Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Shadow Knows

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." --Mahatma Gandhi

I once saw a Dennis the Menace cartoon where our young hero is clobbering some kid right in front of a shocked minister.

"I know vengeance is the Lord's," Dennis is telling the astounded parson, "I'm just helping Him out."

I know how Dennis feels. I want to do the right thing, walk the straight and narrow, but I'd also like to lay down the smack on many of mine enemies. God's work is my own, right?

I keep talking about putting the past behind, forgetting the dirtbags who screwed me over, and getting on with my life.

But that forgetting part hasn't been working so well and I suspect that this is because I'm not really forgiving any of these mutts. (The word "mutts" is a big tip-off, isn't it?)

I was in church recently--really--when the subject of forgiveness came up during the sermon. The gospel for that day was from Matthew, where Jesus relates the Lord's Prayer, or the Our Father.

I've been saying that prayer for years, but, like a lot of people, I really haven't been following the words. Fear was the cornerstone of my Catholic school experience, not learning.

You memorized the prayers and the catechism so you wouldn't be bashed by the nuns and humiliated in front of your classmates. The actual meaning behind those words was a distant second to mind control.

The priest at last week's service stressed the line about "forgive us our trespasses, as--"--here it comes--"as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Clunk! That's where I hit the wall. I know it's vital to my personal development, that I'll be a happier person if I really can absolve this rather sizable crowd of trespassers, but, damn it, it's really tough.

I don't suppose I could get God's forgiveness and still go after the people I hate with a Louisville Slugger, could I? No, of course not; there's always a catch.

But I want to know what is the point of forgiving people who don't care about me, who don't even think about me?

They weren't worried about my feelings when they insulted me or betrayed me or embarrassed me--why they should they give a rat's hairy behind if I now forgive them for their outrageous behavior?

My shrink tells me that forgiving these bastards (my word, not his) will be good for me and I really want to believe that, I really want drop all this anger, some of which dates back decades.

But I don't quite see the connection to letting someone off the hook and feeling better about myself. I need a flow chart, a PowerPoint presentation, on how forgiving others is going to help me.

Just show me how the this thing works and I'll be doling out forgiveness like a new father passing out cigars.

Of course, if I expecting something in return for for pardoning all these putzes, then that probably lowers the spiritual value of my good deed and I'm back to square one.

You mean to tell me that virtue really is its own reward? Man, that's a letdown.

I think of these alleged "friends" I've had over the years, the kind of scumbags who are all buddy-buddy when there's no one around, but who quickly dump on you the second a third party shows up.

There was the friend in high school, who was much more popular than I was, and never failed to remind me of that fact.

"You're in my shadow," he once said to me.

I wasn't even sure what he meant by that, but I did know it hurt--a lot.

I know that this sounds like an exaggeration, but that was one of the worst things anyone ever said to me. But yet I still hung around with this prick and even now I'm ashamed to admit that.

I'm trying to allow for youth and immaturity and I have to say that still doesn't cut it. I wouldn't talk to a dog that way.

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?

I have the misfortune of being around a lot of treacherous people during my life, so much so that its impossible to believe that it was a coincidence.

And as far as attracting abuse, well, I see people every day who are blind or injured or helpless in some way, and it would be very easy to stick my leg out and trip them.

But I don't do that. I see that they're hurting and if I can't help them, then I make sure to stay the hell out of their way.

I've had this need to be liked for many years--and I still have some of that in me--but I've learned very slowly that its like painting a bullseye on your chest and shouting "fire at will." You won't have to say it twice.

Also, I think the anger has become addictive, a drug like cocaine or caffeine. It gives you a momentary boost of power.

I get my "fix" by losing my temper, feeling the righteous indignation and playing the victim. If I forgive people, hell, how am I going to get high?

One of my fantasies is finding someone hurt me, returning the favor, and then ask for forgiveness myself--just to see what it feels like. But I know that's a pretty hollow wish, a child's view of the situation. Kind of like Dennis the Menace.

