There is no one more difficult to forgive than the one who is completely oblivious to the fact that they need to be forgiven. I’ve had the opportunity to practice this essential spiritual technique in at least two such challenging situations this week. I have to admit, I’m not very good at it.
The first was a relatively minor incident. My children were playing outside, when our semi-urban semi-silence was shattered by a loud roaring and screeching. I rushed to the door just in time to see a neighbour in a high-powered pickup truck peeling rubber as he raced from a stand-still right back to a stand-still at the stop sign in front of my house.
As I ushered the children inside to escape the fumes of burnt rubber, I was fuming. “My children live and play here! How dare he?!?” My thoughts began eagerly mulling over a wide variety of scenarios… calling the cops, confrontation, caltrops – or, better yet, programmable pop-up tire-spikes… As I played out all these scenarios in my mind, however, I couldn’t come up with a single one that wouldn’t simply end up escalating the situation. Perhaps my avenging inventiveness wasn’t the answer… perhaps something more subtly powerful was in order?
As I played out the scenarios in my mind, I kept on coming back to an important unknown: the person of my neighbour. I had absolutely zero knowledge of him: his personality, his motives, what he was or wasn’t thinking about as he peeled out, how he might react to my reaction… And my obsession over my neighbour’s thoughtless sin was certainly doing no good either to me or to him – or to the relationship between me and him… Perhaps the ultimate solution here was neither grudge-building nor vengeance, but forgiveness?
In the second incident, there was significantly more evil intent, which has made the exercise of forgiveness here much more difficult. I received a call for technical help from my mother, during which I began to realize, with mounting horror, that her laptop had fallen victim to a crypto-ransomware virus attack which had encrypted, amongst other things, more than five year’s worth of photos, including all those of the last trip she had taken with my father before his passing. My frustration and anger and horror only mounted as I started working on her laptop and began to realize that there was no way to recover the encrypted files short of paying the utterly unaffordable $1700 extortion fee they were demanding – which meant that I was helpless, without any solution or recourse or even any way to avenge myself on these unthinking, uncaring, unfeeling pathetic excuses for human beings who were holding my mother’s last memories of her husband for ransom.
Who were these faceless inhuman extortioners? The only thing I could deduce about them was that, to unleash this pitiless algorithm that preyed indiscriminately upon unsuspecting inexpert computer users, they must be utterly dominated by greed. How had they been reduced to such an extremity of evil? I had to admit, I had no idea, no concept of how they might have come to that. Again, I had no real understanding of those who had wronged the one I loved, and nothing I thought or said or did or obsessed over or worried about would have any positive impact on my understanding of or my relationship with them.
At the same time, in conversation with my mother about the situation, we realized that our attackers had taken nothing from us that we would not inevitably lose anyway. Mom had always struggled with Dad’s attachment to things of “historical” value – and, without reducing the significance of the immediate loss, we both came to the realization, with a perspective tinged with the sadness of aging and loss, that even if the photos were preserved, as we intended, that time and the decay of memory, both individual and collective, would ultimately render them mostly meaningless and mute. With this in mind, how useful was it to spend our time railing helplessly against the injustice of the premature loss? Perhaps forgiveness was a healthier and ultimately more useful path…
Forgiveness in these circumstances is part of a healthy acknowledgement of our own limitations, which leaves room for some possibility of humanity in those unaware of their need for forgiveness, while still maintaining the need for justice. Forgiveness would not be necessary if injustice had *not* been done – the very fact of our forgiving is a reassertion that what is being forgiven was wrong. But we cannot right all wrongs – in fact, we have the power to right only a few. The rest we leave in God’s hands, trusting in Him as the ultimate judge – and as the perfect dispenser of true justice. He alone truly knows and understands the secrets of men’s hearts; He alone is ultimately qualified to judge in the person of His Son – the One who suffered ultimate injustice and still prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He alone can find humanity where we see none, which is why we must, following His example, forgive.
We speak sometimes of “tough love”; perhaps we also need to speak occasionally of “tough forgiveness”. When we speak of the former, the love generally must be tough for the sake of the one being so loved. When we speak of the latter, the forgiveness must be tough to preserve the possible humanity of the one being forgiven, to preserve our own humanity, and to preserve the possibility of a real relationship between the two. It is only through tough forgiveness that the world itself can be saved.