The Necessity of Forgiveness
Like most migrants, I came to Australia as an international student. Before I moved to Melbourne back in Sri Lanka — the land I hail from — I recall the uncomfortable topic of racism coming up a handful of times amongst friends and family. And at the time, as a teenager, I gave it little to no thought as I was much more excited about moving to a whole new country and starting a life. At least for me, melting pots like America, Canada, and Australia have always been symbols of hope and a renewed beginning for one’s life. So, fears of being discriminated against were the least of my concerns. My time was spent trying to maximally utilise an opportunity I got in life thanks to my parents; the chance to move to Australia that I knew few Sri Lankans had. In essence, racism was a lingering, peripheral societal phenomenon, part and parcel of living in a cosmopolitan city that wasn’t worthy of my attention. Besides, one has very little time to think about such things when working, studying, adjusting to a new culture and trying to — mostly unavailingly — date women.
However, once I moved to Melbourne, rather farcically and unexpectedly, racism was more of a discussion than it ever was in Sri Lanka, through the ubiquitous Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) agenda. At least amongst the Melburnian bourgeois progressive ilk, I realised there seemed to be a hyper-consciousness of identity, i.e., race, gender, sexuality, etc. I noticed their ideology advanced tacitly and explicitly throughout society, e.g., universities, businesses, corporations, media, etc. It was typically done on the basis of broader society incessantly excluding “marginalised groups”, and some of them painted a picture of Australia being a rather detestable place as if we were still living in the times of the White Australia Policy; influenced by American thinkers like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, the most cynical part of the messaging implied that there was no more to an individual than their derived group identity. So for the first time in my life, racism, and concomitantly my skin colour, went from something marginal to something I had to be hyper-aware of due to the so-called prevalent prejudice and bigotry in contemporary Australia. And at the time, I promised myself that if I ever faced any discrimination due to my race, I would forgive.
This essay isn’t about my averseness to some aspects of Wokeness, DEI, and in my opinion, the harm it does to those groups it’s meant to help in the first place. Instead, for the sake of argument, I’ll take the most radical of these contentions prima facie and presume it’s the absolute, unequivocal truth. What if they’re right? What if every individual is inextricably trapped in the innumerable identity groups they belong to and consequently are victims of unjust power games ad infinitum? If so, living in such a society has acute existential implications. Thereby, my response to society’s ostensible moral failing is no trivial matter. I am a part of society as much as society is a part of me; therefore, how I conduct myself matters profoundly.
In that case, how should I, as a minority, respond if the Australia I came to is irredeemably racist and corrupt?
By forgiving through faith undergirded by love.
When forgiving those transgressors of the past and present, we liberate ourselves from the torments of fate — it’s an act of love that supersedes one’s destiny prescribed by society. So for myself, choosing to forgive any bigotry aimed towards me was a Kierkegaardian leap of faith — even though ironically, it wasn’t much of a leap as hitherto I’ve never faced any of it in Australia. Nonetheless, I don’t forgive because I know that everything will be fine once I forgive. After all, Kierkegaard never promised the landing would be soft once we take the leap. And yet, one has to leap as indecision itself is a decision and perhaps the worst of all decisions. We have no choice in the matter, so the leap is taken through humility, acknowledging that we’re mortal, not omniscient and ignorant beyond belief. Therefore, when I forgive through faith, I don’t do so knowing it’ll lead to a good outcome, but because the act in itself is good, and it’s the end, not the means.
But of course, forgiveness is difficult for most of us. And telling people to forgive cannot be done through finger-wagging condescending moralism. It’s a radical idea and an even more radical value to embody and act out, so it better be justified. For me, forgiveness has been relatively easy as I’ve had a fortuitous life, and as I stated before, I’ve never faced bigotry, nor have I had many unjust hardships to overcome. So cerebrally, I choose to forgive because forgiveness is practical and scalable, i.e., forgiveness puts an end to a cycle of revenge and anger, but emotionally and more saliently, I forgive because of the story of Christ:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38–39)
I don’t know if Jesus Christ is God incarnate. But still, when I read this verse from scripture, I feel either he was a delusional idiot, or he speaks of a datum that transcends reason, something that’s ineffable yet sublime. Turning the other cheek is an act of rebellion against oneself and the world. It’s saying I resist the venomous totalitarian impulse within me, that proclivity for revenge we all harbour; it’s saying my act of forgiving will supersede the orthodox societal norms of justice and warranted “merit”. In such an act, for a fleeting moment, we become — in Lewisian terms — a little Christ similar to Brandt Jean when he forgave former police officer Amber Guyger for killing his brother.
