It's a time for taking stock, and committing to do better. Which brings me to the title of this post.
Forgiveness is necessary to human society. Hell, it's necessary to human life. Even if you were the last person on earth, you'd still need it: to forgive those you knew – their goneness would not diminish that need – and also yourself, for mistakes made and still being made.
Unfortunately, forgiveness is one of the most embattled values in this place and time. Just the proposition spurs screams of bloodlust in public discourse. I know this because I am frequently the one being screamed at.
I awoke to this during three or four years of activity on Cracked.com. Ostensibly a humour site, Cracked has grown into a source for some of the most courageous op-ed journalism on the Net, publishing insider exposés and revealing position pieces on topics the mainstream media all but ignore. Like most fans I originally surfed in for the funny, but what kept me coming back was Crack's stable of fearless, talented young writers, smacking down unbowdlerised insights on poverty, war, race and gender politics, the world of business, public hypocrisy, and other vital topics. (Salient example: an essay by the male victim of a female rapist. You literally will not find such a byline anywhere else.)
Such content attracts thoughtful, articulate readers, and the comment sections – marginally moderated against YouTube-rot – can be as provocative as the articles.
And that's where I finally came to see that the most universally despised ideology in humanity isn't capitalism or communism; atheism or religious fanaticism; totalitarianism or anarchy; racism, diversity, war, or appeasement. It isn't even gender equity in computer gaming.
It's forgiveness. Nothing – nothing – will get you buried farther, faster, than advocating forgiveness.
To cite one instance: a comment on 5 Things I Learned as a Neo-Nazi, in which Frank Meeink explains the mindset that led him into, and then out of, the cul-de-sac of racial theory. His article is bold and enlightening, and most of all, useful; writing with unassailable authority, Meeink – whose Cracked profile contains the tagline, "Empathy and Humility is the key" – throws light where few have gone before.
In the discussion afterward I found a rant that contained the following riposte:
"...does [owning his sins and reforming himself] somehow excuse the bad things [Meeink] has done in the past?"
To which, my explosive, inflammatory response:
Within minutes I was buried under downthumbs. Not one person upthumbed me.
I've experienced the same all over the Internet. And even though I understand it – I have myself been hurt by fundamentally malevolent people who delight in causing others pain and walked off scot-free afterward – it's difficult for me to grasp the mindlessness of such rage.
Posters often complain that a given confessor hasn't done enough to make amends, and make sneering references to "playing the victim". (For the record, Meeink pointedly does no such thing; the theme of his confessional, as of most of the genre, is "I struck out blindly against ill-defined enemies and got what I had coming.")
Thing is, it doesn't matter anyway. You can't make amends. What's done is gone. The only thing anybody can do is the same thing that we all must do: be a better person next time.
And no matter who you are, that's your homework. Maybe you've never been a Neo-Nazi, but if you're reading this, I guarantee you've done something. Something bad. Something evil. Something lazy and self-centered that caused suffering to undeserving others. Perhaps you murdered; perhaps you ruined lives. Or maybe you sinned less theatrically. But all of us are limited to the exact same recourse: stop doing that. Becoming someone else from now on is all we can do, and therefore, all we can be asked to do.
The Buddha himself demonstrated this graphically when he accepted Angulimala as his student. Unable to live with the anguish he'd caused, the confessed torturer and serial killer announced his intention to commit suicide. His teacher's response: "Why? That man is gone. Suicide at this point would be yet another random murder of an unoffending passerby."
And that's why forgiveness isn't just a good idea, it's a necessity. When you withhold forgiveness from others, you kill everybody; nobody is without transgression. And if you apply your spiteful convictions equally, you'll end up on the same scaffold yourself. (And if you don't, that's the sin of hypocrisy; you end up on it either way.)
The people who hurt me, shouldn't have. I'm still mad at some of them, in spite of myself. But if they were to repent (as they may have in intervening years), I'd stamp the balance "PAID". Because they can't unhurt me; they can only stop hurting others. Since doing so would in effect empty their account, everything they've got is enough for me.
And though it's much harder for me to accept, the same goes for me: I can't unhurt those that my own selfish, deluded flailing has hurt, and so I must be satisfied with not being that guy anymore. I atone for my misdeeds every time I sit zazen; every time I empathise with others in pain; and every time I forgive those who have caused pain.
I know screaming and ranting and vowing vengeance is "in" now. And I've learned the price of not riding along on that gang-bang. But may I suggest, for the coming year, that a good resolution might be to forgive someone. Your choice.
If you've got any resources left afterward, you might try forgiving a group of people: some race or organisation or class, real or imagined, that you resent.
Possibly, if we each practice diligently, this fundamental survival skill may no longer be considered dangerous and subversive.
My best for the coming year, and a deep bow to all who struggle to get off the treadmill of suffering and delusion.
(Pardon courtesy of Faberventi [artist] and Wikimedia Commons.)