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Posts from — January 2014

Forgiveness and Conviction

Forgiveness and Conviction

The wee hours are good ones for doing philosophy. In the stillness, in the darkness, there is little to distract from that spring of clarity and inspiration that bubbles up as though from nowhere and solves some problem or illuminates some previously shadowy direction. During the day, I had run into a snag with a bit of code on one of the pages of my web site, a snag that was preventing a script from executing properly. I had spent over an hour perusing the hundreds of lines of HTML and CSS that the page comprises, but nothing presented itself as out of the ordinary or out of place. I tried some things, but the problem wouldn’t budge.

By the time I lay down for the night, I had put the problem out of my mind, figuring that tomorrow would be here soon enough to tackle the screen of intractable code again, and I soon fell asleep. Halfway through the night, I woke up and instantly knew where the errant code had managed to hide, escaping detection. Somehow, a deeper part of my consciousness had continued working on the problem, perhaps going over code that it had without my knowledge memorized for deep, subterranean consideration, when it would not be hindered by conscious effort. As it turned out, a single HTML instruction needed to be moved up above another, simply that. It was hiding in plain sight, as the saying has it, which is where the truth of a situation often hides.

There was something else latent in the night, in the dark stillness of that hypnogogic passage from sleep to wakefulness. As the spring of nonlocal understanding continued to percolate, I found my thoughts drifting to the issue of forgiveness. Lying there, poised between worlds, I remembered a line of verse written by Max Freedom Long, the fellow who brought Huna to the West:

And if some hurt has struck me deep,
And no amends are made,
I ask the light to balance all,
I count the debt as paid.

I had heard this years before, and now it came back to me unbidden, like the solution to the errant code, like a distant narration I could almost here. Something about it was off—an implication, a cadence, something. It was, I thought, the last line. What was it really saying? (This is how philosophical questions, which at their best always turn out to be self-questions, can mess with you when you should be sleeping.) Well, “I count the debt as paid” seemed to be either some New Age attempt to manipulate reality—as though forgiving the debt might actually set into motion a mysterious process leading to the paying of the debt—or, if not that, then at least a declaration meant to free the one who had been hurt from the burden of holding a grudge. Both of these, however, seemed to me disingenuous. On the one hand, counting debts as paid rarely gets them paid on the other hand, it is not so easy to announce the debt paid when one has been “struck deep,” especially when no amends were made. There is in such situations, not only the matter of having been hurt, but also the matter of justice, or fairness, according to which something in us knows that injuries need to be addressed, if not redressed. A response is called for. No one should be allowed to commit violations and simply walk away from them.

The central importance of this sense of justice or fairness is explored in Plato’s Republic and within a more limited scope in the Gorgias, as well. where Socrates distinguishes pleasure from goodness. He goes on to make the case that it is better to suffer an unjust act than to commit one, and furthermore that if one does commit an unjust act (in Long’s terms, an act that “struck deep” with no amends offered), that it is better to suffer a just punishment than to get off scot-free. Polus, one of Socrates’s foils in the dialogue, demurs, in defense of his teacher, the rhetorician Gorgias. What are you saying, Socrates? he protests, in essence. Isn’t it self-evidently better to get away with an unjust act and avoid the painful consequences that one surely would suffer if caught and held to accounts? How can you say it would be better to be punished than to escape punishment?

Polus, who is young, misses the point. It is a matter of the debts we carry, soul-wise, as a result of our actions. Call it conscience or karma or whatever you wish. Criminals, for example, in committing crimes, incur a “debt to society.” Revenge may be, as King Arthur says, “the most worthless of causes,” but its roots run deep in that part of our psyche that demands that the ledger be balanced. We may disagree about what should count as payment of the debt—it hardly sits well with most of us that a man should have his hand cut off for stealing a loaf of bread. And yet, the idea that people should go about stealing bread freelance and without consequences goes against something basic in our nature, as well.

Back to the Gorgias: Socrates argues that it is better for us to pay the debt incurred by an unjust act than to have to carry the soul-burden of having gotten away with the crime. A just punishment, in this light, is a penance. It absolves us of the wrongdoing as much as the situation allows. Punishment is not pleasurable, certainly, but in losing our soul, as it were, by getting away with an unjust act, we lose goodness, and the loss of goodness is a far worse kind of suffering than the loss of pleasure. The most important thing, above all, for Plato, is that we act in accordance with the requirements of a well-ordered soul. Goodness is its own reward; evil, its own punishment. Accepting responsibility for our actions is part of it. It helps to keep the soul well-ordered, which allows us to stay on good terms with ourselves.

I was talking about Max Freedom Long’s little verse, and something about it that didn’t sit right with me, in the middle of the night when stillness has settled over the world so thickly that any incongruity demands attention—the New Age wrinkle, or the tacit and in my view quixotic suggestion that we can simply declare the debt of a deep hurt “paid.” What clarified this for me—the bit that seemed off—became apparent as the darkness outside the window began to bloom with the silver light of morning. It was about the light: “I ask the light to balance all…”—what is this? Does it mean that, in response to our asking, the light will balance all, or that somehow, in the asking, the balance already is achieved? And what is “the light,” anyway, that can do this?

The light, it seemed to me at that moment, must be the truth. Isn’t the truth that thing that comes to light? Socrates tells us this in the Gorgias: “The truth cannot be refuted.” Sooner or later, denial fails like darkness before the ineluctable advance of day. “The truth will out.” It is only a matter of time. So: “I ask the truth to balance all…”—this I could understand. Whatever the truth of a situation may be, such as the truth of the situation that hurt one deeply, with no amends made—that truth will come to light and “balance all.” It is not that it will happen. By virtue of the very nature of the truth, it is as good as done.

This was what came to me as I shook off the last, straggling invitations of sleep and returned fully into the waking world, the world of effort that misses things, the world that sometimes seems designed to send the truth into exile: When I am unforgiving, it is because I lack conviction. My grasp of the truth is halfhearted, foggy, once removed, obfuscated by weariness or hurt or the prejudice of special interests, blind, driven by reaction. Because I lack the conviction that a forthright acknowledgment of the truth would bring, and by this I mean the human truth, the truth that has been forsaken or twisted or denied by the one who hurts another, I become submerged in feeling wronged, and the offender must pay the penalty, and so instead of resting in the truth and the consolation of remembering that that the denied truth is already on its way into the light, I abandon philosophy and turn to prosecution. Follow out the equation, and you come to this: If one keeps one’s eye on the truth that has been deformed in the hurtful act, one can be generous, one can forgive. The one who hurts another and does not offer to restore the ruined balance, even if only for the sake of his or her own soul, is hurt more than the one who is hurt. The act is written in the ledger of the offender’s disordered soul. As the truth will out, we do not need to become prosecutors. Our conviction that the truth comes to light, restoring balance perhaps in ways we cannot anticipate or even imagine, settles these burdensome accounts and gets us through the long night.

January 11, 2014   Comments Off on Forgiveness and Conviction