Contemplation: Resentment and Forgiveness

So it has been some time since I last composed a Contemplation, leading me to feel a little rusty and out of touch.  Alas I have, over the past month or two, felt in a bit of a lull for finding any topic that inspires me to compose words and attempt to parse some meaning to you oh Internet browsers and readers.  But today I find a piece of material that stirs my interest and leads me to compose a contemplation once again.  The subject, as my title tells, deals with the ideas of resentment and forgiveness.

The source of my thoughts and desire to write this now, comes from this past weekends The Stone article, by Charles Griswold, titled “On Forgiveness” (a beautiful title for a philosophical examination if I may say so myself).  The piece is wonderful in its own right, very insightful about what lies at the core of the human capacity to forgive, but it alone is not what has gotten me thinking about forgiveness.  No, forgiveness has been a concept that has lingered on my mind for years now, wondering just what it means to be able to perceive an offense and yet to strive to step beyond it, to allow it to pass without a continuing anger or desire for vengeance and make do with life as it stands.  To me, the human capacity to forgive, demonstrates perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of our species.

Realize that I come at the concept of forgiveness from an atheistic perspective of ethics.  I have not believed, for a long time, that human morality has any divine or universal dictation, but that instead it is an entirely social and organic construct that serves to benefit the species as a whole.  This does  not mean that I endorse arbitrary action of any kind.  I am just as repulsed by a brutal murder or rape as I assume a pious individual is.  The difference is, that I do not believe my repulsion to be something that was created by higher powers but instead to be a construct of thousands of years of human socialization and interaction that has been passed down and accepted in a consensual form of behavior.

All that being said, I see forgiveness to be essentially a construct of necessity for our species.  However, I do not feel that this in any way diminishes the value and importance of that which is forgiveness, for without that capability and the desire to forgive, then humanity would most likely descend into a chaos of distrust and uncertainty; resentment would prevail.  I see the ability to forgive others for wrong doings (perceived or real) as that thing that wards off our inclination for destruction on vengeful terms.  In many ways I see it as uniquely human.

I cannot claim, to any degree, to know what goes on in an animals mind but I do suspect that forgiveness is not part of their capacity.  Partially this is because I do not think that animals perceive wrong doings the way that we do.  I think animals, especially social ones, do have senses of acceptable behavior in which failure to comply may result in a negative consequence. But I do not think that this carries the same degree of mental acuity that is alloted to humans.  A wrong enacted in human terms warrants more thought and consideration.  Our ability to think about what we perceive as wrong, and to redefine it over time, separates us from an instinctual animal base, even if, evolutionarily that is where perception of right and wrong originated.

Forgiveness then is a complex interaction between individual people with multiple requirements.  Foremost a wrong must be, in the least, perceived by one agent to have been conducted by another.  I think that Mr. Griswold would likely take issue with me in the concept of a perceived wrong because that would suggest that it is possible that no real wrong was committed.  However, I differ with Mr. Griswold in my thinking, in that I believe forgiveness needs to exist in an individual willing to forgive, regardless of a reality of a wrong.  Therefore, the perception of a wrong is paramount. 

When a wrong is perceived there are, arguably, a vast number of actions that an agent may choose to do in response.  They may choose to retaliate, they may act to fix the wrong, they may withdraw in hopes of minimizing the effects of the wrong doing, or they may forgive the wrong-doer of the action.  One thing that cannot be done in actuality (though likely many attempt it) is deny that a wrong has been perceived.  We are innately aware of what we think of as assaults on the right order of things.  We may wish that we could just disregard a perceived wrong, but that is not possible.  Once a wrong is perceived it is there to interact with.