Mahatma Gandhi says forgiveness is a sign of strength, but part of me--a very large part of me--sees it as an act of weakness, that I'm being a wimp by not returning fire to my enemies.

Gandhi was gunned down in cold blood and the wise-ass in me wants to ask, "hey, guy, would you forgive the dude that murdered you?"

But my rational side already knows the answer. "Yes, he would."

There are people who have had their loved ones murdered and go one to forgive the killers. If that's not a sign of strength, then there is no such thing.

I found a fabulous article on forgiveness that spells out some of my concerns.

Among other things, the article points out that forgiveness doesn't mean condoning the wrongs that were done to you.

"What you are after is to find peace," the article says. Am I ever.

The article also says that you don't have to announce your intention to the entire world, that forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else. Okay, I like that, too.

Clearly, the first person I have to forgive is myself because in the darker regions of my mind, I am Public Enemy No. 1.

That part of me feels unworthy of love and respect and success, so it's little wonder that I didn't stick up for myself when I was younger.

I have to forgive myself for letting people walk all over me, for not fighting back, not not telling people off.

God knows that I've done my share of hurting people. I've done some pretty awful things, stuff that I don't think I could ever forgive had it been done to me.

Yet I would hope that those folks would find it in their hearts to forgive me

So you can start a chain reaction in two directions: either you spread the love or spread the hate.

I found a definition for "forgiveness" that describes it as "the mental, and/or spiritual process of ceasing to feel resentment, indignation or anger against another person for a perceived offense, difference or mistake, or ceasing to demand punishment or restitution."

This is not surrender or wimping out. It's just "ceasing to feel" these toxic attitudes. Of course the definition goes on to say that "this subject to much philosophical critique."

Why am I not surprised?

All right...Dennis the Menace on one side, Jesus and Gandhi on the other. Do I would go with the bratty cartoon kid who never grew up or two of the greatest leaders of all time?

I'll guess I give forgiveness a try. If it's good enough for the Lord and the Mahatma, it's good enough for me.


Brenda from Flatbush said...

Lord, have I struggled with this one. Have gleaned only 3 bits of possible wisdom from seeing people I love drown in bitterness and anger:
1. Forgiveness = freedom. It's like walking out of a prison cell whose door was open all along.
2. I got stuck on the 'Our Father' for many years til I heard the old version, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." I owe so many people, big-time, more than I can ever repay in terms of love, support, patience, understanding. The idea that I could tear up someone else's debt for pain they caused me--and in return my own debts (such an easy-to-grasp concept, debt!) could be cancelled--was a lot easier than rolling over for those damn "trespassers."
And finally, 3. I have begun to wonder if forgiveness is a creative act, because like all acts of creation it goes beyond the mechanics and limits of psychology and seems to arise from some magical place, based on nothing--like a song, or a story, or a painting. Back to freedom, huh.
Such high philosophizing from somebody whose own daughter says she should give up snarking and verbally bashing people for Lent...

Rob K said...


These are fabulous insights and I thank you so much for sharing them.

It's like walking out of a prison cell whose door was open all along.

That's gold. And forgiveness as a creative act, on a par with a song, yes, that's actually appealing to me.

Thanks again!

Calamity Jen said...

You had me worried there for a minute, until you shared some of the insights from that article on forgiveness. Religion's idea of forgiveness is all well and good if you're into that sort of thing, but I truly believe that in your case it's 100% about YOU and for YOUR benefit.

After all, those schmucks who hurt you are living their merry lives completely unaware of their effect on you. As you suspect, your forgiveness would mean nothing to them. It will mean a tremendous amount to you, however, because it will finally spell the end to the self-inflicted suffering that your resentment has been causing all these years.

Think of it this way: some jerk punches you once. Ouch. What you're doing by harboring anger is effectively punching yourself in his place year after year after year. Forgive, forget, move on. For yourself.

Rob K said...

That's a great analogy, Jen.

In a very real sense, I have been punching myself over and over.

As far as religion, I'm still feeling my way around there. And it's been a nice trip.