Sunday, February 5, 2012

Forgiveness or gratitude: which is better?

First, the commercials:  In case you missed it, I was interviewed yesterday on The Indie Exchange.  If you haven't seen it yet, feel free to stop by.  I don't think I said anything too stupid.

Also, I've written a guest blog post for Ritesh Kala's blog.  If all goes well, my post should go up on Thursday.  But feel free to check out his blog sooner; he's got some great material there.

In addition to all that, I've got another guest blogging spot in the works, but it's not nailed down yet.  I'll let you know details when it's finalized.

Now then.

I finally got around to watching "That Thing You Do!" this weekend.  (Ah, Netflix, you bring me so many movies I missed back in the day....)  If you haven't seen it, I recommend it, especially if you have any memory at all of mid-1960s rock and roll.  Tom Everett Scott plays a drummer who's recruited into a hometown band when the band's original drummer breaks his arm right before a big talent show.  The beat the new guy lays down catapults the band to stardom, and as you might expect, it's not all moonlight and roses for our naive quartet.  But toward the end of the movie, the lead singer's girlfriend (played by Liv Tyler) turns to the drummer and says, "You know, none of this would have happened if you hadn't joined the band.  And I mean that in a good way."  After everything that's happened to them, she's grateful to him.

We hear a lot about how forgiveness is critical to our development as fully integrated human beings.  We're told we should forgive those who have wronged us -- not because it will help them, but because it will help us.  Carrying a grudge allows the wound to fester instead of heal.  Pretty soon we find that we've handed over so much space in our heads to the person who wronged us that anger has become our daily companion.  It poisons our interactions with others and causes us extra stress, thereby shortening our lifespans.

But we're also told that forgiving doesn't mean forgetting, and it doesn't mean that we need to let the person continue to wrong us.  You don't have to forgive the person's actions, we're told; but you can forgive him or her for being a fallible human being who makes mistakes, who couldn't help him/herself when he/she wronged you, or who thought he/she was truly doing what he/she thought was best at the time.  Forgiveness, in this sense, lets you protect yourself against similar violations in the future while allowing you to let go of the anger that's poisoning you.

I've never been sold on this. Oh, I believe that carrying a grudge is bad for you, and that it's a mistake to let someone you're angry at take up permanent residence in your head (which doesn't mean I haven't done it...).  But it seems to me that focusing on forgiveness encourages a bitter denouement:  "I forgive you for being such a JERK."  Or, "I forgive you, but I will never forget" -- delivered with teary defiance.

The whole concept just seems needlessly complex.  What if, instead, we operated from the assumption that everything that happens to us is necessary for our growth as human beings?  Then the person who wronged us simply becomes the vehicle for delivering a lesson we have yet to master.  There is no reason to be angry -- he or she is just doing what he/she is supposed to do.  We might be angry in the moment, of course, and we might be bitter about having to learn the lesson.  But our anger is directed at the situation instead of at the person, who very likely was simply doing what he/she thought was best at the time.  And it's much harder to nurse a grudge against a situation, so the anger is likely to pass more quickly.

In SwanSong, Neeve eventually realizes that if Eva hadn't tried to turn her brothers and her into swans, their lives would have turned out very differently -- and they may not have been as satisfying.  She finds, at last, that she's grateful to Eva, and that gratitude allows her to find peace.

What do you think?  Feel free to post a comment below -- or, if you can't get the comment box to work, then let me know on Facebook.

In any case, I hope you can approach your life's challenges this week with gratitude.  And I mean that in a good way.


krobinett said...

I think this philosophy is directed more towards really serious issues such as extended years' long abuse (of whatever sort) from a family member as opposed to more minor things from a casual acquaintance. It was unquestionably a serious situation in SwanSong for the children - luckily they were able to get away from their tormentor and have the time and experience to find their peace with what was done to them rather then be trapped in a situation of ongoing abuse (which would be more the situation in your first novel for the main character so that might actually be the better comparison).

You do have to forgive and try to move on for your own sanity and quality of life - no one wants to be that bitter nasty old scrooge in the room everyone else avoids. And no one wants to turn the abuse outward and become an abuser in turn.

The thing is - if the person who has done so much to hurt you is an immediate family member or someone you just cannot kick out of your life - even if you have forgiven them to the best of your ability and made peace with yourself over their rottenness and tried to get as far away as possible while maintaining ties with the rest of your family - you would be a fool to forget their past behavior and not to expect more in the future.

If you cannot get completely away from the person and/or situation you have to be wary.

That is really all it means - forgive the best you can, and if you cannot get entirely away from the abuser/situation then look out because the person will probably try to hurt you again.

Forgive, but watch your back.

Kevin Oaks said...

An interesting (and different from my comment elsewhere! *gasp!*) thing to notice is how this idea of 'letting go' be it through forgiveness, gratitude, or other means comes from the foundation of Western Literature... possibly other ones also, but I'm not familiar with such.
In Homer's the Iliad, you have several characters (Agamemnon & Achilles) who hold grudges like no one's business. This grudge lead to a lot of unnecessary death, including the death of Achilles' close friend... and all because he couldn't let go of the 'offense caused to him'.
Yes, it has been known since ancient times that holding a grudge only hurts you and those you care about. And yet, we have not learned this.

Lynne Cantwell said...

Kay, you make a good point about Maggie. I don't think she would ever be able to find a way to be grateful to her father for what she and her mother suffered at his hands. "Forgive, but watch your back" are words to live by in that kind of situation.

Orlion, the problem is that holding a grudge feels so bloody *satisfying*. It puts you a level above the idiot(s) who (you perceive) wronged you. It's easy to get hooked on the high you get from that righteous anger -- no matter what damage it does to everyone else around you. What an argument for humility, huh?