One possibility, as mentioned in Mr. Griswold’s piece, is the path of resentment.  In that a wrong causes harm in what we believe to be a social order, as well as, possibly, our own beings, a natural inclination is to feel anger, frustration, and a desire to defend ourselves, even if such defense requires a retaliation.  Resentment then, is a product of these things.  It is our way of viewing others through a lens that deems them harmful and untrustworthy.  Resentment is a strengthening of the sense of otherness in another human.  When we come to resent another person we effectively deem them something less than human in our minds and thus deserving of miseries that we may not regard for others. 

The problem with resentment is that as easy as it may be to feel it, it is not beneficial to maintain in the long-term.  Certainly it is easier to maintain if we do not have direct interaction with the other person (say feeling resentment towards a politician or celebrity).  This is because our direct actions do not need to coincide with this distant other’s actions.  However, in our daily interactions this may not be as easily achieved. Resentment in close social interactions becomes problematic because it interferes with social functionality.  Thus, then, does forgiveness become terribly prevalent.

If resentment is the natural inclination in light of a perceived wrong, then forgiveness is the unnatural struggle to put a social and personal benefit to the forefront.  It is the ability to recognize the detrimental quality of resentment and then actively transcend it.  Anyone who has ever honestly forgiven another person knows that it is not an easy thing and this is because a part of our animal mind is urging us to be safe, to maintain caution, to remember the wrong in that it may occur again.  Forgiveness, at its core, is suspending these natural inclinations in an effort to promote other accomplishments through interaction.

A major part of forgiveness, I think, is in recognizing the imperfection of all people; that we are all capable of both wonderful and horrible things.  Forgiveness requires a degree of empathy, for without that ability to recognize the sameness of the other in ourselves, we would not be capable to let go a done wrong.  In that resentment works to further establish more otherness of another person, forgiveness works to make another person more close to ourselves.  We recognize in their wrong doing our own capacity for likewise wrong doings.

In many ways forgiveness demands a reciprocity, in that we hope an offered forgiveness is accepted and that the perceived wrong is not repeated.  This is the ideal.  But humans do not function ideally and so there are times where the forgiveness is abused.  The wrong-doer may not believe that a wrong has been done and thus reject the forgiveness.  The wrong-doer may simply refuse to amend his or her own actions and thus continue to commit the wrongs.  The forgiver may offer a forgiveness that is not, at its core, sincere, and thus continue to act out of resentment.  Or perhaps there is a failure  to communicate a forgiveness effectively so that the wrong-doer is left feeling unforgiven and that the forgiver is uncertain of the mend between wrongs.  Acting with forgiveness, whether offering or receiving it, is never an easy thing.  A forgiveness itself can be viewed as a wrong which thus warrants forgiveness itself.

I think that there is an inherent faithfulness in the act of forgiveness.  Not a religious experience of faith (a distinction I often feel needs to be made, actions of faith need not be theistic or religious in nature) but instead a trusting in an outcome, regardless of any certainty of that outcome.  Thus, to forgive is to risk.  It is placing a bet on many odds in the hope that a relationship may continue in a mutually beneficial manner and not descend into distrust and resentment.  Resentment can be certain, we need only push another away, deem them foreign and different, and the rest will develop on its own; the interaction withers and dies.  forgiveness does not carry the certainty and thus it is inherently hopeful.  It is this hopefulness of forgiveness, and how often we choose to utilize it, that makes forgiveness an amazing thing to me.  Almost daily we risk forgiveness in an attempt to continue beneficial relationships with others, regardless of what risks may lie therein.

It is the difference of resentment being easy and forgiveness being hard that really stands out to me.  It is what I see as being beautiful about forgiveness.  There is not a single person who has ever lived who will not suffer a wrong at another person’s hands.  This is the reality of things.  But a true measure of human capacity is in our ability to forgive these wrongs in the hope that they will not repeat.  Thus slowly we work to remove the wrongs.  It isn’t a perfect system, it gets hung-up and snagged on the sharp branches of life, and yet we choose to proceed and attempt to persevere.  In the end, I think that is enough.

~ by Nathaniel on December 27, 2010.

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