forgiving, forgetting

(I’m sorry to say that nobody is allowed to embed clips from Duck Soup…so you’ll have to follow the link here. It’s 43 seconds long, and I highly recommend it. Also, I’m taking on some difficult subjects here, probably because I’m having so much fun being playful on Twitter.)

GROUCHO: It was silly of me to lose my temper, on account of that little thing you called me.
AMBASSADOR: Little thing I called you? What did I call you?
GROUCHO: Gosh, now I can’t even remember what it was. (relieved laughter)
AMBASSADOR: Well, do you mean “worm”?
GROUCHO: No, that wasn’t it. […]
AMBASSADOR (brightly): Oh yes! “Upstart”!
GROUCHO: That’s it. Upstart! (Groucho rises in anger, slapping the ambassador with his glove.)
AMBASSADOR: Mrs. Teasdale, this man is impossible. My course is clear. This means war!


I hated my high school principal, for reasons too numerous and severe to explain. I’ve just heard that he’s been tentatively invited to a reunion event, under the banner “forgive and forget.” He’s even been invited to do some of the exact same pseudo-Native American ceremonies that, in my mind, were closely connected to what was most problematic about our experimental, boundaries-free school. I’m not happy about this, and I know at least a couple friends will nod their heads and think: Ah, Kugelmass. Never passes up the chance for some good grudge-holding. Never lets it rest.

We say “forgive and forget” because the difference between the two isn’t clear. What does it mean to forget? How is forgiveness different?

A surprisingly decent answer would be that forgetting is real, and forgiveness isn’t. The vast majority of the time, when we talk about forgiveness, we really mean forgetting. We cease to feel an injury over time. Even if we can remember the details of what happened, emotional injuries are analogous in most cases to a severe physical wound. The memory is just a trace of the original four-alarm fire. Sometimes the entire event is forgotten or repressed.

Forgetting isn’t inherently ennobled by these benefits. Forgetting the good things in life, the people and pleasures we enjoyed years ago, works exactly the same way. We have some control over forgetting and remembering, but not as much as we’d like. It is often as dumb, relentless, and unhurried as erosion.

Even so, the little things we can do to forget past troubles are all we have. Consider the consequences of remembering what is painful: simmering anger and depression both actually, physically, kill us. Studies have linked them to dementia, heart disease, obesity, and reduced immune function. Furthermore, anger and sadness are all but interchangeable. Anyone who’s spent time with a depressed person experiences, firsthand, Freud’s insight that “melancholia” is inverted anger. The only thing that keeps the anger “in” is that the depressed person is too fragile to fight, so they snipe instead. The reverse is also true. People who are sick of being sad often thrash about angrily. The difference between anger and sadness is a simple, subjective judgment: Am I going to do anything about this? An angry person says yes, a sad person no. This is of course not the same as asking whether anything should be done. That’s why, when you dump someone, you comfort them if they’re sad, and run (or retaliate) if they’re angry. Sadness is passive and poses no threat.

Forgiveness is an attempt to hurry things along, to take a shortcut past the slowness of forgetting. But how does it really work? In my experience, it mostly involves consciously remembering things that make us happy, thereby displacing the hurt. (This is certainly what I do after fighting with a lover.) That probably makes forgetting easier, but it’s not half as effective as we’ve all been promised. If it was, then having an identical experience later would not create a narrative…but it does. What does it mean to forgive someone unless they do something repeatedly? Basically, nothing. All it means is this: “I haven’t decided whether this is part of a pattern or not, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now.”

That’s the dark secret of the common saying, “I will forgive but I will not forget.” Whenever I hear this, my blood turns to ice. It means, “You have been warned.”

In order to truly forgive, we have to put ourselves so far above the Other, morally speaking, that we cease to believe in their freedom. The essence of forgiveness is, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” (This isn’t original with Christianity, either — for example, it’s all over Plato, particularly in the Apology.) The corollary is that I know what they’re doing, and why, and what makes me different. I see how helpless or deluded the Other is, and how that impels them to act in ways that I’d otherwise find maddening.

In a world where personal environments vary and express so much, we constantly talk about “being in a good place,” or else in a bad one. In my life, it’s been easy to forget wrongs once I’ve recovered whatever was broken or lost, and gotten myself into “a good place.” Takes a while, though. Until I get free, I’m surrounded by unfortunate reminders of what happened. Nor is the “good place” ever invulnerable.

Forgetting isn’t usually about resetting everything to zero. It’s about separating individuals from their acts. We remember what happened, just like we remember what poison oak looks like, but we cease to define the Other by events in the past. (One could, I suppose, call this deconstructive act “forgiveness,” but it usually only makes sense after some time has passed. Until then, we’re too much on guard. It’s not just the healing power of time. It’s also observing what the other person does.)

Another popular saying goes like this: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again, and expecting a different result.” It’s a silly overstatement. I’d argue, though, that it is popular because it’s a booster shot against being shamed into the errors of “forgiveness” or foolish hope.

Acts are always themselves. Bad movies and bad ceremonies stay bad. People do change, sometimes radically — but when they do, there are usually billboards announcing this, visible for miles around. Otherwise, the odds are pretty lousy, especially since relationships often change less than the people in them. It’s true of all sorts of relationships, but the most famous example is this: you can be in the middle of a thrilling adult life, but to your family, you’ll always be too young to vote.

When it comes to forgiveness…I really would have to be insane, to ever let that dirty game recapture me. If forgetting is a slow campaign against a stubborn foe, that’s all the more reason to commence.