Many years later, a Catholic priest said quietly of the Germans who had held him in a concentration camp during World War II: “I might have done the same.”
Others, referring to the same experience, have expressed themselves in another tone: “Never again! We must remember and resist!”
There may be many forms of what is called “forgiveness,” but the most important forgiveness is that which a human being offers to him- or herself. Easy to say. Less easy to do. Yet without this forgiveness, all other sorts fail. This forgiveness is sometimes called “good” or “virtuous,” but I cannot agree. Goodness and virtue may be very nice, but too often they get in the way. As an American, I like what is practical. Forgiveness is practical. It is practical because it accords with the law. And still it is hard to get over the notion that forgiving is what the good guys do . . . we all know where good guys finish.
From bricks to love affairs, everything changes. Sometimes change is “for the better.” Sometimes it is “for the worse.” Sometimes it is ignored — too obvious to be worthy of comment. No matter what the approach, still there is change.
“Oh yes! I know just what you mean! It’s true! I agree! I understand!” An eager chorus from the second balcony. But knowing about change isn’t like knowing that platyhelminthes are the flat worms and nematodes are the round ones. There may be an A-plus in Biology 101, but there is no such thing as an A-plus in understanding.
Not-wanting an A-plus may be difficult, but “wanting” and “not wanting” are a way of trying to duck or stop change. Common, but futile. “Wanting to change” is one of those double whammies of error that can be more difficult to sort out than Rubik’s cube. And still there is change. Another approach may be “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Nice work if you can get it. And still there is change.
Change is the law. Not good, not bad; not moral, immoral, or even amoral. Just the law — what is, like a fire hydrant: dogs pee on it, artists paint it, firemen plug into it, drunks trip over it lovers kiss by it. . . .
To accord with a fire hydrant isn’t so difficult: you open your eyes and look. If you don’t look, you bang your shins or step in the piss or trip over a fire hose. Not opening your eyes may not kill you, but it can be painful and silly. Opening your eyes may be boring, difficult, repetitive, annoying, gratifying or whatever. But the only thing more painful than paying attention is not paying attention.
Paying attention and forgiveness are not different things: they are different names for the same thing. Nothing needs to be withheld — neither resistance nor acceptance, neither yes nor no, neither saying nor silence, active nor passive. Withhold nothing and watch. In the beginning, it may be difficult enough to make a body scream. So scream. Into a pillow if necessary to muffle the sound. Scream and pay attention. Scream until paying attention has no meaning. When the scream is finished, pay attention. Pay attention to “I want” and “I don’t want,” “I care,” and “I don’t care.” Watch and watch and watch some more. Is it the same? Is it different? Is it free? Is it fettered? Is it afraid? Is it courageous? Is it sexy, loving, attractive, ugly, joyful, hypocritical, vain, laughing, greedy, murderous, wheedling, altruistic, self-pitying, mine, yours . . . watchwatchwatch. Is this common? Uncommon? Responsible? Irresponsible? Holy? Unholy? Stupid? Smart? Watchwatchwatch. Forgiveforgiveforgive. Feeling critical, judgmental, nasty and mean? Watchwatchwatch. Feeling mellow, easy, rounded-out and relaxed? Forgiveforgiveforgive. Praise and blame for others? Watch. Need a mantram? Something to hold? How about “Dear Lord, please give him-her-it a swift kick in the pants!” Does it work? Watchwatchwatch. Forgiveforgiveforgive.
And what’s the payback, the quid pro quo, for all this effort?
In the beginning, perhaps the payback is called “clarity” or “strength” or “love” or thorough-going “responsibility” or “according with the law.”
In the end, you get nothing.
What a relief.
New York, New York
I understood Grandma better when my persistent questioning of her finally brought her to exasperation. She said, “He couldn’t be chained.” After staring out the window at the dance of sunlight on maple leaves, she added, “To anything.”
Grandpa, I cherish the memory of your sweet body odor; like fresh cut grass. It is usually at high-noon that I walk through your old world Swiss smell. I lick my lips and think of honeysuckle. I walk through a patch of air of you; then you’re gone. I make an about-face. My head swims. Even in dying you were more like the wind than the sail that catches it.
The barroom betting on how many pushups you could do balanced on an overturned beer bottle under each hand is gone. Also gone are chances to snuggle under your arm, both of us in underwear because of the stifling August Massachusetts heat; watching the Yankees on TV drop another one on errors. When you held me, I only thought of your strength. It never occurred to me that you’d die.
You deserved a cowboy western blazing six-gun death. You were destined to be shot in the back in the same shameful way as the biggest Hollywood cowboy of them all, John Wayne. Duked by cancer. Ghost white stallions on an arid plain stampeded over your lungs kicking up dust the color of blood. Red River, remember?
No one seems to have forgiven you. I’m no better than the rest. Grandpa, what I want is your forgiveness for not letting you go. Forgiveness for making the claims on you that everyone tried harnessing you with, even after death. I wanted you chained to the back of my mind, to be called on as a backup gun when I too could choose no way out of town but through the OK Corral.
This is the last potato, I think to myself, watching the morning light on a creamy white slice. I pretend this is my last supper. The last potato. I carefully cut in one direction and then halve the pieces in the other direction. As the pieces fall away, the light plays differently on the new shapes, the thin brown lines and curves. I feel the closeness of the sharp blade next to my thumb on the last cut. I lay the back of my hand on top of the moist pile of geometric shapes. A potato is still a potato under the knife, through the sputtering in the pan, the change to golden brown.
Once fear cut your face into hard pieces.
Today a moment of potato attention reminds me it is possible to love all forms. At this meal I see your face under a knife and learn to love the changes. It is how I forgive you.
Crown King, Arizona
Forgiveness is a self-righteous luxury. One has to accredit some action as offensive to justify the need for forgiveness. I’ll admit to the reality of offensive actions but 99 percent of them depend on the defensive action of another entity. Very few stand alone. When both parties forgive simultaneously and genuinely I wouldn’t call it forgiveness — I’d call it awareness. For that 1 percent of real offensive action, I think endurance would be more apt. Followed by discussed collective magic.