I listened to a TED talk in which a man described what he would have done to Adolf Hitler if he had somehow had the opportunity to meet with him back during the height of the Fürher’s power. It was a violent depiction which even frightened the individual who was outlining it. He noted that he was a generally peace loving person, against gun ownership and war. He pointed out the human tendency to be vindictive and admitted that he was no better than anyone else when it came to that aspect of our natures. In truth we sometimes fantasize how to get even with those who have harmed us or others. We sentence murderers to death and consider it just to hang those who commit crimes against humanity. At the same time we question acts of forgiveness that seem to be unwarranted. We have great difficulty with the concept of mercy even though many of us purport to follow the Golden Rule.
I’ve been there myself. Even after many years I struggled to find compassion for a man who emotionally abused my mother when she was the most vulnerable. I despised his politics which bordered on white supremacy, but mostly what I hated about him was the fear that he used as a means of controlling my mom. To this day I wonder if he was a great part of the reason that my mama succumbed to the tragic symptoms of bipolar disorder. One of her psychiatrists once told me that if she had lived a less stressful life she might have been merely eccentric rather than psychotic. This man was a major contributor to her descent into madness. She tried over and over again to get away from him, but he manipulated her with tales of having contacts willing to get rid of anyone that he wanted gone forever. She was terrified of what might happen to her and to us if she crossed him. Ultimately she broke down completely one night while in his presence. It distressed him so much that he backed away from his threats. A nudge from my uncles completed his departure from our lives which was a welcome relief to me and my brothers. He is the only person that I has ever made me feel utterly hate-filled.
I have been thinking about such things because a cousin who is wise and loving recently posted an article about a man who believes that we need to forgive everyone for everything. That is a major but interesting challenge for all of us. I think that it is possible in most cases, including with regard to my mother’s nemesis, Nonetheless I have to ask if there are indeed times when forgiveness simply can’t be forthcoming, as in the instance of Adolf Hitler. Certainly his crimes were egregious enough that it would almost seem to be naive and foolhardy to even consider giving him a pass, and yet I wonder if there is a tiny bit of merit in the idea of forgiving all people at all times.
If I think carefully about the man that I have literally hated for decades I find myself understanding why he was like he was. He was one of three brothers and his siblings were incredibly successful men. He on the other hand never amounted to much other than being movie star handsome. His wife had died of cancer and he was raising two children on a rather meager and unstable income. His son was ultimately killed in a robbery gone awry and his life showed little promise of getting better. I think he actually loved my mother but did not know how to demonstrate his concern for her properly. His boasts and putdowns were meant to make him look better in her eyes, and he saw his jealousy as a way of demonstrating how much he cared. Sadly his way of doing things was foreign to us and he and my mother were a grotesque mismatch.
One of the things that happened when she had her first psychotic break was that she came home from the hospital for a weekend furlough and refused to return. I was beside myself because she was not out of the woods. She turned to him because she had lost her trust in me. To his credit he told her that the best way to get everyone off of her back was to cooperate with them. He was the one who talked her into going back for continued treatment. That certainly demonstrated a level of goodness in him that I had never before noticed. In other words he was not as fully evil as I had imagined. I ultimately found it in my heart to forgive him, but with the caveat that I did not want him to ever be around anyone in my family again. I think that while total absolution is a good thing there must sometime be restraints associated with it.
For the most part forgiveness has the potential of being a healing act for the person who finds it in his/her heart to set aside the anger and negativity that lurks in the soul. It is a powerful way of restoring calm and optimism. It does not however need to include association with the person or persons who inflicted the hurt. For example, I would never ask someone who had been betrayed in a relationship to return to that individual. In fact it would no doubt be harmful. Forgiveness does not mean submission.
I also think that there are indeed some actions that are so egregious that it is impossible to find forgiveness. In the case of Adolf Hitler I can’t imagine anyone being so magnanimous as to absolve his sins against humanity other than God Himself. Still, I would rather see him rot in prison that to inflict bodily harm. In fact, I think that putting him away in chains forever would have been a fitting punishment had he not chosen the cowardly act of suicide. Then again perhaps he did us all a favor by taking care of the problem for us.
Most of us will be faced with minor inflictions of hurt against us. Only the individual who has been betrayed will be able to decide if he/she is able to harbor no malice against the person who has produced the pain. It may take time for the wounds to heal as in my own case with the man who had brought so much fear into my mother’s life. Like my situation a pardon may ultimately be a somewhat selfish act designed to eliminate the poison of loathing that so pollutes the heart and that is okay.
Forgiveness demonstrates the ultimate act of love. Jesus absolved the thief while he was dying on the cross, but he did so only after the sinful man truly and deeply uttered his contrition. We are told that the other man who was being crucified with them was not willing to show that he was sorry and thus did not receive the same favor. I suspect the Jesus, the teacher, wanted us to know that while it is noble and just to exonerate those who have come to see the error of their ways, it is not necessary to be magnanimous with anyone who remains dedicated to evil.
I think that the world would indeed be a better place if we truly learned to be more loving and forgiving. We often hold onto grudges and anger long after it is healthy to do so. Reaching out to one another and understanding that we all make terrible mistakes is something that we should all strive to do. In the end the vast majority of people are good even if misguided. Our goal should always been to bring out the best in everyone that we encounter and to love them and welcome them into our world until they prove to be harmful. Then I think that even Jesus Himself would encourage us to walk away.