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.