While radicals may have their ideological agendas, it seems most people who are either apolitical or simply want to feel good about themselves tend to buy into the DEI or Woke narratives because they want to live in a just society void of unwarranted discrimination. Of course, these are admirable ideals. Not even the most ardent rightist denies historical injustice; therefore, I believe the best and the most politically conservative case one could make for present-day injustice is through social inertia (even though other forms may exist) where explicitly prejudicial policies and practises of the past still impact certain groups through residual injustice. Progressives rightly identify that individuals belonging to such groups may still be disadvantaged, at least on a group level. So as Thomas Sowell identifies, most of us, left or right, are on a quest for cosmic justice above all else — it’s only the means that differ.
But past injustices cannot be rectified by imposing current injustices through fiat. Firstly, it’s not clear if such social fiat justitia, ruat caelum serves those it’s intended to help; secondly, because justice isn’t a state of equilibrium to be achieved where one group that’s ostensibly faced less injustice in the past absorbs another’s injustice. And above all, justice serves individuals, not groups. We can’t fix the past to bring utopia to the present. Trying to do so will be a waste of valuable resources and human capital that could be directed towards a better future — not perfect, just better. Ergo, forgiveness will not serve justice in a jurisprudential or sociological sense, but it will do so existentially and spiritually, aiding in our co-development. And ultimately, within the essence of all our social institutions isn’t the latter what we’re trying to deal with helter-skelter.
For example, a topic that came to the spotlight around 2018 was reparations for black Americans. Its chief proponent, Ta-Nehisi Coates, states in his momentous article The Case for Reparations, “Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” I doubt anyone disputes that every nation has some moral reckoning to do for the sins of her ancestors; only the means are contested. For example, Despite the counter-productiveness of reparations that thinkers like Coleman Hughes have highlighted, most progressives speak of it as the panacea to the predicaments black communities face. Similar sentiments are held by pro-reparation activists here in Australia — even though the redress scheme for Stolen Generation victims is more sensible as, unlike bill H.R. 40, it’ll go directly to the living survivors. But the quintessence of all these political solutions is still superficial and insincere.
As Heidegger intimated, modern society has the totalising impulse to prescribe generalised technical solutions — predominantly through economic and technological means — to the dismay of the human condition. Therefore, in this “enframing” of being, everything — including a human being — becomes part of a machination, an object, or instrument to be utilised in serving an end goal unbeknownst to us. So if the objective is social justice, then any identity group becomes transient tools for broadscale social action; an ideology hegemonises the individual concerns and existential struggles of those within the group.
In reality, we all know (or feel) that the suffering and trauma (past or present) of a human being shouldn’t be exploited to sustain socio-political movements; people should never become puppets of an ideology. My qualm with the modern egalitarian ethos, manifesting as affirmative action, reparations, anti-racism, DEI, etc., is not that these policies won’t be effective at a political level (I even support some of them and think they’re warranted), but the ideologies that imbue them view people as mere political abstractions, not human beings with their own stories; ergo, they lack spiritual authenticity at the individual level. And hitherto, whatever remedies we’ve prescribed to deal with our past sins doesn’t seem to do the authentic moral reckoning Ta-Nehisi Coates rightfully calls for. It’s a similar sentiment Glenn Loury makes in his objection to affirmative action:
“If you want genuine equality, this is distinct from titular equality. If you want substantive equality, this is distinct from optics equality. If you want equality of respect, of honour, of standing, of dignity, of achievement, of mastery, then you may want to think carefully about implementing systems of selection that prefer a population on a racial basis. Such a system may be inconsistent over the longer term in achieving what I call genuine equality; real equality; substantive equality; equality of standing, dignity, achievement, honour, and respect. […] That’s what I’m trying to get at — the quality of equality.”
Political action can never truly heal the human soul because the solutions permeated through this level of analysis are too low-resolution and detached from the individual. And as Curt Jaimungal poignantly states, “groups don’t suffer, people do.” Ergo if one is to genuinely overcome intergenerational trauma and the bitterness and resentment one harbours due to the discrimination they face, this can be done purely through the radical, courageous, and faithful act of personal forgiveness. It starts at your heart, and political actions come afterwards.
