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On Forgiveness

I’ve been thinking about a line from the Dave Eggers quote that I used in my previous post: “Every new generation purports to be more empathetic, and yet every new generation is less forgiving.” This is certainly what I observe out there in the world. There is enormous social capital to be gained via the performance of empathy, particularly when it is directed in the right ways and toward the right targets. Forgiveness is the much harder and less-traveled path. There are fewer (public) rewards and far greater costs to forgiveness. Empathy can easily be absorbed into the personal branding project. Forgiveness, not so much. Forgiveness is slow, often painful, patient, quiet work.

The irony of course is that our need for forgiveness is far deeper and more acute than for empathy. Empathy is good. Who doesn’t want more understanding, compassion, and solidarity? Who doesn’t appreciate the attempt to share in whatever they’re going through? Empathy is crucial and I would never want to denigrate its sincere expressions. But forgiveness is another thing entirely.

To be human is to require forgiveness. We come into this world, a bundle of need and desire and crash into each other pretty much from day one. We misunderstand and miscommunicate. We lie to each other. We lie to ourselves. We impose intolerable burdens on each other, intentionally and unintentionally. We are careless and casual and dramatic and oversensitive and dismissive and overprotective. We do damage even when we try to do the right thing. We love deeply and thus we hurt and are hurt deeply. We drag our pain around in unhealthy and destructive ways. We often have no idea what we do to each other.

Forgiveness is what we need more than anything. It is a gift, and it is a burden. It is deliberate bearing of the weakness and wrongdoing of one another. It is to unclench righteous fists, to release instinctive reactions (particularly when we’re convinced they’re justified!). It is to offer one another the ability to be what we are. Fallen, selfish human beings who hurt each other. Frail, weak human beings who carry around silent pain that they don’t know what to do with. Angry, confused human beings who lash out and flail around impotently in the face of problems too big to solve. Precious, beautiful human beings who long for more and for better but don’t always know how to get there.

Many prayer books contain the prophecy from Zechariah in Luke 1 as part of their daily liturgy.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.

I confess that I often skate right past these words. The curse of familiarity and all that. But today I was struck by the order of operations. The knowledge of salvation comes via forgiveness. Forgiveness is the means of salvation not the end. It’s how things are made new, not the reward that comes from passing the test, whatever the test is and whoever might be administering it.

Forgiveness meets us as human beings where we are, as we are, and it stubbornly, honestly, and relentlessly loves us forward. It is the thing we need. And it is the thing we need to extend. More than we can even know. Who knows what we will become (or fail to become) without it?

Image source.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken Peters #

    spectacular insight, Ryan, well done.

    June 24, 2022
  2. Gil #

    This is a really thought-provoking post. The distinction (or relationship) between forgiveness and empathy is interesting. I don’t think you can forgive without empathy (“here is this person who has done something wrong and needs to make it right… I too have felt that way and can understand the sorrow, shame, guilt etc.). On the other hand, I think it’s very possible to champion a certain kind of “empathy” and avoid forgiveness because we can stop with a kind of baseline sentiment of solidarity (“I see you, I feel you” etc.) and never tell the truth about what’s been done. So forgiveness seems like a thicker practice to me because it requires both empathy and truth-telling. Forgiveness seems harder than empathy which maybe explains the paradox of 2022 where we hear a lot about the value of empathy but see so little grace and forgiveness.

    June 25, 2022
    • I think it’s very possible to champion a certain kind of “empathy” and avoid forgiveness because we can stop with a kind of baseline sentiment of solidarity (“I see you, I feel you” etc.) and never tell the truth about what’s been done.

      Yes, absolutely. I think we see this all around. I like the idea of forgiveness as a “thicker” practice.

      June 26, 2022

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