Forgive your enemies, but first get even.
– James Cagney, in Blood on the Sun
Around Christmas and Chanukah, to mark a new year, although agnostic, I am sometimes attacked by a sappy urge to forgive my living enemies, while adding up those people who have favored me with friendship. But there’s a snag. The bad angel of revenge often beats my good angel of forgiveness.
In my boyhood Chicago, street feuds were more our style on 16th Street. A small example: in grade school, I was bullied by a boy my age, “Melvin”. When I couldn’t take it any longer, I shoved him down a flight of school stairs where he broke his leg. Result: bullying finito. Years later, researching a class reunion, I phoned him in San Diego, where, as soon as he heard my name, he angrily slammed the phone down with a curse. Ah, bliss: he remembered!
More seriously, in the 1960s, in London’s Notting Hill, I was gang-mugged and almost killed by a bunch of guys whom I’d thought of as friends. I never quite got over my fear that, one day, they’d come back to finish the job. Over time, to my intense relief, but not of my doing, one by one they keeled over, of a heart attack, acute alcoholism, this and that. Only one of my former attackers is left. Via internet, Linkedin and the grapevine, I keep a wary eye on his movements, feeling safe only if there’s an ocean or two between us.
The wisdom of the religious and self-help sages holds that as long as I fear and hate this man, and cannot find it in my heart to let it go, it impacts negatively on my life. I’ve sought help in the immense forgiveness literature and am aware of 10- and 12-step programs and even – where else? – in Madison, Wisconsin, an Institute for Forgiveness Studies. The message seems to be, whether Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Dawkins, you do yourself and those around you no good by holding on to dark emotions provoked by the original sin. You must find a way to live with the pain.
I doubt if the guy who slugged me has ever looked back. He’s certainly never apologized; much good it will do either of us. It bugs me that he got away with stealing so much of the time I took to recover from both physical and psychic wounds. Yet, paradoxically, I’m in awe of anyone who has been damaged and forgives, like Corrie ten Boom, the Christian woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp, and famously said, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.”
LA is a gang-killer town. Every week, I read in the newspaper or see on TV interviews with the mother, father or sister of a murdered family member who, instead of expressing hatred or revenge, the hope that one day the killer repents. Recently, after the two killers of his brother were sentenced to long prison terms, Dean Takahashi wrote to them c/o the judge:
“They have no reason to fear me … I don’t believe in the macho folly of retaliation. I would ask them to think about what they’ve done … And turn your life around, whether you’re in jail or not. No excuses.”
In Dean Takahashi’s situation, I don’t know if I could forego “macho folly retaliation”, buying a gun to blow away my brother’s killers. One of the assassins, John Madrona, in for 30 years-to-life, seeks to atone – or to look good on his parole sheet – by working in his prison’s hospice attending the needs of dying prisoners.
Real repentance is terribly hard work, which has nothing to do with our current mania for slippery apologizing when we do horrible things to people. Whether it’s from politicians (like Arnold Schwarzenegger), or celebrity actors (such as Hilary Swank), Pentagon spokesmen or racist soccer players, how often do we hear: “I take full responsibility … our sincere apologies … we apologize for the distress.” To Afghan families mutilated by a drone attack, or to Iraqi parents whose children were killed by trigger-happy US-paid mercenaries, or to the families of the dead US veterans whose remains were carelessly dumped and burned in a Dover air base mortuary landfill, we are familiar with these resentful and grudging apologies. You can almost hear Gen Darrell Jones, the deputy chief of the air force, biting his tongue – like President Obama, who issued a reluctant “qualified apology” to the Pakistanis because our aircraft and artillery had slaughtered 26 of their soldiers.
Real repentance is practical, risky and from deep in the soul. Like Ross Caputi, a Marine who fought at the siege of Fallujah and lost friends there. Caputi is fundraising for Project Fallujah to raise $4,300 to bring two Iraqi doctors to the US to explain the health crisis in this destroyed city. Says Caputi:
“What we did to Fallujah cannot be undone, and I see no point in attacking the people in my former unit … I want to destroy the prejudices that prevented us from putting ourselves in the other’s shoes and asking ourselves what we would have done if a foreign army invaded our country and laid siege to our city.”
Can one even imagine a Henry Kissinger or Paul Wolfowitz, or any of the current journalistic war-stenographers beating the drums for attacking Iran, repenting for the millions of dead on their consciences … or the future dead their jingoism may cause?
I’ve been privileged, even humbled, to know real penitents. One was the Hollywood movie actor Sterling Hayden, who, in a moment of weakness, “named names” to the HUAC witchhunters, which brought harm onto friends and former comrades. Overcome with shame and guilt, Hayden not only apologized personally to the people he had damaged, but toured the country explaining his actions and denouncing HUAC. He was a man of intense pride and it took a lot for him to do it.
It doesn’t have to be political. In two separate trials, Jennifer Thompson, a white woman in North Carolina, misidentified a black man, Ronald Cotton, as her rapist. He served 11 years before DNA evidence freed him. A contrite Mrs Thompson, and a miraculously revenge-free Mr Cotton, have travelled together, preaching the errors of eye-witness identification.
It’s hard to make up for past harm done. A trivial incident: while in college, I failed to support a friend – a fellow reporter on the campus newspaper – in her struggle with the administration, because I was so ego-involved with my own similar problem. Finally, much later, I drove up to Salinas, California, where she worked on a newspaper, and apologized for abandoning her.
She bristled, “‘Sorry’ lets you off, you bastard? At last, a conscience! I needed you and you let me down!”
For a couple of days and nights, in bars and driving around the surrounding lettuce fields, we argued and yelled at each other, until we were both exhausted. Did it do her, or me, any good? Who knows? We both tried.
Clancy Sigal is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org