17 March 2014

'A Pound of Flesh, Or An Eye for An Eye': At the Crossroads of Empathy and Forgiveness

Hard times in the Chateu D'If
As I go through the routines of my dad-to-day, it's hard not to notice that so much of the world seems constantly in the throes of 'getting what is owed to them.' Hardly a day goes by without something I read or real events pressing onward with the seemingly universal desire revenge or some kind of material justice. This most recently struck at me deeply several months ago, while the violence was escalating in Syria, particularly the church bombings, and news broke that a serious wave of new sexual abuse allegations was being leveled at my home archdiocese. One of those intersections of daily events that make me acutely aware of our human fragility, pain, and division.

Societal reaction to the priestly abuse scandals is emblematic of the strange concept of justice that we've come to expect in our modern world. Many allegations have be made over the past decade with financially and legally exploitative motivations, some of them truthful. But in most cases we hear over and over again how victims want not only emotional and spiritual healing, but also financial restitution. The mystery of how we expect large sums of money to heal such rifts is a topic for another post, another day, but it's certainly not reserved for clergy sexual abuse. Divorce? My ex has to pay. College degree didn't get me a job? My school has to pay. Short-changed childhood experience? Parents have to pay. Bakery won't make a cake for my wedding? The owners have to pay. The litigiousness is astonishing, especially here in the U.S., where "fighting for what you deserve" seems to reach new levels of ridiculousness every day.

It's even more ridiculous given that 'tolerance' has become the new global mantra. Here's the world, beating it into us that 'live and let live' is the only noble way to engage with society and build peace, while simultaneously demanding an eye-for-an-eye at the turn of every petty (and not-so-petty) disappointment. Strangely Old Testament for a world that seeks to free us from ancient oppressive moral codes.

As I read and thought over the past several months, I have chewed on this topic often. Why are we always at odds with each other? Why are we never satisfied? The human urge for revenge is certainly not reserved to the modern world-some of the greatest stories ever written have revenge at their very core (Hamlet, Coriolanus, and The Count of Monte Cristo among them). But the modern kind seems to be particularly insatiable. The strange realities of our world's sense of 'practical justice' seems to dovetail with something else often present in my intellectual cud-our similarly distorted understanding of forgiveness.

One scene from Tess of the D'Urbevilles has stuck strongly with me from my first reading nearly a year ago. Tess, suppressed under the ruin of rape victimhood and an illegitimate child, has finally married a good man-seemingly so without blemish that she sees him almost as her salvation. Having never entrusted her beloved with the cause of her shame, Tess eagerly anticipates doing so on their wedding night. Her Angel Clare, before bearing such a seemingly spotless heart, first has his own confession to make. For just one foolish night of his youth, he let himself be ravished by a prostitute. Tess forgives him with an open heart, now even more eager for the reciprocation of his mercy. She lays bare her shame. With his own slate wiped clean, Angel Clare astonishingly does not extend the same mercy to his new bride. Aside from the intended social commentary of the novel, this episode resonates strongly with modern expectations of conditional forgiveness. Are we not also so cold, often hoarding even our own undeserved mercy?

Empathy seems to be getting a lot of press these days-almost to a fault. I shouldn't bad-mouth empathy entirely-Edith Stein wrote a wonderful book about the subject. In a pluralistic world we are in dire need of mutual understanding as ever. But in insisting so much on understanding, we are only tying ourselves in knots. I wrote not too long ago about Neil Gaiman's remarks about fiction being a tool for empathy:
"...the second things fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through their eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're becoming someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed...Empatyh is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals."
While this is certainly true, the focus on mutual understanding does not go far enough. Certainly it is easier for us to co-exist peacefully, patiently, charitably, and sacrificially with others if we understand who they are, how they are feeling, where they came from, their current living situation, etc. Empathy is the first step in recognizing Christ in others, in knowing their sufferings, their joys, their experiences. It is a powerful means of coming face-to-face, and heart-to-heart with them. But we fail if we see empathy as the ultimate goal, because, like the earlier examples of material restitution, empathy taken by itself leaves open wide the possibility that we will continue our human relationships as quid-pro-quo arrangements, giving of ourselves only when we identify, when we understand the other person. Still a very conditional love. True mercy is so difficult for us to give (and receive) because it is not at all predicated on understanding.

Our society places a high premium on so-called 'internal consistency,' i.e., I may strongly disagree with someone, but in the end, so it goes, I can't be bothered because you have reasons for you choices, and in your individual moral system, those choices have some semblance of coherence. Anything goes if it has an explanation (no matter how poor). Relativism at its worst. Be true to yourself. That's the highest virtue. We think we're so forgiving, in this society of ours that advocates for free love, freedom of choice, freedom of speech, 'open relationships,' loose boundaries, few formal rules, and relatively minimal social stigma. But that isn't forgiveness. It's indifference. Real mercy isn't a business transaction. And it isn't a declaration that every choice is equal[ly immaterial] either. Forgiveness is a wiping clean, a gift. Contrary to Shakespeare's famous words in The Merchant of Venice, the quality of mercy is indeed often strained, because an injury or transgression leaves real pain, real loneliness, confusion, anger, fear, and betrayal in its wake. More often than not, we in our modern world don't know what real mercy is because we expect it to work like a neat little balanced equation. Forgive us our trespasses...and I'll forgive yours. 

Reading can certainly be a tool of learning in the school of mercy, but we ought to be cautious of entrapping ourselves in the modern gospel of 'understanding.' Understanding may be a tool for peace, but in reality that can only be accomplished with love. When we read, how often do we ask ourselves what we seek? It should not simply be to know, to understand, but to grow in love and virtue. In the end, we should seek to know true mercy.

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