Learning to Forgive, and Appreciate the Hidden Beauty in a Brutal World

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Dwelling on injustices done to me in the past takes up more and more of my headspace as of late. What’s worse, the more I dwell on it, the more it taints everything else I think about and reduces my enjoyment of life.

It makes me into an impatient, harsh person that I don’t want to be. I tell myself that surely I am justified in treating the world how it has treated me, but then that’s faulty reasoning which ignores that it is only a few specific individuals who mistreated me…and in fact, many more individuals have become cherished friends and lovers over the years.

Then I ask myself why it is not justified to show exactly as little forgiveness as I was shown mercy, patience or understanding. But the outcome of that reasoning is that I deteriorate into a worse human being, even if the “moral equation” leading to that conclusion checks out.

Many things are justified which are nevertheless not desirable outcomes, simply doing the bare minimum that can be expected of you where being a decent person is concerned. Putting as much ugliness into the world as I have received from it only makes me neutral at best, and at worst I am helping perpetuate that ugliness.

I am able to work that out rationally, but my heart rebels. I often feel as if I cannot carry on without justice. But is justice simply revenge? What sort of justice is achieved by allowing past experiences to shape me into someone terrible that I don’t want to become?

I think I have to let it all slide to move past it and live a fulfilled life, but I also feel as if I can’t possibly do that. If I let it go, I have vindicated the people who were cruel to me. I have enabled them, and others. I have tacitly endorsed recreational sadism, and that also feels like a moral failure in its own right.

It feels as if recovery requires that I forsake justice. I can understand on a conscious, rational level why it’s necessary to let things slide. A sort of emotional lubricant which stops us from becoming snagged on every little wrong committed against us, so that it doesn’t become an obsession. I see that I’ve let it happen to me. But even understanding that does not furnish any obvious escape from this trap.

Religion offers respite for some. The Bible says we are to forgive those who sin against us not just seven times, but seventy times seven. Yet, that’s under the assumption that there will eventually be a day of judgement and punishment of the wicked. It is not truly forgiveness, just patience. The Bible also says that love keeps no record of wrongdoing. But it also says God is love, and the Biblical God most certainly keeps records of wrongdoing.

It is easy to see how belief that there will eventually be perfect justice, a reckoning wherein the righteous will at last be separated from the wicked, could help someone let go and move on with their life. But it’s just a dressed up revenge fantasy, and a means to deter doubt using fear. It only works if you don’t see that, and don’t recognize the desire for revenge itself as emotionally immature and poisonous.

I am no longer at a point in my development where I can find solace in the prospect of other peoples’ suffering. Much less the prospect of even those who hurt me the most being subjected to infinitely long, infinitely severe punishment for crimes of finite duration and severity. If that belief is how one recovers from trauma, they haven’t really recovered.

I will know I have recovered when I can honestly say that I wish those people the best. But I don’t pretend to be there yet, and I don’t see any clear path to that point from where I am now. That troubles me almost more than the memories, as I should at least like to die with a clean heart. If I die with even a shred of hatred left in my heart, I’ll have truly failed.

The only good which has come from all this navel gazing has been an emerging perspective on the world, and on how to process suffering. It has often transpired that when a great man, considered to be a beacon of morality, is later discovered to have done terrible things, people don’t know how to react. It short circuits their brains, as we are inclined to either consider someone “good” or “bad” with nothing in between.

Philosophers have likewise struggled to comprehend how the world can include both staggering beauty, but also horrible brutality. How can the same world contain polio, sudden infant death syndrome and a natural order which forces sensitive living creatures to eat one another alive, but also sunsets, coral reefs, the aurora borealis and the emotion of love?

If the world contained only goodness, it would be incomplete. Imagine if only happy movies were made. It would constrain expression of the human condition to just one narrow portion of it. We can appreciate the meaning and value of movies about terrifying or depressing topics, but the terrifying and depressing aspects of life also have meaning and value. After all, what worthwhile story is there in which nothing bad happens?

This doesn’t square with the concept of a purely benevolent creator. For good reason, the suggestion that perhaps this is the best of all possible worlds, and that it is imperfect only because no further improvements are possible was roundly mocked by philosophers as soon as it was first published.

To maintain belief that the supreme being is only good, and does not also include evil (being incomplete in that respect, despite somehow also being infinite) it becomes necessary to separate it into two beings like Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. All of the bad in the world can then be attributed to the evil character. A deity which includes everything, which is “maximally complete”, is after all an alien and unsatisfying concept.

If there is an actual God which is either responsible for or is made up of the very worst aspects of existence and the very best, why worship it? But then, is not the desire to be worshiped a suspiciously immature quality for a cosmic entity to have in the first place?

Nuance itself is unsatisfying. In individuals as much as in the world. We want people to be completely good or completely bad, because of the uncomfortable moral ambiguity of accepting that human beings are more complex than that, and do not neatly fit on one or the other side of a good/evil binary.

Likewise, we want to either completely accept or completely reject the world. Complete acceptance is impossible due to the unavoidable pain which happens during the course of all but the most privileged lives. Are we to reject it then? To condemn this life, this world as something dirty, to be endured but never embraced? Nothing more than a valley of tears we must be “in”, but never “of”?

What creatures of extremes are we. What an almost comical overreaction to pain it is, to conclude that life can only be worth living if the world and everyone in it who has hurt us will eventually be incinerated. What a childishly radical reaction it is to forget every good thing someone has ever done, upon discovering they’ve also done some bad things as well.

This philosophy of embracing the completeness of life, in the way that any good story has highs and lows to it, may well only work for me. I don’t mean to lecture anybody about anything as I am painfully aware of how much I have left to learn.

That said, there is some measure of peace in balance. In moving away from extremes, from false binaries. We might instead accept that we are not only alive to experience pleasure and happiness, but rather the full range of human experiences.

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