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    Reflections on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Paradox of Doing the Right Thing – The Marginalian


    “An honorable human relationship… in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,’” Adrienne Rich wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”

    And yet if the two pillars of friendship and loving relation are truth and tenderness, as Emerson believed, something terrible and irreconcilable happens when the truth itself is untender — it becomes impossible to discern the honorable thing to do, the loving thing to do, the correct shape of loyalty. Cornered between two imperfect options, one is forced to weigh the agony of duplicity, that pernicious poison of trust, against the agony of causing hurt — a cruel reminder of how much pain human beings can inflict in just trying to be good, how altogether difficult it is to be a human being in tender and trusting relation to other human beings in a world rife with paradoxes, moral ambiguities, and impossible choices.

    Art by Marianne Dubuc from The Lion and the Bird

    In the wake of it all, savaged by the unequaled soul-ache of having caused hurt while trying to do the right thing, trembling with desire for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, one longs for an apology so vast and powerful as to subsume the impossibility of the choice — an apology grand enough to allay all the vulnerabilities of being human, fallible, and famished for connection.

    That longing comes alive in a consolation of a poem by Ellen Bass:

    HOW TO APOLOGIZE
    by Ellen Bass

    Cook a large fish — choose one with many bones, a skeleton
    you will need skill to expose, maybe the flying
    silver carp that’s invaded the Great Lakes, tumbling
    the others into oblivion. If you don’t live
    near a lake, you’ll have to travel.
    Walking is best and shows you mean it,
    but you could take a train and let yourself
    be soothed by the rocking
    on the rails. It’s permitted
    to receive solace for whatever you did
    or didn’t do, pitiful, beautiful
    human. When my mother was in the hospital,
    my daughter and I had to clear out the home
    she wouldn’t return to. Then she recovered
    and asked, incredulous,
    How could you have thrown out all my shoes?
    So you’ll need a boat. You could rent or buy,
    but, for the sake of repairing the world,
    build your own. Thin strips
    of Western red cedar are perfect,
    but don’t cut a tree. There’ll be
    a demolished barn or downed trunk
    if you venture further.
    And someone will have a mill.
    And someone will loan you tools.
    The perfume of sawdust and the curls
    that fall from your plane
    will sweeten the hours. Each night
    we dream thirty-six billion dreams. In one night
    we could dream back everything lost.
    So grill the pale flesh.
    Unharness yourself from your weary stories.
    Then carry the oily, succulent fish to the one you hurt.
    There is much to fear as a creature
    caught in time, but this
    is safe. You need no defense. This
    is just another way to know
    you are alive.

    Couple with Maimonides’s framework of repentance, repair, and what true forgiveness takes, then revisit Ellen Bass’s perspectival poem “The Big Picture.”

    “How to Apologize” originally appeared in The New Yorker and is published here with the poet’s permission.



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