forgiveness and the social contract

This is not a story about forgiveness.
-Emily Thorne, Revenge

One of the strangest principles of modern life is that of forgiveness, and the processes of “letting go” and “coming to terms” with major events, which are its complements. Every study that has shown the carcinogenic and pathogenic effects of stress and anger receives enormous publicity: we want to be told that if “you keep carrying that anger, it will eat you up inside,” as Don Henley put it. Freud identified many superstitious beliefs, such as the belief in ghosts, with an inability to accept the death of a loved one, and modern ghost stories are also dramatizations of therapy: when the original traumatic event is successfully worked through, the ghost departs, and everyone is the better for it.

As a reader, though, I’m surrounded by ghosts. It would be a little ridiculous to successfully “work through” the traumas I experienced while watching American Beauty, since none of it was real in the first place. I’m sure that, on some level, listening to an album like Ani Difranco’s Dilate is cathartic, and creates favorable conditions for moving past an old wound. But does that end up being all the album is good for? After all, it’s called Dilate: it seems to be about making the chasms within oneself deeper and wider. John Cusack, in High Fidelity, admitted that he no longer knew whether the heartbreak or the songs about heartbreak had come first. Either way, the two become indissoluble.

Personally, I always liked those moments in television shows where a character suddenly finds themselves beset by an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. That’s a little simplistic, but there is something valuable about having not one or two, but many such figures in my peripheral vision. After all, in the West we feel compelled to put the dead securely away, but in many other cultures they remain present, even to the point of being obstinate. I don’t know that it is always wisest to airbrush those quarrels out of the picture, and to confine to pop music all the emotions we feel for the departed, including for people who are very much alive. It is alright to cry out in defiance, even in anger, across unbridgeable gaps of circumstance and time; to write, in actions, a letter that does not arrive.