Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Scent of the Violet

by Annabeth Leong

“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

The quote above has saved me from a trip through what I often find to be insufferable and pedantic territory.

While forgiveness is beautiful and important, I’m very concerned by all the self-righteousness around the concept that I come across in my general reading and living of life. I think it’s an act of grace and mystery, and by its very nature it’s about going beyond what’s required. So what bothers me is what I see as intense peer pressure, particularly in communities focused around self-help, religion, or other similar pursuits, to forgive people in all circumstances, sometimes far more rapidly than seems reasonable to me. This is often accompanied by a slew of platitudes about forgiveness, why it’s important, and how it works.

Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is that mainstream culture isn’t monolithic, so problems in it often come in pairs. This can make it confusing to criticize mainstream trends without sounding like you’re taking up the other common side. For example, with respect to forgiveness, there’s another mainstream thread of implacable and vengeful anger. See, for example, the various horrific things that U.S. Republican presidential candidates are saying about the vengeance they wish to take in response to terrorist attacks (which often describe acts that would harm many innocent people). I don’t endorse that at all.

To me, this sort of vengeful anger seems like the flip side of pressure to offer kneejerk forgiveness. Both stem from a lack of understanding of forgiveness as a process, and beyond that of the reaction to violence as a set of complex feelings. The mainstream view toward the aftermath of harm looks to me like a binary switch: be vengefully angry forever, or forgive immediately. In my life, probably unsurprisingly to those who know me here, things are far more complicated than that.

I’ll focus on the forgiveness side because that’s our topic.

It’s been complicated for me to get at what forgiveness actually means. At times, I’ve treated it as a thing that totally wipes away whatever wrong was done, in such a way that I placed myself in situations where I was harmed over and over again in the same ways by the same people. At times, the concept of forgiveness (which I might describe now as formally releasing someone, either in your own heart or through conversation, from an obligation to somehow “make it up to you”) gets mixed up with the concept of erasing your anger. I think it’s possible to forgive someone but still feel angry about what was done, and that in many ways that might be a healthier view of what forgiveness could look like. At times, I’ve felt pressured to tell someone I forgave them, particularly in the immediate aftermath of an event, and then found later that I was still suffering from what they had done. At that point, it felt like I’d be making myself a liar if I brought the issue up again.

I’m really concerned about pressure to forgive, for example, ongoingly abusive family members, especially depending on how forgiveness is being defined. If forgiveness means mentally releasing them from some sort of perceived obligation to change but feeling okay about avoiding them forever, then that seems okay to me. If, on the other hand, it means showing up at Thanksgiving and going through more abuse, I’ve got some questions about whether this is really a good idea.

Most importantly, though, for forgiveness to preserve its essential grace, it can’t be obligatory and it can’t be flippant. It needs to be seen as the act of unnecessary generosity that it is. It needs to be seen as the product of time and self-reflection. It needs to be seen as something that can’t necessarily be performed on command. It’s also not easy, and it may not necessarily make things right in any obvious way.

This brings me back to the quote. Though often attributed to Mark Twain, it’s apparently actually of unknown origin.

What struck me, though, is that it preserves the complexity of forgiveness. It’s a lovely image, full of the sort of grace and mystery that the concept of forgiveness possesses to me. It also raises a lot of questions, and doesn’t shy away from the disturbing elements involved.

The flower in the quote has been crushed. There’s no question being raised about whether real harm was done (another issue that often muddies forgiveness—”no harm done” is, I think, a different circumstance). The flower has been crushed and will go on as such. There is no evidence that the foot that crushed it paused, tried to help, or even noticed. It is possible that no amends can be made, and that the crushing is irrevocable. And yet, there is that beautiful fragrance.

But what is that fragrance for? Aside from the beauty and mystery it possesses, it may well go unappreciated. The owner of the heel may never notice the scent. Releasing a lovely scent may do nothing for the flower. And yet it’s undeniable that there is something better about a world in which this image exists.

That last paragraph is really important to me because it counteracts what can be a frustratingly utilitarian view of forgiveness. Accompanying the pressure to provide it rapidly is often the idea that it’s “good for you.” As if it were a way of eating one’s spinach. It is often true that forgiveness, offered sincerely after time and self-reflection, provides a sense of spiritual release, and that it may ultimately be better for one’s psyche than nursing a longstanding grudge. On the other hand, that “good for you” idea feels far too simplistic to me.

If forgiveness is an act of generosity, which I think it is, then focusing on oneself while offering it seems to come at it from the wrong angle. And, as I’ve brought up before, I don’t think forgiveness is good for you if it leads you to continue suffering harm (for example, by forgiving an abusive current partner and then deciding for that reason to stay in the relationship). I’d rather take “good for you” concepts as side effects rather than essential motivation for the act.

The flower may die. It may be crushed again. And yet the scent remains. There’s something lovely and hard to grasp about that, and that gets at the essential nature of forgiveness as I see it.

15 comments:

  1. You've offered so much wisdom here, on what is indeed a complex topic that's often bandied simplistically about.

    While, in my own mind, I don't usually conceptualize things in terms of either "forgiveness" or unwillingness/inability to "forgive," I do have a rule of thumb regarding how I feel about people who have treated me badly in one way or another—and I think this ties in to some of what you've said. Basically, if Person A did Bad Thing to me but, eventually, I've come to believe this person would not do such a thing again, then I don't "hold it against" the person: by which I mean that my conceptions of that person and my feelings about that person go forward untainted by the negative incident in the past. My belief that (s)he "wouldn't do it again" might be based on a sincere apology, on the general pattern of behavior or personal growth I've observed in that person in the interim, or even on a default "benefit of the doubt" guess that—the negative incident being a long time ago and no evidence of that person's still being that kind of person having arisen since then—he/she has probably changed and would regret such an incident in the past.

