ACTS OF FOR­GIVE­NESS

Fashion (Canada) - - The Draw | Cool To Be Kind - By Greg Hud­son

Ear­lier this year, Jaski­rat Sidhu, the truck driver re­spon­si­ble for the tragic Hum­boldt Bron­cos bus crash in April 2018 (which killed 16 peo­ple and in­jured an­other 13 in Saskatchewan), pleaded guilty to all charges against him. “I can’t make things any bet­ter, but I cer­tainly don’t want to make things worse by hav­ing a trial,” he said through his lawyer. At that point, it was prob­a­bly the least he could do for the fam­i­lies and the com­mu­nity deal­ing with the loss. Tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity like that isn’t ex­actly com­mon, and for some, it was enough to earn their com­pas­sion, if not

their com­plete for­give­ness. “If he spends a day, if he spends 10 years, time is ir­rel­e­vant. He was guilty. He ac­knowl­edged that. That’s all I needed to hear,” said one of the fa­thers, who lost a son, to the Toronto Star. “I want to tell you I for­give you,” said an­other par­ent in her vic­tim im­pact state­ment. “I have been for­given for things when I didn’t de­serve it, so I will do the same.” As the vic­tim im­pact state­ments con­tin­ued, it be­came clear that not all griev­ing par­ents felt the same way. “I de­spise you for tak­ing my baby away from me,” said one mother, who re­fused to con­sider Sidhu’s ac­tions an

ac­ci­dent. “You don’t de­serve my for­give­ness. You shouldn’t have been driv­ing.”

We look for hope af­ter a tragedy. As such, we search for—and most of­ten find—at least one ex­am­ple of su­per­hu­man com­pas­sion. The church mem­bers in Charleston, S.C., for­giv­ing Dy­lann Roof for his racist mass shoot­ing, for in­stance, got more me­dia at­ten­tion than the jus­ti­fi­ablystill-rag­ing vic­tims. The press latch onto these rare sto­ries be­cause, whether or not we ad­mit it out loud, we want them to. We want re­as­sur­ance that the world isn’t such a horrible place. Of course, these post-tragedy ex­am­ples of for­give­ness aren’t the norm. It’s un­der­stand­able that af­ter your son dies in a sense­less bus ac­ci­dent, you might not be ready or will­ing to for­give the man re­spon­si­ble right away. Or ever.

In Jan­uary of this year, Janeane Garo­falo de­fended dis­graced co­me­dian Louis C.K.—likely the first of the #MeToo men to make de­lib­er­ate steps back to­ward the spot­light— on a fem­i­nist pop cul­ture podcast. “He’s been my friend since 1985, and I think he has suf­fered,” she said. “If you can find no com­pas­sion for him, which I think you should, think about how his daugh­ters, who hear all of this stuff, feel.” To the sur­prise of no one—in­clud­ing Garo­falo— her mes­sage wasn’t well re­ceived. Stand­ing up for vil­lains is rarely a pop­u­lar po­si­tion. Ex­cept, I guess, when it is.

There are clear dif­fer­ences be­tween these two case stud­ies—in terms of sever­ity, con­tri­tion and cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance. Sidhu caused more dam­age and pain, yet, from my priv­i­leged dis­tance, it feels easier to show him com­pas­sion. Maybe be­cause the Hum­boldt col­li­sion was un­am­bigu­ous and apo­lit­i­cal, whereas a celebrity’s de­lib­er­ate sex­ual mis­con­duct is a part of a larger sys­tem— a symp­tom of in­equal­ity that ev­ery­one has to wres­tle with. Ei­ther way, the goal here isn’t to com­pare pain and pun­ish­ment or to de­cide who de­serves for­give­ness; it’s to ques­tion whether we think about for­give­ness at all.

The idea of for­give­ness hov­ers like a ghost around so many sto­ries in our cul­ture now—from #MeToo to im­mi­gra­tion, from jus­tice re­form to cast­ing de­ci­sions— even if we rarely use the word. Such are the times in which we live that even talk­ing about for­give­ness feels con­tro­ver­sial. Still, it looms large in our cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion pre­cisely be­cause it’s ab­sent, like when the background mu­sic in a depart­ment store stops and the si­lence be­comes un­set­tling.

The prob­lem with talk­ing about for­give­ness is that it can too eas­ily be mis­taken for ad­vo­cacy. Even Garo­falo stopped short of say­ing that. She only wanted peo­ple to have enough com­pas­sion to move the con­ver­sa­tion along. Yet there’s this feel­ing that for­give­ness is like the Lay’s potato chips of virtues—if you give it to one per­son, you have to give it to ev­ery­body else. And from a re­li­gious stand­point, that may be the ideal. But is it smart— or healthy—to be so for­giv­ing?

Out­rage, iron­i­cally, is a more ef­fec­tive uni­fier than for­give­ness. “Peo­ple en­joy shar­ing in con­sen­sus, es­pe­cially when it al­lows us to in­dulge a guilty plea­sure,” Pulitzer Prize-win­ning au­thor Mar­i­lynne Robin­son writes in

her 2018 book of es­says called What Are We Do­ing Here? “Cathar­sis can feel so good, and so can the strong sense of iden­tity that comes with know­ing who is with you and who is against you—whether this is true or not.” And there might be per­sonal ben­e­fits to not be­ing for­giv­ing. While she stresses that her ex­pe­ri­ence is not universal, Re­becca Trais­ter ends her book, Good and Mad: The

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Power of Women’s Anger, by re­veal­ing how good she felt—phys­i­cally, spir­i­tu­ally, mentally—as she took her anger more se­ri­ously. She ate bet­ter, com­mu­ni­cated bet­ter, ex­er­cised more and had bet­ter sex. “I con­fess that I am now sus­pi­cious of nearly ev­ery at­tempt to code anger as un­healthy, no mat­ter how well mean­ing or per­sua­sive the source,” she writes. “What is good for us is open­ing our mouths and let­ting it out, per­mit­ting our­selves to feel it and say it and think it and act on it and in­te­grate it into our lives, just as we in­te­grate joy and sad­ness and worry and op­ti­mism.”

