Imagining Forgiveness

According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “you cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” Kindness, understanding, and love are so substantively intertwined that it is difficult to imagine any one of these without the other two, and all three are predicated on forgiveness. This article is a plea for real, radical forgiveness. There is ample blame to go around, and this has been more than adequately addressed by finger-pointing and what-about-ism by all sides. In fact, a veritable cottage industry of outrage and critique based in hatred seems to have grown exponentially on all sides in recent years. What seems to be missing is an acknowledgment that a) this society has become addicted to hate and outrage, and b) this hatred, like any other drug, has become a coping mechanism that has provided for the survival of the addicts. As we now finally recognize that addiction is a mental illness due to ongoing crises, we must go one step further and realize that the political hatred that has amplified exponentially isn’t evil, it too is a manifestation of mental illness. Enough with the what-about-ism, enough with the finger-pointing, enough with the inconsistent mirroring. Let us forgive.

I’ve been there too. There is a path out, and it requires unconditional forgiveness of ourselves and each other. I am an addict. And no one ever stops being an addict. You can break an individual addiction to this substance or that, but addiction itself is always there. My problem for two decades was whiskey. I broke that addiction in 2019. But I funneled the addictive energy more so than ever into my unhealthy, codependent and abusive intimate relationship and even more so, an unhealthy codependent relationship with those I perceived as my political enemies. I have only now begun to realize the similarities after breaking my masochistic addiction to abusive karmic cycles of behavior that I was both suffering from and co-creating.

I was an anti-fascist activist for years before the institutionalization of “Antifa,” at which point in its movement from a loosely coordinated group of concerned citizens to an actual codified group, I walked away. Yet, as an addict, I still maintained my anger somehow, and still wanted to fight the same enemies with words rather than fists. This was years before January 6th, 2021 but I still felt a culpability that day that made me weep hot tears of regret and sadness in the realization that while “Antifa” was not there that day, chants of “fuck Antifa” were very present and useful for whipping the crowd up and into violent action. The fetishized image like my former self and others were a tool of division, when we believed ourselves to be righteous warriors. But in reality, for every “fascist” punched, ten more were created, both as givers and receivers of the hit. We didn’t “get rid of” any radical right-wing beliefs, we merely pushed them further into the dark corners of the internet.

This is related to what Nietzsche analyzes in terms of schadenfreude, or the pleasure at another’s misery and misfortune. It would be difficult to find a better description of the predominant American ethos at the moment. Most often, this is expressed as a need to “own” the other side, whether that side be the left or right. Rather than seeking collective energies and collective solutions to the monumental challenges before us, we seem rather addicted to deflecting our own responsibility not only by blaming the “other side”, but then reveling in our cleverest usages of hate-filled rhetoric to put that “other” in their place. Hence the desire to “cancel” whomever disagrees with us on all sides, no matter who they may be. Hence also the divisive aspects of political aesthetics from “woke” and the reactive rejection of it (the “nope” to “woke”). But again, this is addiction and mental illness, allowing for easy manipulation towards the end of furthering our divisions. Lacan reminds us that “the thing is not the thing,” in other words, what we believe we are upset about is typically not the real source of our upset. Recall that among those arrested for attacking the U.S. capital, membership in various radicalized groups vary, and the “reasons” for joining them vary at the conscious level, yet statistics reveal that the most common factor among them was not economic insecurity, xenophobia, conspiratorial thinking, or even supremacy (though all of these were clearly present). The singular most common feature of the insurrectionists’ lives is divorce.  People are suffering great pain in their lives and seek anything to channel this energy into, even when that causes them to dive deeper into darkness and horror. Let us lay down our hateful weapons first and walk the walk we have been talking about for years. Leading with forgiveness is, incidentally, the basis for much ancient wisdom, religious or otherwise.

Whatever side you are on, ask yourself this question: Who hurt you? Was it you or someone else? It wasn’t your fault, but it is now your responsibility. Forgive yourself and then, forgive them. Radical forgiveness is all that matters and the only true path to righteousness. Forgive everyone everything because everything is within everyone. And if you can’t forgive deeply yet, act as if you have. Fake it until you make it morality: if we start by at least pretending to forgive perhaps we will find true forgiveness along the way. This pretending may prove be a societal methadone, a healing salve to ween us off the intoxication of hatred. True freedom and forgiveness are synonymous, for the former is only possible through the latter.

There is a way towards greater harmony within humanity. Harmony is, of course, the musical moment when multiple instruments or voices join in complimentary ways that nearly always amplify the beauty of the piece. The collective is sonically superior in so many ways to the sum of its parts, for in joining something bordering the divine happens. As Bataille might put it in describing animal existence, this is a moment of flow, of “water within water.” This coming together for a purpose greater than ourselves shows up across history and across traditions, for Buddhists call this “interconnectivity,” Taoists the acting “without intention”, New Age as “alignment”, and Christians as the “Holy Spirit.” Think of this principle in a more practical sense, as when you and another join in a project greater than either of your individual selves to accomplish something greater. One person may never be able to erect a wall despite much strife, while two could lift it easily. For that moment, whatever differences may exist are discarded and the singular goal of building a wall takes both attentions and both bodies working in coordination. That is, teamwork should be uplifting. This principle, taken in a macro sense, leads one to the conclusion that there are many instances in the world wherein the species of humanity can be uplifted as a whole. We can decide to build a new moral system based on this single idea: when humanity as a whole can be uplifted, it is a moral duty to do so.

This is truly radical: defiant, ruthless optimism. We must smile with Sisyphus while pushing our boulders up the mountain; that is truly holy resistance. Gramsci argues that we must maintain a “pessimism of the intellect” and an “optimism of the will.” Letting go of the intellect’s need for control and need to show its superiority by focusing on negative critique allows for a fuller optimism than the circumstances of Gramsci’s life could allow him to embrace. But we must. Now is the time to move forward by letting go of everything behind. A time for Jubilee in the biblical sense, letting go of past harms and debts to begin anew. Then and only then can we really get to meaningful work.

Biology reminds us that symbiosis isn’t a form of life, it is life. There is no life without cooperation. You are not merely you; you are also the thousand, thousand micro-organisms and elements that make up you. And we are all made of the same substances at an elemental and energetic level. We have far more in common than not. We can dream or we can do. But they must happen in that order. Let us imagine forgiveness, and then we may find freedom. Nearly everyone gives lip service to empathy, yet nearly no one practices or embodies it. Let’s give it a try; what’s the worst that could happen?

Andrew J. Wood is a community college professor in the Bay Area, seeker, artist, and volunteer at San Quentin State Prison.