When I moved to Australia, I learned about “internalised oppression”, a voguish tenet of social justice theory. The basic idea is when one (depending on their identity group) internalises the oppression of the external world, which “consists of oppressive practises that continue to make the rounds even when members of the oppressor group are not present.” While it’s difficult for neophytes like myself who aren’t part of the modern intelligentsia to make sense of these abstruse social theories, it seems commonsensical that the external world plays a crucial role in forming our ideas and self-beliefs. Therefore, even if these theories are highly contested and even unfalsifiable, I could intuitively understand their coherence and, more importantly, relevance to our daily life.
Through this intuition, I did some a priori armchair philosophising: I observed how minorities or people in so-called oppressed groups seem to be internalising the “isms” — racism, sexism, etc. — fed to them through different sub-cultures, especially in universities and corporate media. So, an individual, let’s say a non-white minority for all intents and purposes, who hasn’t personally faced any overt discrimination will still ardently believe in the pervasiveness of racism in every corner of society. They’ll hold the belief that even though I’ve never been discriminated against or don’t even see much evident racism in daily life, it’s omnipresent, lurking amidst us like an unseen yet almighty spirit of some sort. They’ll see every mishap or slip by a white person as racist, inadvertently or otherwise. And some may even go further and seek out racism; they become a nail, and everything looks like a hammer — to put it more crassly, it’s the quintessential victim mindset. This creates a peculiar type of cognitive dissonance. One denies the reality one sees with their own eyes for an ideology; we mindlessly follow a narrative instead of being attentive to our actual, palpable experience. And such a person forgets something I learned through street wisdom: most people aren’t racists; they’re just assholes. So be aware of attributing anything more than “assholery” to their behaviour.
Needless to state, none of the aforementioned points means that appalling injustice and discrimination that exacerbates human suffering doesn’t exist or that we all shouldn’t strive towards rectifying society’s moral shortcomings. Instead, my sentiments are purely about our response to the world’s ills. And of course, there is also the other group of people who (probably like me) don’t buy into ideological dogmas — which are sometimes true — and deny the existence of discrimination even if they experience it personally. Both these groups are undoubtedly wrong to deny reality, but I’ll focus on the former for this essay.
Since one’s way of viewing the world is essentially a mindset, it’s deeply subjective; deeply personal, perspectival and psychological. So, yet again, I don’t see sociopolitical systems ever being effective in dealing with matters of the heart. Such intimate intricacies cannot be dealt with bureaucratised, top-down systemic, societal manipulation by fiat. Rather, we must speak to the individual — not patronisingly, of course, but, as cliché as it sounds, with empathy and love. Or even better, let your actions speak over barren words.
So I propose, regardless of being discriminated against or not, one should leave aside ideology and learn to forgive even when one doesn’t feel like forgiving. One should turn the other cheek not out of naively following an unexamined moral principle but, similar to Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, as the embodiment of the loftiest of ideals, an ideal we will never reach but ought to keep striving towards; to forgive those who trespass against us.
But most people have been deeply hurt and are embittered by the sheer anguish of life. So this may sound like a carelessly infantile suggestion, even asinine. Nonetheless, at least for a moment, I ask you to let go of your pre-held beliefs and prejudices, try forgiving through humility (not superciliousness) and see what happens — pay attention to your metamorphosis and carefully observe what unfolds in your life.
. . .
Since I unambiguously assert one should forgive, I should elucidate what forgiveness entails, or at least what I mean by forgiving: the best way to define forgiveness is through a type of negative theology, to speak of what forgiveness is not.
With the influence of Protestantism’s “Saved by faith alone” dogma, the God of the West has become docile and credulous. As Jordan Peterson points out, modern, liberalised Protestantism has a notable emphasis on the mercy of Christ and almost no regard to him also being the ultimate judge — which is conspicuous in the Book of Revelation, for instance. This lopsided view of God has made Jesus Christ, who is at least the archetypal embodiment of the highest ideal, the summum bonum of the West, look more like a peace-loving hippie — not that there’s anything wrong with being a peace-loving hippie (I happened to be one of them). Therefore, regardless of religious or secular beliefs, modern people place niceness — unexamined tolerance and unconditional compassion — as the highest of all virtues.
Contrarily, I claim forgiveness isn’t merely being nice and tolerant of everything and anything. One doesn’t have to be an unprincipled, pusillanimous pushover to forgive. When transgressed against if one defies their conscience and doesn’t say one’s piece and take a stand, rather decides to forgive out of being non-judgemental and tolerant, that’s cowardice masqueraded as a higher virtue. Furthermore, if one is truly compassionate and loving, then as Aquinas said, we must understand that “To love is to will the good of the other.” And forgiveness should be helmed by this will alone. Through the vicissitudes of life, forgiving with such a will is indeed a complicated ordeal — it’s a fine line to tread between ignorant cowardice and genuine forgiveness. Least of all, most times, we don’t even know what “good” entails, so how do we “will” what we don’t understand? But we seem to have a better idea of what “bad” entails, so maybe avoid that?
