Forgiveness and Remorse

Forgiveness is different in old age. In the hurry of youth and middle age, we often either push forgiveness aside or bestow it hastily in order to get on with things. In our latter years, old resentments drift out of the silence, out of the memory that cannot remember the word for that thing over there, but can recall all unkindnesses in great detail – the ones we received as well as the ones we perpetrated. Often those we want to forgive (or seek forgiveness from) are not available; they have passed out of our orbit through time, through death, through dementia.

Old age is teaching me many things and one of them is that the human condition is universal. Sympathy is replaced by empathy. There is no time or heart left for enemies. We are all friends in our common human afflictions. And David Whyte says that friendship is all about forgiveness. He says it “is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.”

And then there is the issue of forgiving ourselves.

Yeats wrote a poem that is a dialogue between the Self and Soul. Unlike similar medieval dialogues, the Self gets the final word here and it is about forgiveness:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

“Casting out remorse” is easier said than done, but the result, according to Yeats, is a recovery of the innocence of Eden. In his “We must laugh and we must sing, / We are blest by everything,” the old Irishman sounds almost like Blake. Heaven all around us! But can we “cast out remorse” without doing something about it? David Whyte refers to the section of the Lord’s Prayer that implies in order to beg forgiveness ourselves, we must forgive “those who trespass against us.” It is a package deal. Of course, often the hardest person to forgive is oneself. I know.

I also find myself contemplating the need to beg forgiveness from this earth that we have been blessed with, out of which our kind was spun and nurtured. How it and its creatures have been abused in my lifetime! How can we ever atone!

Isak Dinesen too references the Lord’s Prayer in her sad story of watching giraffes from her beloved Africa being shipped to Europe:

The giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.

They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening….

As to us, we shall have to find someone badly transgressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.

The giraffes and the polar bears and the elm trees and the monarch butterflies. Who can we forgive that will reciprocate the forgiveness we need from the world we are destroying? These are not easy questions, but they are on my mind.

Yeats says he is “ content to follow to its source /Every event in action or in thought; /Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!” Measure first. A good carpenter will tell you to measure twice. Maybe realization is enough, but I’m not sure. I think I rather feel, with Dinesen, that more is needed before we can “in decency” throw off all remorse.

This week’s story is “The Iscariot” and references the most infamous sinner of all and describes a woman who sometimes feels like she is running a close second. And, perhaps, a different way to look at remorse and redemption.

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