Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Thought about Forgiveness on 9-11

In the lead-up to this 10th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness, and it strikes me that our language does a great injustice to the concept by giving us only one phrase that we generally use to offer it: “That’s okay.” There are times when it really is “okay”—when someone offends us unintentionally and our indignation dissipates upon realizing that no slight was intended. But in all other cases, when we say, “That’s okay,” we’re lying.

Because it almost never really is “okay.” When a friend speaks cutting, hateful words in a fit of anger, it is not okay. That friend’s apology may soothe our pain, and his genuine contrition may mend our relationship, but that does not make it “okay” to have said those things in the first place. When he realizes that fact as well, that’s when we might reconcile—forgiveness can be one-sided, but reconciliation has to come from both parties. Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, all too rare: it agrees to leave the offense in the past, resolves to move onward, puts estranged travelers back on the road they had been walking together. It is the workings of the divine in man, because we all need forgiveness for something. But even reconciliation does not make it “okay.”

And when a small group of disenfranchised extremists attack unarmed, innocent people out of pure hatred, it will never be “okay.” Ever. But our weak-willed verbal construction of forgiveness makes us feel that forgiving these unimaginably unforgivable people would be a sign of defeat, an invitation for anybody with a grudge to walk all over us because, after all, we’ll forgive them in the end.
That is not what forgiveness means. Forgiving those darkened souls does not mean saying, “That’s okay.” It does not mean, “I condone what you did” or “I will let you go free of the consequences of your actions.” It does not mean, “I will not seek to stop you from hurting anyone ever again.” It means only this: “I do not want your hatred to become mine. You have sought to make me like yourself, and I refuse. I will not allow the venom in you to poison me. I will not take your dark burden onto my shoulders: it is yours alone to bear, and it will drive you into the depths. My hatred is not necessary to bring about your destruction, and I will not lose my soul in an effort to deprive you of yours. You have already lost it.”

For my part, I will live in love, and I will hope and pray that the hearts of our enemies will be turned back and reclaimed for the cause of goodness and peace.

Ellen DeGeneres, after 9-11, said that the terrorists could not take our humor from us, and she made laughter a symbol of our fortitude: the most devastating thing we could do to the extremists was laugh at them. I think the most devastating thing we could do is to forgive them.