always someone’s human folly or flaw, nestled like a knife against your most personal, tenderest places.

So people choose to break such bonds. It’s not a choice to wish on someone. Neither is it a choice to second-guess.

As it is in miniature in the family, so it is in the large in society. The fundamental human bonds that make it possible for us to live together and sometimes find a little comfort and joy in doing so, those same bonds can be turned toxic and demand to be destroyed. From a trusted loved one or a dear friend to a total stranger in your face on Facebook, sometimes the only decent and humane thing to do is to cut a tie and walk away and not look back.

So this is the one thing I have to guide you in forgiving and unforgiving:

If a total stranger takes a political action which will endanger your life, restrict your freedom, does something so vile, so awful, so unbearable that you do not find forgiveness in your heart for it,

Think of your dearest relative, your closest friend, your sweetest partner. Think of that person doing the thing you cannot decide whether to forgive. Think of that person doing to you what you cannot bear forgiving,

And if you would forgive your dearest for such a sin, then I say you should forgive a casual acquaintance, a total stranger, an annoying co-worker, whoever else might commit that sin against you, for that particular sin.

That works both ways. If someone otherwise unknown to you says or does a thing you find unforgivable, that is a thing you must find unforgivable in your loved ones.

I didn’t promise much. What I do have for you, I will stand on.

There is certainly power to be found in just, righteous anger. You should seize that power when it comes to you. You should wield it for good. Seeking it out, though, is asking for trouble, a fool’s game at best and the road to hell at worst.

I assure you, even if things go relatively well the next few years, you will have endless reasons to be angry, crimes and cowardices not to forgive. You may have reason soon enough to hate. There’s no reason to hurry and every reason to wait.

There’s a certain symmetry in anger, an almost balance that instead escalates anger and conflict. If you can’t control your anger, if it uses you instead of you using it, then it stops being helpful and starts becoming its own problem. The chances are good that it will be through with you before you are through with it.

If we are to care at least somewhat for every human being, then we have to consider doing so fairly, then in matters concerning society or humanity or any necessary complete idea made flesh, we have to think of all people simply as fellow human beings first.

So forgive the forgivable things and hope the unforgivable people can redeem themselves. That’s generous enough to everyone.

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