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Why is it so hard to forgive?

Why is it so hard to forgive?

Intellectually, I am good at making a case for forgiveness, and I know from experience that I feel better when I am able to. And yet I mostly don't. I hold onto anger, I hold onto resentment – and it eats me up.

Many of us, perhaps most of us, are like that. It was never easy to forgive. But I think there's something about this moment in history that makes forgiveness harder, or at least harder to talk about. Social media is obviously part of that story, but it's more complicated.

A recent tweet from Atlantic writer Elizabeth Bruenig made me think differently. "As a society," she wrote, "we have absolutely no coherent history – none at all – of how a person who has done wrong can atone, make atonement, and maintain some continuity between their lives before and after the mistake."

i think she is right. We have no coherent story about how a person who has committed a public misstep, or who has been “canceled” for whatever reason, can find forgiveness. This is a problem and we don't talk about it enough.

So I contacted Brünig to do just that. She wrote insistently on the death penalty in America, so she put a lot of thought into forgiveness – and non-forgiveness. We talk about what it means, why it's so hard to forgive in the digital age, and how we can all maybe get a little better at it.

You can hear all of our conversation (and there's a lot more about it) on this week's episode of Vox Conversations. What follows is a transcript that has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sean Illing

I want to start with the death penalty which is a tough start, but I think it's a necessary place as killing someone is the ultimate expression of non-forgiveness. How has your work on the death penalty shaped your understanding of forgiveness?

Elizabeth Brünig

It certainly evolved into how I feel about forgiveness. I am a Christian and raised as a Christian we all know forgiveness is important. It is in the Lord's Prayer. And this feeling comes up repeatedly in Scripture. But it is very rare to find out what it actually means to forgive someone and what forgiveness costs and how necessary it is. So these were things that I knew I hadn't really explored fully, even though I'd thought about them.

The coverage of the death penalty has certainly brought much of it into focus. Because when talking about forgiveness, there are a couple of things to weigh up: the good of the perpetrator, for whom forgiveness is crucial, and the insult to society, the very fact of the crime itself, which is irreversible. All of these things, I think, are brought up to extremes in the death penalty cases.

Sean Illing

Terms like “discharge” or “justification” are simple, and we know what they mean: someone has been acquitted, released from guilt, released. But forgiveness is not absolution, even if confused with it. If not, what exactly is it?

Elizabeth Brünig

Yes, forgiveness does not undo the fact of the offense, nor does forgiveness suggest that the offense wasn't really that bad. So when you read people who ponder forgiveness, you often see them trying to find ways to mitigate the offense. People will say, “Well, I wanted to forgive that person, so I took into account that they didn't really mean it. They were young, they were sick, ”etc. etc. And these are all important factors in considering how to react to a crime.

But the truth is that forgiveness refers to a situation where the person is guilty and guilty. Then the question of forgiveness actually opens up. It doesn't open when you have a situation where someone is not responsible for the crime. That is not forgiveness. Forgiveness is when you choose to permanently forego reparation or revenge – or however you choose to think about it – for a crime someone really committed.

"A person cannot really eliminate the value of his own life no matter what he does"

Sean Illing

We like responsibility, we like consequences, we like strength, but forgiveness is a very different and strange thing and requires enormous will and courage. Do you think we have a hard time grappling with it because it contradicts our instinctive understanding of justice as retribution?

Elizabeth Brünig

Absolutely. A whole lot of Christian theology is trying to come to terms with this. How is it possible that God is both just and merciful? Because they seem to cut against each other. I think Christian theologians have done a pretty good job over the past few thousand years at balancing these two things. But that doesn't mean it's very obvious to most people. And I think when people hear of forgiveness, or when they are told that forgiveness is a virtue, they ask themselves, “Okay, so what is the incentive for someone not to do bad things right now? When they know they are being forgiven, what is stopping them from doing wrong? "

Sean Illing

It's a fair question. I mean, do you mean mercy and justice are one and the same?

Elizabeth Brünig

Yes, I think mercy has a paramount place in justice. The death penalty is an apotheosis of merciless justice. And there are a lot of people who say, "I don't like harsh sentences, I'm an abolitionist in prison," but when it comes to specific crimes, all of that fall away. And I'm not saying this to ridicule anyone for hypocrisy. I say that this is a very difficult position, that mercy is central to justice. Mercy and forgiveness are very difficult.

