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Self and Forgiveness
In his book The Person and the Common Good (1), Jacques Maritain defines a human person as more than a material individual. Part of our nature is to be social. If we reduce social relations to material power structures, we reduce the person to the individual and the community to the collective. Individualist and collectivist ideologies serve to divide people, whereas personalist and communitarian perspectives help bring people together. Rather than self-interested individuals and groups, we need other-oriented persons and communities.
Michael Lerner articulates a philosophical basis for an other-oriented, rather than a self-centered, ethic:
Thus, the deepest truth of our subjectivity is not its “being for itself” as Sartre would have it, but rather its “being for the other.” Our most fundamental self is expressed not in our ability to act in a ferocious and unguided Faustian fashion, but rather in our ability to be ethically alive responders to others, compassionate caretakers of others and of the world – to be able to achieve mutual recognition with them, so that we see them and they see us as ends rather than as means, as embodiments of holiness and deserving of dignity and freedom, as infinitely precious and sacred. (2)
Viktor Frankl formulated an other-oriented position when he wrote that it is less important what we ask of life as what life asks of us. President Kennedy popularized this perspective patriotically when he said that we should ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. Dear Abby reworked this in the inter-personal realm by writing “ask not what others can do for you, but what you can do for others.” The opposite of this is the me-first philosophy of Ayn Rand whose refrain of greed-is-good became the motto for corrupt corporate practices that have damaged society and destroyed lives world-wide. (3)
Perhaps no better formulation of our historical position in this regard in the U.S.A. can be found than this comment by a parish priest, Father Michael Marini, who reflects on what has happened to parish life since the Depression and World War II:
In those days [the depression and WWII], “parish” was a place where people gathered to pray out of a common experience of need whether that need was for financial security or the safety of children who had gone off to war. One prayed not for one’s own needs but for the needs which one knew everyone had.
We’re a much different parish now. We are fragmented. Today the task of prayer is to break down the walls which have risen between us and make us a community of people once again concerned for each other’s welfare. (4)
Self-help books have proliferated and gained a sizable market. Although many of these books have been helpful to many people, a disturbing negative trend has emerged. As corporations have sought increasingly powerful management techniques, as the intelligence community has sought increasingly questionable mind-control techniques, various self-aggrandizing manipulators have cashed in. Some self-help books immodestly promise almost everything to almost everybody, but they mostly help the shameless exploit the vulnerable. Richard Bandler and his brand of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (5) is a prime example of this sham being marketed to unscrupulous individuals at the expense of society-at-large.
Criticisms of the promised New Age for the Inner Child have emerged. Erik Erikson long ago made the distinction between the child-like qualities (a positive Judeo-Christian value) and childish-ness. But Erikson’s influence has not stemmed the tide of inner-child liberties that have led to the more severe criticisms of the eminent Jungian psychologist James Hillman, who was driven to ask “Is Therapy Turning Us Into Children?” (6) In a lighter vein, the self-help movement has been parodied in recent cultural criticism, including the following comic gem that shows up the inherent ambiguity of “self-helpism”:
Nicole Gregory and Judith Stone advise us all to get back to our puppy-like selves in Heeling Your Inner Dog: A Self-Whelp Book (Times Books, $12).
“Your inner dog is the innate core of joy, creativity, courage, and exuberant, unrepentant slobbering living deep within each of us,” they write in the introduction. “It is the hidden, happy, primal self.”
