Conditions for forgiveness

I once said to an intimate I was arguing with, “I can’t forgive you until you blame yourself!”

I love the line, if I may so take credit for it, on poetic, comedic, and psychological grounds. It was an uncalculated moment of wit, born of genuine head-banging frustration. I could not get my truth, my version of events, admitted into the argument or credited at all. And without that basic validation of my experience, it’s not that I didn’t want to forgive. I was powerless to!

You can’t forgive that which won’t blame itself. The conditions for forgiveness arise from an honest accounting, on some level. Otherwise, it’s about as meaningful as saying, “it’s all good, dude” with a dismissive wave and lungful of bong smoke seeping out. That’s not forgiveness. It’s futility, an acquiescence to an unconquerable, unbreachable separateness.


It didn’t play as well with the loved one as I might have thought.  It wasn’t the winning moment it could have been in a relationship that was not so far gone toward irreconcilable versions. But I remembered the language, at least, for possible later use in all the fiction and drama that I never write. Could have been a good payoff line in some pinch-worthy Helen-Hunt movie. Could have been monetized.

“I can’t forgive you until you blame yourself.” You think you are getting a stock emotional platitude from the heart of the self-help 1970s: no one can love/accept/forgive you until you love/accept/forgive yourself. You think someone is about to tell you to be good to little old you for a change and go easy, a cajoling, coaching moment.

Then it pulls a fast one at the end, suggesting that meaningful forgiveness may be impossible unless some degree of guilt and complicity has been copped to. Otherwise, what good forgiveness? What role? You just go on and do whatever you want and say it means whatever you want it to mean. Carry on. Forgiveness not required here. There’s nowhere for it to land and nothing for it to feed on.

An old acquaintance of mine used to sell crystals in a health-food store. They had it really worked out, what each crystal would do for you and which level of energy your soul was crying out for, amethyst for healing, ruby for sex. I always wondered, however, why the diamond — scientifically and kind of inarguably the purest, most focused and powerful crystal — wasn’t out there enlightening the shit out of every materialistic suburban bride!

So I looked in his pamphlet, and sure enough it spoke to that very concern. The diamond, it said, was in fact the highest and most powerful crystal, but until a person had attained a certain level of coherence via the lower crystals or other disciplines, the diamond was moot, wasted on the masses.

How convenient. But now I like the metaphor. It’s like forgiveness is a higher-order relationship operation that will not instantiate until the substructure is solid and the lower operations of accord and experience-norming are running bug-free. You can forgive all you want, and maybe even really feel it, but no weight has been transferred.

It kind of reminds me what we call our national discourse at this time, a divide so basic and complete, and so lacking in a shared pool of admitted truth, that all the traditional gestures of understanding, acknowledgment of difference, and compromise are impotent and meaningless.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.