Thursday, November 15, 2007

Forgiveness


Norm poses a question:

One doesn't have to be eaten up by hatred or ill will towards the unforgiven; one can merely get on with one's life, directing feelings of love and benevolence towards more appropriate others. What's the opposing argument?

I don't have an opposing argument. I just have thoughts on the matter.

What I find very useful about Judaism is a certain "pagan" ethic which makes demands upon people to act virtuously towards one another, in a way that God does not necessarily have to be factored in.

The asking of forgiveness is hard to do. And Judaism does rather insist that before forgiveness is doled out, forgiveness must be asked for. Judaism is people-oriented in that it accepts the limitations of the human spirit even as it asks the human will to transcend such weakness. To help the fallible human being to reach for that horizon, Judaism has designed a procedure for forgiveness.

The offender must approach the person he/she harmed and ask for his/her forgiveness. And the person is supposed to respond favourably to this behest. If the injured party does not relent right away, the offender needs to keep asking for that forgiveness, but no more than three times. Should the offended party remain adamant in his/her refusal to forgive after three successive attempts at seeking this forgiveness, the supplicant is no longer obliged to pursue this matter. The onus is shifted on to the offended.

At the heart of this application of ethics is the recognition that anger is an emotion which is partly rational and partly irrepressible. The rational part alerts us to the fact that a wrong was committed which requires some sort of redress. The irrepressibility of the emotion is the risk that the emotion will take over completely over the rational, useful part, turning what is a measure, an instrument of moral discernment into a poisonous distillation which cannot be neutralized. Therefore, anger must be in validated by action while it still retains its rational core. The action that is needed is the acknowledgement of the harm done to the person who was at the receiving end of another's malice. Without recognition of that harm, anger cannot dissipate and genuine forgiveness cannot be offered.

This notion of the importance of forgiveness is grounded in a universal awareness, that a wrong committed harms not just the two persons involved in the incident. It undermines the common good, that of society. It causes a rip in the fabric of solicitude among people. Thus the solution Norm offers, that “one can merely get on with one's life, directing feelings of love and benevolence towards more appropriate others” may take care of the individulal’s sense of grievance but it does not mend the harm done to the greater good.

Forgiveness, in this respect, acts like a Janus: it interfaces between the injured past and the possibility of a better future.

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