Wednesday, April 23, 2014

"The Sunflower," and the Question of Forgiveness

A few years ago, when I was finishing up my last year as a history undergrad at the University of Memphis, and in a moment of desperation to complete a missing requirement, I signed up for a 400 level class on Holocaust Studies. I was terrified of taking that class. I knew how difficult it would be emotionally, and I did not want to do it. I also knew, however, that it would be good for me, and would probably thicken my skin a bit, which I needed. So I bought all 18 books that we were going to be reading that semester, and jumped in. Probably one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.

There were a lot of things about that class that have stuck with me. I had never read Elie Weisel's Night before, and that book is so powerful. We watched "Schindler's List," which I had not seen before, and that was intense. Beautiful, powerful, horrifying--I've never watched it again, and likely won't. I will not ever forget it though. The book and subsequent conversation that impacted me the deepest, however, was on Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, which, if you have not ever read, I advise you to do so.

The Sunflower is about Wiesenthal's personal experience with a Nazi soldier who was desperate to obtain verbal forgiveness from a Jew in the face of his own impending death. While held prisoner in a concentration camp, Wiesenthal was pulled from his work duty outside of a hospital and brought into one of the hospital rooms by a nurse. In that room, Wiesenthal met a German soldier who had been seriously wounded and was on the verge of death. This young, Catholic boy was in excruciating pain, staring his mortality in the face, and felt that he needed resolution and forgiveness for the atrocities he had committed before he met God. The things this man had done were, indeed, atrocious. He actively participated, upon orders but without protest, in the violent, horrifying murders of Jewish men, women, and children--including very young babies. He told Wiesenthal every gruesome detail in an attempt to clear his conscience, to obtain forgiveness from a Jew--any Jew. He begged Wiesenthal to forgive him, so that he could meet God in peace. Overwhelmed and unable to respond, Wiesenthal walked away without saying a word. He denied the soldier, who died later that night, his request for forgiveness. This experience impacted the remainder of Wiesenthal's life, and it seems that he never quite came to terms with whether or not he did the right thing, or what he would have done if the soldier had lived long enough for Wiesenthal to formulate a response.

Years later, when Wiesenthal wrote his story, he questioned what others might have done in this situation--what would have been your reaction or decision? That is the question that pervades the rest of the book, which contains responses from more than fifty contributors from all over the world, including the Dalai Lama, Episcopal priest Matthew Fox, and retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Moshe Bejski. For Wiesenthal, his refusal to immediately grant forgiveness was spurred by a number of things, including the realization that this young man, who he admits was honestly contrite and remorseful for his actions, still did not seem to grasp the bigger picture--he only saw a label in his desire for forgiveness, and to obtain forgiveness from someone who fit into the category of "Jew" would suffice. Even in death, the soldier did not understand that the Jew he was so desperate to receive pardon from was a human being, not just a category or label. Others Wiesental spoke to later, when he had returned to the concentration camp, agreed with him, adding that one can only grant forgiveness for personal grievances, and that Wiesenthal could not forgive the soldier for his actions, since this man did not do anything personally to Wiesenthal. The soldier would never be able to truly attain forgiveness, because his victims were no longer living to grant it. One of the larger questions that this story poses, I think, is whether we see forgiveness as an understanding or justification for thoughts or actions, and more over, whether forgiveness is in fact an individual right, or the right of the human race as a larger collective.

This is a subject I have struggled with my entire life. I've heard people say that forgiveness is easier for those who have "faith" because they can place trust that, whatever the hurt is in regards to, it is all part of a journey and that the higher power in charge will eventually reveal the reasoning for your pain so that it can be understood, or at the very least, accepted. I don't know about that--I'm sure it rings true for some, but religion can make things far more difficult to accept. Wiesenthal speaks at length about the difficulty that many Jews face with their own faith and belief, especially given the history of the Jewish people and the devastation they have survived over a period of thousands of years. Why does suffering have to be a part of the journey, and is offering acceptance and forgiveness of that suffering a necessary part of life in order to obtain enlightenment? It's a tough question to answer, especially when you remove a go-to response like, "The Bible says so," from the equation. Bottom line, forgiveness is difficult for everyone, and in my own opinion, it comes down to how you process information and experience.

