Facets of forgiveness

A rainy urban rooftop with a sign saying "Forgive"“Forgiveness” is one of those limp, floppy words that create resentment. It sounds vaguely Biblical: If thou art a good person, thou shalt forgive others. It’s not a fun or sexy concept.

But in practice, it can be powerful. Transforming.

Forgiveness is a weightlifter. It removes the burden of anger and resentment that’s weighing us down.

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In her new book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich explores trauma and forgiveness from many different angles.

It’s hard to do true crime well. It can feel exploitative, especially when it involves the death and possible molestation of a child.

Where do we draw the line between taking a ghoulish interest, and striving to understand a deeply human pathology, such as pedophilia?

Marzano-Lesnevich spins out this crime in multiple dimensions. The criminal in question is Ricky Langley, who killed young Jeremy Guillory and confessed to molesting multiple kids. She looks at Ricky’s own childhood, and skillfully weaves in a parallel story of abuse from her own family history.

What saves the book from being cold-blooded is the writer’s compassion. Without excusing the multiple, overlapping crimes in the narrative, Marzano-Lesnevich finds new lights to shine on these dark areas.

She also understands the complexity of story: the deep intertwining of cause, effect, and other influences that are not so binary or linear.

One of the questions she keeps getting pulled back to is this: When is forgiveness a beautiful, healing, generous action?

And when is it a way to let someone off the hook, to avoid confronting someone about their destructive behavior?

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I watched a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure recently, which dealt with the same questions: How do we, as flawed humans, judge others? Do we even try?

We have to, for our society to function. But how do we balance justice with mercy?

Is there a value in offering forgiveness for something terrible?

Does taking that action excuse the wrong-doing?

Or, does it elevate both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime?

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At church last week, the pastor talked about a Bible chapter focused on forgiveness. In the passage (Philemon), the writer (Paul the Apostle) offers to take on someone else’s debt: to erase a robbery by paying off what was stolen.

We are all indebted to others, the pastor explained. And we all have chances to take on each other’s burden of debt–not just financially, but relationally.

For example, if two friends of mine are having discord, I can shoulder part of that burden by mediating between them.

But what if one of my friends injured the other, out of spite or fear? What then? How can I get beyond taking sides?

How can I broker forgiveness between others, if my own grasp on it is so tenuous?

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The larger and more inflamed our egos are, the lower our capacity for forgiveness. I like Roland Merullo’s metaphor of constantly, carefully sanding down the ego over time, so it gets smaller and smaller, and controls us less and less.

That’s a challenge in a culture that pumps up our egos, where pissing matches are the order of the day (from the playground to international politics).

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Will you join me in this exercise?

Think of someone who’s injured you. Think about what their intentions may have been. Think about their backstory, what brought them to that point.

Hold the pain of that injury in your heart. Pray about it if you pray. Meditate on it if you meditate. Sit with it if you sit.

Then picture that pain and anger filling a balloon you’re clutching, making it buoyant with the dark air of that injury.

And let go of the balloon.


Image by Adams Carroll via Creative Commons on Flickr.

One Question Never to Ask

A cat stretched out in the sunshine, exposing its bellyThe other day, an acquaintance asked me when my due date is.

I’m not pregnant.

Yeah. So that was less than good.

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Now, just to give some context, I was wearing a form-fitting outfit, and that form includes a substantial bust and a curved belly. I don’t look particularly pregnant, but I could see how, if boobs + belly = pregnancy is an equation in someone’s mind, they could jump to that conclusion.

When I informed my questioner that I’m not pregnant, she apologized, and I told her it was OK. Then I left the venue where we were and went home, feeling sick and weak, as if I’d been groped by a dirty old man.

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I was angry at my questioner. But I realized that my feeling of illness and violation didn’t come from her question. It came from my telling her that her question was OK.

My instant reaction—gut reaction, speaking of bellies—was to take away her discomfort and embarrassment, instead of voicing my hurt feelings.

I don’t like schooling people or calling them out, even when they’re wrong (or I think they’re wrong). I don’t enjoy debate or discord.

But I need to develop some game in those arenas, because the default of saying “It’s OK” when it’s not feels so toxic and nauseating.

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I still don’t know what the “right” response would have been. Maybe “I know you didn’t mean to, but your question hurt my feelings.”

But with a question like that, there is no correct response. How do you respond to a question that should never have been asked?

Humor would have been great, if I could have mustered any. I was about a million miles away from a quip to defuse the moment.

I’ve been trying to love my body extra hard since this ego-blow. And I’m reminding myself that this was one moment of thoughtlessness—hardly a ripple in the ocean of my human interactions this week or this month.

But damn. The power we have to start an earthquake under each other’s happiness.

Maybe the moral of this story is that I should take an improv class.

Readers, what would you have said?

Photo by liz west via Creative Commons on Flickr.

In Praise of Low-Salt Language

 

Salt Shaker

Am I a prude? Am I uptight? No one’s ever told me so.

But the conversations I overhear every day gross me out.

A lot of this comes from overuse of one word: shit. People always talk about how their sports team “shit the bed,” or how work was a “shitshow” today.

The words we use bring a particular energy into our lives. Language reframes our reality. That’s why Republicans and Democrats use different vocabulary to describe the same thing: “illegal aliens” versus “undocumented immigrants,” for example.

If a topic is being debated, one word changes the flavor and texture of that debate.

If we talk about shit all day, why are we surprised when we feel shitty when the day is over?

Watch Our Language

A lot of the signs at the Women’s March said stuff like “Get the Trump government out of my fucking twat” and “My menstrual blood will rain down upon you, President Douchebag.” (Can you tell which one of those I made up?)*

Many of those signs were funny, and they did help blow off steam. But their tone alienated many moderate and conservative women who might otherwise have been sympathetic to the marchers’ cause.

Graphic: No Longer Novel?

The general public conversation has taken a turn for the graphic. We’ve come a long way from when Lenny Bruce was arrested for his stand-up. He’d barely be rated PG-13 today.

It’s terrific that comedians like Nikki Glaser and Amy Schumer can be frank about sexuality, bodily functions, whatever. But as with anything, “strong language” weakens when it’s overused.

Obscenity can be deployed for humor, for shock value, for emphasis. None of those work when it’s utterly routine.

We can still speak our minds while speaking carefully.

Flaunting Brainpower

When she was in 6th grade, my friend Calista’s teacher pulled her aside to ask her to swear less. “Why?” Calista demanded, chip on her shoulder.

“When you swear, it hides your intelligence,” her teacher explained.

Calista still remembered this moment 20+ years later. It was a powerful message: Anything that hides our smarts is a hindrance.

A Modest Proposal

Guys, let’s put the “gentle” back in gentleman. You don’t have to be super-saintly in your discourse, like my friend Joe, who often drops H-bombs (that’s for “heck,” of course).

But listen to yourself. See if you’re repeating the same phrases over and over. If so, are those your words, or someone else’s?

And are they saying what you really mean?

Women, when you hear yourself being salty, ask yourself if that’s the flavor you’re going for. Maybe it is. In that case, great!

But as in cooking, when language is oversalted, it gets unappetizing. And can raise blood pressure.

Join me in this experiment. For a day, or a week, talk as if your grandma or grandpa were listening in on your every word. If you start to get crass or obscene without purpose, find other, more creative ways to express your ideas.

Let’s elevate our language above the run-of-the-mill shit.

* The second sign’s wording is my own invention.

Photo by Araceli Arroyo, via Creative Commons on Flickr.