Forgiveness: Concepts and Stories

So I’m having another conversation about forgiveness. It’s a bit of an occupational hazard when word gets out you’re researching the topic for a PhD. The girl sitting across the table from me wants advice. I’ve never met her before but a friend put us in touch.

She wants to know how to forgive.

She doesn’t want to give me details. I don’t want to know. She’s upset. And frankly, I’m hopeless. We sit there, wrestling with the chasm that suffering has fixed between us. The only proper response to what she’s feeling would be to try to shoulder some of the burden, at least to give her a hug and acknowledge the reality of what she’s feeling by sitting there and listening. But she’s come to consult me as an expert, not as friend or counsellor. She wants the principles that, when appropriately applied, will provide a clear course in the sea of storms, through the cloud of unknowing and moral perplexity toward the island of forgiveness. What she needs is peace. What she wants is a programme.

Not a Chicago chair free zoneAnd of course, I can’t provide it. In the first place, if you want a clear answer to a question, there is hardly anyone worse to talk to than a PhD student in the first years of their research. My whole time is currently bent towards uncovering the ‘questions’ of forgiveness rather than constructing answers. I sit in my thinking-chair with a giant ball of wool in my lap, the whole of human social experience, and I try to isolate the (sometimes) bright thread of a single practice we (sometimes) label ‘forgiveness’. And I feel my way along its knots and the places where it is intertwined with other threads, and I wonder whether this skein is a scarf or a dust bunny. The process of unpicking knots inevitably makes the ball grow bigger. I discover more connections between this practice of forgiveness and other human social practices. I’m more and more interested in the picture of the universe required to sustain a practice of forgiveness. The universe is quite large. Hard to get an accurate picture. Even harder to work out someone else’s picture. So people ask me, ‘forgiveness?’ and out comes an unset slurry of words, images, concepts, connections. Somewhere in that slurry may be an answer to ‘how?’ Maybe.

There’s another problem, however. It’s one that besets the social sciences in general. Namely, that human behaviour looks quite different when described from an ‘outside’, theorist’s perspective compared to an ‘inside’, actor’s perspective. Something inevitably seems to be lost when I try to take the experience of forgiving or being forgiven, and write it up as an abstract description of ‘forgiveness’. This is not to say that the experience is incommunicable. A story, a personal narrative, even a poem, may capture those lost, ‘non-abstractable’ aspects of human experience and transmit them remarkably well. But this is the genius of that sort of description: it allows us to enter into the concrete specificity of another person’s experience. In a somewhat mysterious double act of imagination, we are invited to step into another’s footwear, and to respond to the invitation by allowing our awareness, attention, affects, beliefs, and dispositions to take on the form suggested by the author. You come out of the cinema after having watched a great movie with a sense that your perspective on the world has been shaped, altered. You listen to the personal stories of victims who have engaged in forgiveness and you’re moved: attracted, repelled, inspired, disturbed. In some way, in this experience of ‘indwelling’ the story of the person, something about the nature of forgiveness has been communicated to you. But here’s the thing: these modes of communication use imagination to give us the ‘inside’ perspective, mediated certainly, but not through a process of abstraction. Telling stories, focussing experiences in poetic language, singing, dancing, shaping, all these media enable your experience of forgiveness to become, albeit briefly and with limitations, mine as well but without going through a process of deliberate de-contextualisation, of being given in abstract, before being translated back into my experience.

Please don’t hear me saying that these forms of ‘thick’ description enable an unmediated process of experience sharing. Communication, even non-verbal communication, requires that we employ discourse conventions that are prior to, shared, and constitutive of, our experiences. Communication requires ‘communion’ in something existing independently of either of us. In order to swap stories, we need to share a language; in order to share a sculpture or painting, we need to have some shared understanding of the rules of the artistic discourse. Mediation is an irreducible aspect of communication. I want to distinguish, however, between this inherent ‘generalising’ involved in communication, and one of the specific uses to which we put verbal-linguistic communication: namely conceptual abstraction.

Well, so what? If something about the experience of forgiveness is invariably lost when we move from imaginative discourse to conceptual abstraction, why bother with the abstract?

But then, why do we tell each other stories about forgiveness? Lots of reasons probably: aesthetic, performative; but among them is the possibility that these shared experiences will provide guidance for future and further acts of forgiveness. Come back with me for a minute to the conversation we began with: the girl who wants to know how to forgive. Imagine that she had begun by telling me her story, the situation of harm that had provoked her question, her feelings, her struggle to know what to do and how to move on. It would have been appropriate for me to respond in kind: to tell her about times when I’ve been hurt, how I felt, what I did to respond; in short, to tell her my own story of forgiveness. Part of our attempt to move toward an answer to her question, ‘how do I forgive?’ would involve us both in a process of swapping and comparing experiences in the form of personal narratives. But here’s the thing: as we swap and share, we inevitably begin an informal process of abstraction. We work together to understand what elements of my experience were not essential to the practice of forgiveness, and therefore, not essential to the practice she will engage in, if she chooses to forgive. We work together to strain out the elements of my story that were ‘just me’, and work out the elements of my experience that seem to shed genuine light on what is essential to an appropriate practice of forgiveness in her time and place. We are working together to make my experience of forgiveness ‘portable’. But the more portable we make our experiences by removing the specific details of my time and place and incorporating relevant elements generalised from other people’s experiences, i.e., the more abstract we make the concept, the less our conceptual description has the quality of an ‘inside’ perspective. And the further our conceptual description moves from that inside perspective, the harder it becomes to move back from the portable, abstract concept to the concrete things that have to be said, done, felt, or believed, in order for forgiveness to have occurred in our particular time and place. So, here’s the problem: the more we make our account of forgiveness applicable to everybody and every case, the less it gives us to work with when we want to know ‘how’ in any particular case.

Do I give my conversation partner a set of principles, thinking that this tells her how to forgive? But principles without a story aren’t much help. We need that inside perspective. Do I tell a story about forgiveness? But then, how do we know whether my story (or hers) is a story about forgiveness without a set of principles to check it against?

Image by TheeErin
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