An external, other-guide (e.g. mentor) is much more effective than an imaginary inner-guide. An inner-guide can help us integrate good guidance that we have received from others (the ego-psychology concept of internalization), but we are better off resuming contact with wise others than introspecting for very long. Although we should not “shoot the inner-dog” (to extend the title of Karen Pryor’s delightful book on training, Don’t Shoot the Dog), we should also note Pryor’s caution on the weakness of self-reinforcement and what it might suggest to us on the inherent weakness of self-forgiveness:
How about shaping yourself? All kinds of programs exist for changing one’s own behavior: SmokEnders, Weight Watchers, and so on. Most such programs draw heavily on shaping methods, usually called behavior modification, and they may or may not be successful. The difficulty, I think, is that they require you to reinforce yourself. But when you are reinforcing yourself, the event is never a surprise – the subject always knows what the trainer is up to. This makes it awfully easy to say “The heck with getting another star on my chart, I’d rather have a cigarette.” (7)
Note the parallel here with good humor being inherently social; laughing to oneself to the exclusion of others is a pathological habit. If we cannot make others laugh, if we cannot get others to follow our guidance, we should not laugh at our own jokes or follow our own inner-guide. This is as foolish a prospect as the one Miss Manners pokes fun at: the idea of arranging for oneself a surprise birthday party! (8)
Certainly we should advocate self-care and the incorporation of the positive child-like qualities into our more mature personalities. But to be successful at doing this, we could use a better language for incorporating the positive elements of childhood into a mature approach. A shift from a “self-help” to an “other-help” approach may be the necessary and sufficient change.
One of the core beliefs in the self-help movement is the necessity of self-forgiveness for emotional and/or spiritual growth. Self-forgiveness is a confused and often misleading concept. Perhaps the most concise criticism of this idea appeared in an article by Gordon D. Marino entitled “The Epidemic of Forgiveness”:
The idea that we can forgive ourselves our own trespasses violates all traditional conceptions of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a relational act and as such cannot be carried out alone. Here it might be instructive to imagine, and for some it will not take much imagination, someone having put a wrecking ball through your life. As the years roll on, you try to forgive the rabid individual who left you with a cicatrix running from your spine to your soul. However, every time you conjure up this person’s face, nothing but fear and hate comes to you. Try as you have, you cannot forgive him. And then one day you hear that this very person has learned to do what you couldn’t do, namely, forgive himself. What would you feel? Maybe I am hard of heart, but I would feel as though my tormentor were simply kidding himself. I would feel as though he was compounding one transgression with another. Not surprisingly, the notion that we can forgive ourselves seems more viable to the person who has slung the stone, and now has the furies breathing down his neck, than it does to the person who is trying to peel his life off the floor. (9)
Forgiveness is an essentially interactive process and is therefore, by nature, inter-personal and social. One person forgives another person. This position is counter to the idea that people can forgive themselves. Self-forgiveness seems to assume that forgiveness is a magical power that can be applied like a formula, regardless of the response of the other person. Formulaic approaches easily fall prey to foolish performances, supporting Bergson’s (1913) theory that humor arises from an organism behaving rigidly like an inflexible mechanism. (10)
Forgiveness may be wonderful, but it is not magical. It is hard work and messier business than any of us would want to admit. C.S. Lewis wrote: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive”. Magic implies a technical and material power over the fate of things and people. If one does certain things, it has certain effects. This may be true in the crafts and sciences of nature, but in the moral and spiritual realms it is not certain and should not be promised or even implied. A person contemplating forgiveness or helping others to forgive should face free-will and fate openly, or be ready to be shown up as the fool in the presence of those unpleasantly surprised by failure of the effort.
Sometimes people seek forgiveness from a third party. The use of a third party to gain absolution is a tricky proposition in that it can become a pretext for avoiding settling the conflict between the conflicted parties themselves. This is the reason that many priests, ministers, rabbis and other religious authorities these days direct penitents to make right the wrongs they have done as part of the confession and reconciliation rites.
But if third party absolution is tricky, how much more so is the idea of absolving oneself. An isolated act of self-forgiveness can only be riddled with opportunities for self-deception and the easy way out. Self-forgiveness smacks of cheating and insider-trading, and fraud is all too easily accepted in our opportunistic society.