This raises the ques­tion: Is be­ing an­gry the same as be­ing un­for­giv­ing? They aren’t ex­actly syn­onyms, but it’s rare to find one without the other. One of the rea­sons we don’t talk about for­giv­ing oth­ers (be­cause we do talk a lot about for­giv­ing our­selves) is be­cause we aren’t all work­ing off the same def­i­ni­tion. For­give­ness, for ex­am­ple, isn’t the same as rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. For­giv­ing an ex-spouse doesn’t mean you have to get mar­ried again. And de­spite the cliché, it does not con­sist of for­get­ting the of­fence, ei­ther. Broadly, for­give­ness is let­ting go of neg­a­tive feel­ings and maybe— just maybe—re­plac­ing them with com­pas­sion, em­pa­thy or at least un­der­stand­ing.

In­creased per­sonal happiness has al­ways been the sell line for for­give­ness—at least if you don’t believe in a God who com­mands it. And de­spite Trais­ter’s ex­pe­ri­ence, there are mul­ti­ple stud­ies that show a range of ben­e­fits as­so­ci­ated with be­ing for­giv­ing. In a 2005 ar­ti­cle pub­lished in

The Jour­nal of Behavioral Medicine, re­searchers found that those who con­sid­ered them­selves the for­giv­ing type had in­creased health in five mea­sures: phys­i­cal symp­toms, the num­ber of med­i­ca­tions used, sleep qual­ity, fa­tigue and med­i­cal com­plaints. Then there’s cor­ti­sol. The stress hor­mone, in high, steady doses, can lead to cog­ni­tive prob­lems, poor sex drive and di­ges­tive is­sues. Hold­ing a grudge is a great way to in­crease cor­ti­sol.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with The Good Place. It’s a sit­com about a woman who finds her­self in Heaven even though she knows she doesn’t be­long there. While the premise of the show has changed over the three sea­sons, it’s still about peo­ple learn­ing what it means to be morally good. It has made me think about that, too. I as­sumed that be­ing for­giv­ing is a re­quire­ment, even on a purely sec­u­lar level.

Ac­cord­ing to Thomas Hurka, who holds the Jack­man Distin­guished Chair in Philo­soph­i­cal Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Toronto, you can be a moral per­son without for­give­ness. “First, even if be­ing for­giv­ing is one virtue, it’s not the only one,” he ex­plains. “You could be a good per­son without be­ing for­giv­ing if you have enough of the other virtues, just as you could be a good per­son if you have all

the other virtues but not, say, courage. More im­por­tantly, though, for­give­ness is usu­ally pre­sented as some­thing op­tional, some­thing you may give, and that it can be gen­er­ous and ad­mirable to give, but not some­thing you have a duty to give. Would Jews who didn’t for­give the per­pe­tra­tors of the Holo­caust be fail­ing to be good peo­ple? Ar­guably not.”

Dr. Diana Brecher, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and scholar in res­i­dence for positive psy­chol­ogy at Ry­er­son Univer­sity in Toronto, is sim­i­larly un­con­vinced of the ne­ces­sity for for­give­ness. It’s part of a process, she says, that comes af­ter a nec­es­sary pe­riod of con­trite­ness, lest the for­giver be seen as con­don­ing bad be­hav­iour. “There is a time when let­ting go is not the right choice,” she says. “You need the anger for so­cial change.”

More im­por­tant from a men­tal health per­spec­tive is for­giv­ing one­self, she says. I have no doubt that self­com­pas­sion is im­por­tant, but from a cul­tural stand­point, I’m wary. How can we say it’s good to for­give our own mis­takes but it’s in­ap­pro­pri­ate to en­cour­age peo­ple to for­give oth­ers? What if Louis C.K. said that he had al­ready for­given him­self—how would you re­act? What if we were talk­ing about a pris­oner on death row?

One of the rea­sons why for­giv­ing your­self is para­dox­i­cally both sim­pler than for­giv­ing oth­ers and more difficult is that we know our own thoughts. When we of­fend oth­ers, we know why we did it—which is why it can be hard to give our­selves a break.

One of the lessons I learned from my failed mar­riage (well, I learned it from the coun­sel­lor we saw while we were sep­a­rat­ing) was that my re­al­ity isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the ob­jec­tive truth, no mat­ter how true it feels. It’s why no apol­ogy has ever stopped the tweets of out­raged ob­servers or slowed can­cel cul­ture. Apolo­gies, es­pe­cially pub­lic ones, ring hol­low or feel in­suf­fi­cient be­cause you can only ever know how you feel.

I think back on the vastly dif­fer­ent re­ac­tions among those af­fected by the Hum­boldt tragedy. We tend to think of for­give­ness as a gift we of­fer to the of­fender as long as they do their part. But if for­give­ness is per­sonal, then mak­ing it de­pend on some­one show­ing re­morse is self­de­feat­ing. Lit­er­ally, you are de­feat­ing your­self with higher stress and poor health.

What I do know—and what ev­ery­one can agree on—is that the world could al­ways use more kind­ness. More gen­eros­ity. And in­cluded in all that—nes­tled in the mean­ing of those ac­cept­able, well­ness-ap­proved virtues—is the idea that the world could use more for­give­ness, too. Just don’t let any­one tell you who to give it to.

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