I've heard it said that forgiveness is the acceptance of your past: it is accepting that the past is what it is, it cannot be changed, and forgiveness is the realization that you have completely moved forward without allowing the past to influence you any more than it already has. I have several problems with that philosophy, but the most obvious one that most overlook is that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. You can "accept" that something has happened and move forward, without being able to "forgive" the person or people responsible. You always know when that's the case, too, because it smacks you in the face when you least expect it. You can harbor no ill feelings for someone who hurt you ten, twenty years ago, and then (this has been my experience) you hear about something really wonderful that has happened for or to that person, and all that anger and resentment just bubbles back up from out of nowhere and you want nothing more than to track that person down and spit on them. Time numbs feelings, and makes them better able to be handled and put aside so that they don't influence you on a regular basis, but acceptance that it happened and honestly being able to forgive someone for their actions are two different things.

I also heard someone once say that forgiveness was giving someone permission to hit you again. That's a jaded statement, and I get it because I am the world's absolute best at putting up that invisible armor of protection to keep from being hurt again. You hurt me once, that's it--believe me, you're not going to get close enough to do it again. I don't care how nice I may act to you outwardly, you will not get another chance. However, that statement is little more than an empty justification for not offering forgiveness, and I do believe that forgiveness is healthy and important. Anger and resentment will just suffocate you if you can't let it go. That being said, knowing that you have forgiven someone for a transgression is not the same as being able to ever trust or have a relationship with them again.

I think, ultimately, that forgiveness is very similar to faith--it differs for every single person, and there is no one answer for how to forgive that will apply to everyone. It's personal, it's private, and it's up to the individual to decide whether or not forgiveness is a necessary part of their own personal journey. Here's what I have figured out about my own ability to forgive. Reconciliation is easy for me. I can do that. I can accept what happened, learn from it, and move forward without the event or hurt itself haunting me or keeping me locked into the past. Forgiveness, however, is something that I only offer when someone has been brave enough to hold themselves accountable for hurting me or someone I love. In order to forgive, I expect that person to own up to what they have done. Even if they aren't sorry for what they did, but are sorry that they caused me pain as a result, that is still accountability. I can forgive that. However, it needs to be stated outright. "I am really sorry that I hurt you." "I hate what I did, and if I could take it back, I wouild." "I am truly sorry that you were hurt, it wasn't my intention." "I hate that this happened, I never meant for you to be hurt and I wish I could change it." Those things are all acceptable. Those statements are all honest attempts at taking responsibility, and I can, and will, offer forgiveness.

You know what is not being accountable? "Are you ever going to forgive me?" I cannot even begin to say how many times I have had someone use that on me or someone I know. That's such a bullshit apology. That isn't taking responsibility for the actions that you committed which caused someone else pain. That is shifting even more blame onto the person you hurt and accusing them of being at fault for being hurt in the first place. It is a flagrant attempt to cover up the fact that you aren't sorry at all.

Bottom line--in order for me personally to forgive, I need to know that the person who hurt me is genuinely sorry for the pain that they caused, and that they are mature enough and strong enough to walk up to me, own their decisions or choices, and ask for my forgiveness in an honest and meaningful way. Acceptance and reconciliation are easy. I only grant forgiveness to those who ask for it, and who mean it. I don't lose sleep at night, wishing ill on someone who hurt me, or thinking about why they did what they did. I also don't look for larger meaning in the hurt. That's the beauty of free will. You don't always learn some larger lesson from pain. Sometimes people just suck and do stupid hurtful things because we as humans are intrinsically egocentric and we as a result always think first and foremost about how things will benefit or hurt ourselves before other people. There's nothing wrong with that, we all do it. Not holding ourselves accountable for our actions is something entirely different, and if forgiveness is important to you, then ask for it. Be open, be honest, and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Even if, like Simon Wiesenthal, the person you are asking forgiveness from does not grant it to you, at least you will have some sense of peace within yourself, knowing that you were accountable and accepting of the consequences of your actions, no matter how terrible. Ultimately, my own personal philosophy is that asking for forgiveness, and your ability to grant forgiveness to those who ask for it, isn't about the person you hurt or the people who hurt you. It isn't about the event, or the time, or the reasoning or justification of it all. It is about how you are best able to continue on your journey, and what you need to do in order to look at yourself in the mirror with a clear conscience and sleep well at night. It's all about you. Egocentric, indeed.

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