Sometimes those who talk of self-forgiveness would do better to talk of something more akin to “self-acceptance.” For instance, if a person realizes that an action was harmful to another person and seeks that person’s forgiveness, but fails to gain it after an honest and thorough attempt, then the best that the penitent can do is to accept the fact that the past cannot be changed and strive to make the future better. This can be done by making proper restitution, achieving discipline, and becoming an agent of forgiveness in our troubled world. Although the forgiveness of the injured is not obtained, repentance is achieved (a fact that enhances the possibility of ultimate divine forgiveness), making self-acceptance a possible and desirable outcome. In this scenario, self-acceptance is sufficient, without any inflated notion of self-forgiveness, to counter the false humility of excessive guilt and self-hatred.
It might be suggested that different parts of the self, or even different selves within a person, can forgive each other (a higher self forgiving a lower self). Although there is a reality and usefulness to these ideas, they do not serve to effect forgiveness. Forgiveness requires a real other person who is harmed by an action over which they have no direct control. The closest there is to this in the self is the idea of a divine self that is at the center of the personality and provides the possibility for personality integration. But to the extent that this divine self is “other” than our “real” self, it is no different than the concept of God who is both within and beyond each one of us.
In this way we can break down the vague idea of “self-forgiveness” into two better defined ideas of “self-acceptance” and “God-forgiveness.” In that God resides in the core of each person’s soul, therefore being forgiven by a neighbor is at the same time being forgiven by God. It is only when the wronged person is unable or unwilling to forgive that turning to God in their place is justified. As Gordon Marino so aptly puts it:
But it is one thing for me to resolve to accept what I have done and stop torturing myself, and another for me to imagine that I can wipe my slate clean. Likewise, though I have twice heard the heretical invocation to self-forgiveness come from the pulpit, it is one thing for me to pray for and have trust in God’s forgiveness and quite another for me to imagine that I can forgive myself. On this point, I have the strong sense that the idea of self-forgiveness is a symptom of the secularization process. People for whom the idea of a personal God has become an offense often wish to retain some of the ethico-religious ideas associated with faith, such as forgiveness. So, fantastically enough, they take this power upon themselves. (11)
In order to further explore the contradictions involved in the concept of self-forgiveness, let us consider a story analyzed in Lewis Smedes’ 1984 book Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. This book was a definitive popularization of the topic of forgiveness. Smedes projects a great deal of education and experience in a presentation that is very personable, and this book has many virtues. But steeped in the self-help literature, this popularization is flawed by its uncritical acceptance of the concept of self-forgiveness. It is illuminating to see how Smedes goes about defining and justifying self-forgiveness.
The substance of Smedes’ argument is revealed in his interpretation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In Dostoevsky’s novel, the main character Raskolnikov murders an old woman while under the delusion that by doing so, he would become a great man and transcend good and evil, like Napoleon. Smedes describes Raskolnikov’s redemption in the following way:
Yet now and then, Raskolnikov did get a glimpse of “the fundamental falsity of himself.” He knew deep inside that he was lying to himself.
And finally it happened. How it happened he did not know. He flung himself at Sonia’s feet and accepted her love. “He wept and threw his arms around her knees.” He finally had the power to love. And his power to love revealed that the miracle had really happened; he had forgiven himself.
He forgave himself? For such a crime as cold blooded murder? Yes. “Everything, even his crime, his sentence and imprisonment seemed to him now…an external strange fact with which he had no concern.”
Release! Release by a discovery that his terrible past was irrelevant to who he was now and was going to be in the future. He was free from his own judgment and this was why he was free to love.
Raskolnikov stands out in staggering boldness to show us that even the worst of us can find the power to set ourselves free. (12)
How Smedes comes to the conclusion that Raskolnikov’s transformation is the result of self-forgiveness is anyone’s guess. What we find in the story is that Raskolnikov was deluded and committed a crime, that in his confusion he comes across a woman who shows love for him, that he accepts her love and in so doing humbles himself, giving up his delusion and repenting his crime. What changes him is not self-forgiveness, but his love for Sonia. Sonia’s love becomes for Raskolnikov a sign of God’s forgiveness.