Sean Illing

I think a lot about who forgiveness is really for and I don't have a good answer to that. Is it for the culprit? The offended? Should we see it less as an individual practice and more as a social virtue?

Elizabeth Brünig

This is a really important question because a lot of resistance to the idea of ​​forgiveness comes from the fact that it is often sold as a kind of self-help practice. “Oh, someone hurt you and you are still traumatized by it. … All you have to do is forgive them and then you will feel better and you can let go and move on. ”That's just not true. And I think it doesn't take a lot of experience in the field to realize that forgiving someone and giving up their right to seek some kind of compensation from them doesn't feel great. It can often be another layer of pain in its own way.

Whatever forgiveness is, and I think it is a personal virtue as well as a social virtue, it is certainly not something that you do for your own pleasure or your own health. The person who does the forgiveness doesn't get much for their money. The person who benefits out of proportion to what they did is the culprit.

But that raises an important point: forgiveness, by definition, is not deserved. It's not something anyone deserves. It is something that is given freely. You give it to someone for many reasons, for reasons of personal virtue, reasons of compassion, and concern for the perpetrator, which is a strange notion in our day and age.

Sean Illing

Is your philosophy of forgiveness falling apart without your religious worldview anchoring it?

Elizabeth Brünig

I dont know. This is a difficult question for me because I cannot evade my religion. What I believe as a Christian is the truest thing for me. These are the things I believe in the most, the basic principles on which everything else is built. So it would be like asking someone, “Well, does your theory of justice make sense if gravity doesn't exist?” That's a staggering statement. But besides mine there are many other religions and also many secular ideologies that offer forgiveness theories that are comparable to Christianity.

Sean Illing

There are many things at this moment that suggest he is ripe for forgiveness – you pointed out all the energy surrounding criminal justice reform, for example. Instead, the opposite is true. There seems to be no place for it, no interest in it. How do you explain that?

Elizabeth Brünig

People are very angry, especially when there are forms of systematized oppression that have been around for a very long time and you finally have the chance to expect it. I think it's very difficult for a lot of people to say, "Okay, so this is our first time to give an account and you're asking us to just go away and say, don't care?" This is not necessarily what forgiveness is, but it does mean asking a person not to prosecute the crime to the fullest extent possible. And that's a hard pill to swallow.

Forgiveness is confused with so many things. It is confused with mitigation or relief, or with the idea that we have to pretend that what happened wasn't that bad after all, which in my opinion is simply wrong. But more importantly, forgiveness is a very difficult moral practice. So, when you get into a situation where you ask someone for forgiveness, the answer often comes from a place like, “Look, I became a victim, I didn't do anything wrong, I took care of my business, and someone took me hurt and I “I'll never get that back. Now are you telling me I have to do this extra work? I have to add a layer of emotional work and the person who caused this damage is off the hook? ”And damn, that's not an unreasonable feeling to be there. I get it.

“The internet is very good at sparking our worst tendencies. And one of them is the tendency to discipline and punish and prosecute, not for safety, not to maintain the community, but just for fun. "

Sean Illing

Has the internet just made us shitty and less forgiving people? Has the world we built, the digital world, charged so many of our pathologies like the will to punishment and humiliation that an act of public forgiveness requires some kind of damn heroic effort?

Elizabeth Brünig

I definitely think the internet is very good at sparking our worst tendencies. And one of them is the tendency to discipline and punish and persecute, not for safety, not for community preservation, but just for fun. So there’s someone who’s been raking about a bad tweet or something and has completely turned it upside down, and then we see that shitty tweet again a year later and we say, “Hmm, okay, let's go go back in to it! ”It happens all the time, and it is a function of the internet's ability to sustain and the incentives for people to revive the mistakes of others for their own purposes.

At the same time, I don't think people have ever been particularly lenient. I don't think we need to get too condescending on ourselves because I think it's just an eternally difficult thing. I look back to late antiquity and the early middle ages and what I learned in graduate school and these are definitely not particularly merciful times or forgiving people. They knew it was important, they thought about it, they wrote about it, it was a virtue in their minds. But when you look at how society has been performing, it was something that, to borrow from Updike, they had a lot more on their minds than on their schedules.

Sean Illing

There seems to be a whole class of people who find the greatest joy imaginable in discovering someone else's mistake and publicly beating them with it. People are designed for revenge, and I think the ability to hand it out without real effort or risk has been a social disaster.

