Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Driving home a couple of days ago, I saw a license plate frame, on the top part of which was printed "TGIF." On the bottom was the helpful translation: "Thank God I'm Forgiven." Puzzling. Maybe readers can help.
The whole idea of forgiveness is a challenging one, particularly as it applies to specific acts between specific actors. But the car-driving lady in question -- helpfully sharing the news -- considers herself preëmptively forgiven in all things, as if in possession of a limitless line of credit. Issued by god, one can only assume. (Unless she has an abusive husband.) Not a bad arrangement. Even better: she feels like mentioning it to strangers.
Maybe secretly unconvinced she really has a get out of jail free card, she chooses to flash it around. To anyone. Like that seals the deal: she has it in writing. Just above her tailpipe. I guess I sympathize with her defensiveness: the contract does seem a little too good to be true. Is she worried there's some fine print?
Or is it more like those bumper stickers: "Make a thousand dollars a day. Ask me how."
If she believes she's forgiven -- whatever that means -- no matter what, prospectively, no need to change her plate-frame whatever she does, from now till forever, what then is the motivation to restrain herself? And why the need to flaunt it?
"I am forGIVen, I am forGIVen, la la la la LAH la, neener neener NEEner..."
How do you reconcile the guiltogenic idea that Jesus died for your sins, with the idea that you still need to be forgiven? Are forgiven? Pre-forgiven. Either he wasted the effort, or you're not off the hook as much as you think. Of course, it's not like he actually died, so there's that... but if I were a Christian, I think I'd still want to err toward caution. Maybe even keep my license plate available for other sentiments, like My kid beat up your honor student.
This past Sunday, on 60 Minutes, there was a remarkable story, which can be watched here (there are two clips.) The main issue is the unreliability of memory, even of eye-witness accounts. In brief: a woman was raped, then (despite making a conscious effort, at the time of the crime, to remember her attacker) she mis-indentified the accused, who ended up in prison for eleven years. Even after the actual rapist was imprisoned for another rape, and was heard to admit to the first, and when the falsely accused got another trial at which the actual perpetrator was there in court for her to see, the victim re-identified the wrong man. Who was returned to prison. (They did look quite alike.)
It was only after the poor man kept working on his own behalf and got people to go back to the original rape-kit to collect DNA (not much used when he was first tried) that he was exonerated.
Fascinating as the issue of false memory is, and as important as the message was that law enforcement needs to handle eye-witnesses differently, it was something else entirely that impressed me. First, the woman was exceptionally brave and candid in telling her story, so publicly admitting and taking responsibility for her devastating error. Even more astounding was the fact that, after he was freed, she asked to meet the man, in a church. And he forgave her. He forgave her.
What interesting questions it raises. What IS forgiveness, really? What is the relation between the two people? Who is giving, who is receiving? And what, exactly, is the transaction? What is being given, what given up? Does it differ from the more familiar concept of "letting it go; moving on; it's okay, let's drop it?" Forgiveness seems a much more profound thing, but I can't quite say how. The woman said it allowed her heart to heal. And yet it seems too easy. (For one thing, the man turns out not only to have been innocent, but to be an amazingly generous soul. Can that degree of wrong disappear with a single word?) As I contemplate the situation in which I might use the word, it seems presumptuous of me that I'd assume that power over another, or see myself in what seems a higher position. It seems, paradoxically, both generous and self-indulgent.
I don't discount the act in any way. I think it's incredibly moving, on both of their parts. But I have a hard time processing it. Forgive. Forgiveness. Forgiven. At once too complicated to understand, and too simple when reduced to a single word. It does suggest that in humanity there remains a shred of hope. It's an act that only humans can bestow, and only a few at that: both in giving and receiving. Too easy, too hard.
The rest is wishful thinking. As to the kind one declares on a license plate: in its simpering self-satisfied certitude, it is self-canceling; in its supercilious smugness, repugnant.
Unforgivable, one might say.