A clue to Smedes’ thinking can be found in how he says we are to go about forgiving ourselves:
But how can you pull it off?
The first thing you need is honesty. There is no way to forgive yourself without it. Candor – a mind ready to forego fakery and to face facts – this is the first piece of spiritual equipment you need. (13)
The fact is, when we are deluded, when we are deceiving ourselves, we are in no position to correct ourselves. It takes the perception of another to correct us. This is what Raskolnikov finds with Sonia. She corrects his perverse perception with love. His delusion is corrected in his acceptance of her love.
Smedes’ omission of the essential role of others in our healing belies the narrowness of his view of how “we heal ourselves.” Perhaps this accounts for his way of defining the differences between his approach and the views of Paul Tillich:
Many profound thinkers do not want the healing of the memory — short of climax –to count as forgiveness. Take the late American theologian Paul Tillich, for instance; he says that “genuine forgiveness is participation, reunion overcoming the power of estrangement.” In Tillich’s opinion forgiving does not really happen unless people are brought together in a renewed relationship – close, intimate, mutually accepting. Forgiveness completed, fulfilled in the coming together of two people, is the only genuine article.
I think Tillich is wrong; I think we can have reality even if we do not have the whole of it. We can have a great experience climbing a mountain even if we never reach the peak.
Sex can be good – if not all we want – even if orgasm escapes us; forgiving can be real even though the person we forgive is out of our reach. We need not deny ourselves the healing of incomplete forgiving; we can forgive and be free in our own memories. (14)
In Smedes’ account of Raskolnikov’s healing, leaving out the essential role Sonia played, the metaphor is not sex without climax, but sex without a partner. One of the things that seems to hamper Smedes’ view is his either/or attitude towards the inter-personal act of forgiveness. Either it leads to complete and wonderful reconciliation or it doesn’t happen at all and we have to heal alone.
But perfect forgiveness is not of this world; our task is to recognize and encourage the degrees of forgiveness on our human scale. It is wonderful for forgiveness to come with a warm embrace between two people who are in conflict with each other, but if there is simply enough room in this town for the two of them, sometimes this too is a sign that forgiveness is at work. In reconsidering reconciliation, we can at least settle for the ability to live in the same town (or planet, at least). At the same time, we should be open to the surprises forgiveness can bring, as can be found in the rich stories of Laura Davis’ book, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation.
On the other hand, when we turn to God for forgiveness rather than to our self, it should be because our neighbors are not able to stand for themselves due to death or other insurmountable circumstances. Not only the basic Judeo-Christian texts, but more modern religious writers, moral philosophers and helping professionals subscribe to this position (15). When we turn to God in place of our neighbors who can stand for themselves, we project a narcissistic image on God and are worshiping an idol of self-deception. God includes and embodies our neighbors and will not allow us to exclude our neighbors in an attempt to possess God. God wants us to accept reality (including ourselves), seek forgiveness and forgive each other. When death separates neighbors, God embodies neighbors in order to bring them back together again. This is the deepest way in which we all belong to each other. This is the basis of a depth sociology and an other-help approach.
Even when we consider harming oneself (suicide, self-mutilation), a similar approach applies. In his book Being and Having, Gabriel Marcel concludes that suicide is not a legitimate option because we both have a body (in this sense, our soul possesses our body) and are a body (our soul is limited by being embodied, and therefore we, as bodies, are possessed by our Creator). With suicide, we dispose of our bodies in a way that indisposes us to God and other committed relationships, thereby denying the very basis of trust, fidelity and faith (16). The duality of both being and having a body makes the idea of self-harm treacherous: harming oneself also harms those who rely on us, as well as harming creation, of which we are a part. It is no coincidence that Viktor Frankl suggests the question, “Why not commit suicide?” as a means of eliciting a patient’s sense of meaning and meaninglessness in life. It is the reasons for living that connect us with others and bring true happiness (17). Forgiveness affirms the reasons for living by reconnecting us with others after our love of life has been damaged by hard times.