For example, even a superficial study of addiction psychology will tell us that becoming an enabler is the worst thing one could do to an addict. If my friend is an alcoholic and my response is leniency, endless positive affirmations and infantilising compassion, my altruism has become pathological. I’ve denied — or evaded? — the consequences of self-destructive behaviour for the sake of niceness and chosen to be a treacherous counterpart in my friend’s journey to hell. My inability to take a stand along with its concomitant judgement robs them of the chance for freedom from addiction. There may be no sin — moral failing — worse than harming someone with the belief that our actions are momentarily comforting them. At this point, the act of forgiveness itself becomes meaningless as I’ve become void of any qualitative morality. So forgiving isn’t an apathetic denial of the good, true and beautiful; it isn’t an acceptance or tolerance of someone’s (or ourselves) actions because it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, rather it’s a “despite” — it’s the opposite of nihilism. It’s saying I forgive because everything you do matters, and I see more of what you could become despite your failings. It’s encouragement and respect undergirded by the dignity of personhood. It’s seeing potential in someone, a quality that’s become pedestrian in our times due to its platitudinousness.
. . .
So far, I’ve expounded what forgiving means, or at least, what it isn’t. But still, why forgive even if it’s done right with the best of intentions? Can one truly justify forgiving, not at a detached sociopolitical level but in our personal lives where everything seems just a lot more flagrant? At this point, I may have run into a type of Wittgensteinian limits of language problem* because I can’t “objectively” prove why one should forgive. In any case, none of this abstract philosophising will be meaningfully pertinent to your experiential life.
Therefore, I move to literature and recourse to a salient yet ineffable phenomenon we all experience in life: that intense feeling of the absurd captured best by Kafka and Camus masterpieces. For humankind, no truth has ever been so heartfelt as the bizarre absurdity of life. It seems every great thinker from the author of Ecclesiastes, Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence, the Sisyphean hero to Groundhog Day and maybe all of philosophy is humanities confrontation at how life is absurd — yearning for meaning in a meaningless world — to the point of both anguish and farce. But for myself, after accepting this datum, I’ve learned from these thinkers, specifically Camus, to choose to have the correct attitude towards life. Ultimately, this is perhaps all one could do. I forgive because I know our sins are due to our inability to cope with the absurd, so we try and do whatever it takes — good or bad, virtuous or sinful — to cushion (or distract) ourselves from the blows of looking into the abyss of being. Therefore, the absurd gives me a deep-felt empathy towards the shared human experience, the daunting task of living and desperately trying to make sense of a senseless world. Through this, I realise that I’m equally responsible for the sins of humanity as much as every other person, dead or alive — Adam’s original sin was a supra-historical occurrence that’s happening in the eternal now; we all feel it whether we acknowledge it or not. Is this why Christ took upon humanity’s sins? And if so, what would the world look like if every one of us did the same?
The remedy, or more accurately a mode of being for sustenance in shouldering the burden of the absurd, lies in the metamorphosing embodiment of love — not the capitalist pragmatic kind to achieve some outcome, i.e., hedonic happiness, but wholly for love as life’s objective. Of course, none of us succeeds at this endeavour, but what more could one be doing with one’s transience other than trying to love? Personally, everything else seems subservient and a waste of life to me because love is the metaphysical force that binds all of existence. And one cannot love without forgiveness. Besides, I don’t see how holding onto anger becoming bitter and misanthropic is a tolerable way to live. This is an even bigger burden to carry than the confrontation of the absurd itself. After all, virtually every culture seemingly refers to some form of love as the redeeming force: humanity discovered it’s the ultimate guiding spirit, the sine qua non, that gives permanence to the impermanence of being. Of course, none of this romanticisation means any of this is easy.
I see reasons to have a pessimistic view of humanity. Even a cursory reading of history and the realisation of our ecological predicaments gives manifold reasons for despondency. But no reading warrants cynicism. I’ve realised that cynicism isn’t an attitude one develops after carefully examining and reasoning through facts. Instead, the attitude comes first and the justification second. Therefore, cynicism isn’t an ontological position but a spiritual one. None of us is free from the penchant to become bitter and maliciously cynical like those acrimonious ramblings typified by the narrator (Underground Man) in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. And as Nietzsche observed, democracy breeds mass resentment. So I see parts of the Underground Man embodied in the hubristic ungratefulness of the modern rebel from Alt-rightists, Antifa extremists to the more abated, recalcitrant university revolutionary — at least I see parts of his vulgarity in me; my life’s a battle of continuous self-overcoming, and I don’t think I’m unique in this crusade.