Elizabeth Brünig

That is exactly right. As you say, the fact that it is stimulated by the internet and has relatively few consequences is a big problem. When you see someone online doing something really stupid, maybe even bad, and you just rake it for it, right? I mean, you just cut them down. You will never see the consequences. They just disappear from the internet. And it's like a video game.

But you never see if someone had a bad day, or maybe they went through something difficult, or went through something difficult and God knows we have all gone through a lot of hard things in the last year. Or maybe they have a substance problem. Or maybe they just made a mistake and posted something shitty.

But none of that matters. We see something and we pull people with us. And then it becomes a big deal. They lose their job and that's it. Justice is done. The villain was punished. You forget You don't. You still have a family. You still have friends. You still have emotions. And now they are unemployed, and the reason for their firing is kept in amber for the rest of human history, so every time they try to find a new job or get better, what did they do and what? happened to them is instantly google-enabled and will penalize them for years. You never see this part; You only see the fun part.

Sean Illing

Given the core values ​​of the left (and you and I are both of the left), one might think that forgiveness is a natural consequence of progressivism, but it is not, or at least it is complicated. On the one hand, progressives value forgiveness, and this can be seen, for example, in their willingness to forgive people who have committed violent crimes. But on the flip side, many progressives seem unwilling to forgive low-stance missteps such as language crimes. What do you make of it?

Elizabeth Brünig

I've thought about it a lot. I have a philosopher friend who pointed this out recently. He will notice that people on the left are saying we have to go easy on people who are in prison and we have to consider their abolition and reintegration into society, which I all agree with. But then they say, you know, if someone does a shitty tweet or a shitty podcast or something, it doesn't matter how much they change or how much their current views no longer reflect their previous ones. You cannot be forgiven because this stuff is toxic and causes all the problems in society, etc.

My friend said it is very difficult not to feel that they don't care too much about the harm caused by criminals because, by and large, wealthy professional executives are not affected by violent crimes. Most victims of violent crime are poor people. And so, it's easy for a senior executive to say that a 19-year-old who was involved in a triple homicide related to a rogue cocaine deal should be forgiven for her great exposure to this type of cocaine Person or this type of crime is watching Law and Order episodes. But the same person absolutely cannot forgive someone who pissed them off on Twitter because for them, interpersonal abuse on Twitter is one of the biggest conflicts of their life.

Well, this may be mischievously unfriendly read, but it is meant to encourage real reflection. Why can't we articulate continuity between our position on criminal law reform and that on interpersonal offenses? And I think you hear a lot of explanations. People on the left will say, “Well, these interpersonal offenses are upstream of the downriver criminal offenses. So if we allow these bad ideas to seep through society without punishment, it will lead to violent remarks. ”I think that is possible, but I still think it's pretty clear that not all crimes are for the people Being “deregistered” actually has something to do with violent crime in some way.

“Forgiveness is by definition not deserved. It's not something anyone deserves. It is something that is given voluntarily. "

Sean Illing

How do you practice forgiveness in your own life?

Elizabeth Brünig

I say that I have four people who I have forgiven for what they did to me. And it's a decision that's like the 12-step program: you do it every day, and you do it every day. Because sometimes you will remember what happened. You stand by the sink or look out the window at the bird feeder and the anger comes back and you want to explode again. At this point you need to make the decision to forgive again. Much forgiveness, at least as it manifests in my life, consists of reaching out and being there, kind and warm and open to re-establishing a relationship with someone who has hurt me and saying, “I am still here". , I do not go anywhere."

But you know, and maybe this is another discussion for another time, it's hard to forgive too. There are so many problems with pride and ego and accepting mistakes, and there are feelings of condescension and suspicion that something is ruling over you. So part of forgiving is standing humbly and saying, “I'm not kidding. I'm serious. It's taken. "

Sean Illing

Do you think a lot about where to draw the line? Is there something really unforgivable?

Elizabeth Brünig

I think there are things that one person can do to another person that makes the chance that they will ever be forgiven is zero percent. But in my opinion a person cannot really remove the value of his own life no matter what he does. It will always be the right thing to give this person life. But I understand the feeling of not being able to forgive. There are some things that are simply beyond the moral ability of even the most morally heroic person. But I think we should always keep in mind that these are very, very rare cases.

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