    If, on the other hand, all the evidence suggests that the person is still very much the sort of person who did That Thing and Would Do It Again—if, for instance, he/she has done it again and again, or has made it clear in other ways that the negative incident still represents his/her attitude toward me or his/her idea of an appropriate way to behave—then I still consider that incident relevant to how I feel about that person. It's not that I "can't forgive": it's that I have a reason—a non-obsolete reason—to have negative feelings about that person.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember having a particular argument with someone with whom I was involved in a long-term collaborative endeavor. In the course of whatever we were arguing about at that moment, I made reference to an earlier incident in our collaborative history. "Well, if you're still angry about something that happened two years ago," my friend said. No! The point, as I tried to explain, was not that I was "angry" about it; the point was that I had an ongoing problem with the way he approached certain matters, and this earlier instance was relevant to what I was trying to say about the current instance.

      Delete
    2. Thanks so much for all the insightful commentary, Jeremy! I think it really adds to the post. The distinction you make—about having a reason for continued negative feelings—is really important. I think part of the weird conflation is that recognizing a pattern of behavior can be treated as "holding on to anger." But things get very weird if you can't recognize a pattern of behavior.

      Delete
  2. Thinking about religious/spiritual/wellness philosophies that emphasize things like forgiveness and universal love: OK, the ability to "rise above" things, to stay compassionate despite anger and resist demonizing people, to "let go" of burdensome emotions when one can do so, to avoid letting all the crap that's out there infect one's peace of mind more than it has to... well, these are all important goals and great touchstones. But if it crosses the line into a type of denial, a shutting down of one's own emotional and intelligent responses to things... a blanket "nothing will bother me—no injury to myself, no global injustice" or "I'm 100 percent full of love for everybody, even the most vicious people"... well, it seems to me that becomes a kind of nihilism. Like it's gone from "let's keep things in perspective and try to move forward" to "nothing matters, all is serenity and love." And the latter feels false to me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    2. An afterthought, however, in case I'm unfairly judging what's really going on in those philosophies. (By the way, there's another oversimplified dichotomy, eh? "judging" vs. "never judging." Like critizing someone's insensitive behavior that directly hurts others is just as unacceptable as knocking someone's private lifestyle choices that don't do anybody any harm.) If the people who teach complete serenity and universal love do so the way fitness and nutrition experts teach the practices they teach—i.e., setting the bar high with the knowledge that most people will get only part of the way there—then maybe there's a method to the "madness." Like if people try to love everyone and roll with everything then, in reality, maybe they'll be 10 percent less consumed by anguish and anger. Setting standards that seem to fundamentally deny human reality always makes me uncomfortable, but maybe it's a strategy that works for some people. And—especially when we talk about people trying to break free of debilitating addictions—I think the "whatever works" principle goes a long way. Of course, there's a difference between setting a high bar and setting a wrong bar; and I do think there's something inherently wrong with a "nothing matters" paradigm—especially if it makes people feel like they're "failing" by not achieving total unreactive serenity, or feel guilty for feeling anger more than love toward certain people.

      Delete
    3. And here I like the high bar vs wrong bar idea.

      I think that some of what goes on with those wellness philosophies is that they're correct from a very long-term perspective. But in the day to day perspective, I've seen so much pressure and guilt around not being able to make forgiveness happen immediately. What's getting lost in my opinion is time and process. And along the way the necessity of grace and generosity—that forgiveness is still not obligatory even if it's a good and important goal.

      Delete
  3. You've also wisely touched on the troubling conflation of anger and revenge. In my personal moral landscape, revenge is never appropriate. Whereas anger is sometimes unavoidable. Feeling wounded, upset, and—well—really angry at someone shouldn't imply, in the popular mind, that you want to hurt that person (or even that you abstractly wish hurt on that person). The one does not necessarily imply the other. When someone has angered me, I may want an apology, I may want the person to understand what he or she has done, I may want to make sure it doesn't happen again, I may want distance or even a break... but what I don't ever want is to inflict punishment. (Someone may, of course, feel hurt by my angry complaint or by my coolness, but the hurting isn't the goal.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And so much this. It was a major realization to me to realize that I almost never want revenge. I was very frightened of my anger for a long time because I thought it would make me do bad things. But when I explore my heart, the most extreme thing I want when I feel very angry is to tell someone how upset I feel. I have sometimes wished for someone to understand how hurt I am. Those things are very different from revenge, and it's been really helpful for me to see that one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.

      Delete
  4. A lovely quotation from an anthropocentric perspective, but it occurs to me that the violet isn't sharing its fragrance willingly.

    Don't mind me. I'm just feeling overly literal-minded right now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a really good and concerning point, Sacchi. I think I like the violet image because it preserves a lot of the violence of the original act. It doesn't shrug off its impact. The issue of consent is of course really important, too.

      Delete
  5. It's part of the violet's nature to release its scent. The flower can't do anything else. Is it fundamental to human nature that we can forgive? Somehow I doubt it.

    Hence this quote highlights the rare grace of true forgiveness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. An interesting take on this, Lisabet. Is the idea here that true forgiveness comes from a certain sort of nature and isn't so much willed but entirely from grace?

      Delete
  6. Well-expressed, Annabeth, but I have the same concerns about the pressure to "forgive" from groups that often seem Holier Than Thou.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes to this. I worry about that pressure a lot. I've seen some really destructive outcomes from it. (i.e. people "making amends" to past abusers).

      Delete