Ergo, we’re left with a type of morbid Kierkegaardian Either/Or dilemma. Either we take unbridled cynicism to its logical extremes, or we choose the enduring path of love and forgiveness. The choice (at times a contrived one) is left ultimately to the individual, and I’d like to think — maybe in my naivety? — that most people would choose the latter.
. . .
But even if one chose the path of forgiveness for all its virtues, how do we forgive? Is it a deed or something one proclaims? Is it circumstantial or existential? I’ve found, paradoxically, it’s somewhat of a violent act; that is to say, through forgiveness, I’m choosing to confront the truth of a matter — possibly something traumatic — and then carefully manoeuvring into the unnerving task of delineating and conveying how someone hurt me, scarred me. In those moments, repressed feelings that I didn’t even know I harboured appear to my consciousness, and it’s here, when my revulsive unknown is made known to me, a violent event takes place within me — and of course, all of this happens while I’m trying to find the grace to forgive another person. And needless to state, none of this is done passively, but one has to be deeply attentive to what unfolds when bringing one’s pain to light. So forgiveness isn’t something one merely declares in a particular circumstance. Instead, it’s above all a meditative and even religious practice because it’s a habit one adopts through embodying an existential mode of being. Therefore one cannot forgive some socially classified group, an abstract, generalised humanity but only another person; naked life always replaces our theories. A truth portrayed best in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when in one scene of the novel, a young lady confesses to a wiser Father Zosima on her inability to “love actively”, he replies:
“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,’ observed the elder. ‘He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”
From COVID to gender pronoun issues, modern society seems to be moving towards a Kafkaesque nightmare. We try to arbitrarily bureaucratise even things that should be left at the interpersonal level. True forgiveness, of course, can never happen through some policy, an impersonal, corporate marketing platitude, or mechanically repeating an Acknowledgement of Country at bourgeois social events. If love is our heralding force to forgive, then as Nietzsche wrote, “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” And it certainly takes place beyond politics. Despite my affinity for utilitarianism, this kind of forgiveness is not for some pragmatic social cause but purely for the sake of love alone. It’s a supra-moral decision imbued from the weltanschauung one chooses to live through — utilitarian social policies itself should be imbued out of love.
And yet, even as I write these words, my mind goes to a place of confusion and bitterness. Because I live in the real world, I’m reminded of life’s nuances and vicissitudes. I realise how we’re all hypocrites and that living up to the ideals I’ve delineated in this essay is a near-impossible task. But the fact that life is messy and we’re walking contradictions is all the more reason to live by that guiding spirit of love, grace and forgiveness — towards oneself and the world — instead of some posturing political ideology.
I have peers who disdain society. They constantly speak about the corruption of our institutions and systems, overweeningly proclaiming what is to be done in typical Leninist fashion. Usually, it’s incessant destructive revolutions. But these same moralists conduct themselves, let’s say, without showing any basic human decency in their personal lives: they lie to their bosses, slack off at work, act surprisingly selfishly event amongst friends, and when we converse, I intuit that their contempt isn’t for some system rather for humanity as a whole — the arbitrary ideology they live by is a tool used to project their cynicism through (forgive me if this looks like a stereotypical caricature but such remarks are based on empirical observations). And it’s for such people (which sometimes is me), I pray they find the love and grace to first and foremost forgive themselves, then their families, friends and eventually, if it’s even possible, my prayer is that they find it in their heart to forgive whole of humanity for our sins. Because we’re all in need of some redemption in life. Ergo, forgiveness isn’t a mere nicety but an absolute necessity; I pray we become a society that moves beyond sheer political progress as Martin Luther King Jr. truly envisioned when he said,
“Our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
*I can conjure up some philosophically cogent argument to justify why one ought to forgive using axioms and hypotheticals I’ve contextually contrived. But, most of it’ll be useless and thrown away by you, the reader, the moment you’re done with this essay, as I could similarly prove the opposite — why not to forgive — too by simply changing the variables and contentions with some linguistic trickery.
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Thank you to Euwyn Goh and Lova Jansson for proofreading this essay.