Forgiving and Not Forgiving

I am reading an excellent, thought-provoking book by that title right now.   Written by a psychiatrist,  Jeanne Safer, who specializes in delving into and writing clearly about uncomfortable subjects others don’t often think or write about.    

“She wrote Death Benefits, didn’t she?” said the skeleton of my father.  The man always had a memory like a steel trap.  

Another excellent book, one I’ve often recommended to friends in grief after a parent’s death. In that book, most likely, the kernel for this Book of Irv.  She convinced me, with Death Benefits, that we get valuable gifts from even a miserable parent, and that we should take a grateful inventory.   More than that, she suggested that the relationship with a difficult parent continues after their death, and that it can be a much more nuanced, mutual relationship than the difficult parent was capable of while alive.  

“The People rest,” said the skeleton, making a lawyerly gesture of finality with his bony arms.  

“I know I said this while I was dying, but I am so sorry we didn’t have these kinds of back and forths when I was alive.  But, again, I was too fucking angry all the time, and the demons on my back kept digging their sharp spurs into me.”  

Whatever, dad.  Everybody has their shit.  The thing she brings up in Forgiving and Not Forgiving is that it is perfectly OK to not forgive, counter to the unanimous urging from virtually every quarter, that only unconditional forgiveness is healthy.  

There are many situations, things we commonly call abuse, that do not call for forgiveness.  If the abuser is not contrite, continues to snarl at the victim… well, fuck ’em.  Seriously, the only thing to do is to get the hell out of their reach.   It does nobody any good to pretend to forgive someone who will just do the same thing again, and be falsely forgiven again, and do it again. 

One of Safer’s patients tells her “I didn’t forgive what she did to me, but I’m not angry about it anymore.”  She is speaking of her cruel, unloving mother, now gone to her reward.  

“Well, unfortunately, I never got there with my mother, who was cruel to me when I was a boy, and unloving, and who all I could say about after she died was ‘אָלעוו-האַשאָלעם’  ‘may she rest in peace.’   I think now, now that I am dead and wise, that I should have worked to get a handle on my rage at that furious little tyrant, Ah-lahv ha-ah-shaa-lam.”  

Looks like Arabic when you spell it out that way, doesn’t it?  

“Another story of senseless hatred between brothers, the Hebrews and the Arabs.  Although, if you read the Bible you will see the ancient roots, the frankly stolen birth right, the Biblical origin of the story of Jew as the eternal scoundrel.  With the connivance of his scheming Jewish mother… what a goddamned world, Elie.  In a way I’m glad to be watching it from my bed on the hillside.  The greatest show on earth, the struggles of you puny, clueless earthlings.”  

Kind of creepy, dad, for a skeleton to express such superiority, just because you’re dead.  

“Let he who is dead cast the ultimate stone,” said the skeleton.

“Besides, let’s be honest here, Elie, and state the obvious once again.  I’m a ventriloquist’s dummy for you.   At one time I thought it was ridiculous when you first propped my bony form on your knee and began moving my stiff jaws, mimicking my style.  But I soon loosened up about the arrangement, and I have to say, it’s been quite rewarding having this long overdue conversation.”

Clearly, I feel the same way.  I’ll tell you, though, and I know we’ve discussed this, but no matter how well I set out some of the dilemmas of your life, and the tragedy of it, the humor of it (you continue to be a funny bastard, dad), its historical scope and the way your experience illuminates the more than eight decades you struggled to bend the moral arch of history toward justice, it means nothing unless I can sell it.  

“Don’t sell yourself short, Elie,” said the skeleton sympathetically, “it is the same achievement whether you sell it or not.”  

No.   Unsold it’s just a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.  Elegantly and mightily struck, perhaps, but ending with a silence I could not bear at this point in my life.

“Elie, nobody knows at what point in their life they are at,” said the skeleton.   “This could be the beginning of the happiest period of your life.  Or that foamy piss you observe every day, the protein you’re spilling, possible serious kidney trouble, could be the writing on the wall — the writing could say: OH SHIT, I AM GOING TO THE E.R. AND I’LL BE DEAD THIS TIME NEXT WEEK.”   

As was the last thing written on your wall.

“Florida doctors, Elie, the greatest in the world…” said the skeleton.  “On the other hand, I always told you the chickens of my unhealthy lifestyle would come home to roost.  Overweight my entire adult life, eating steak every night, almost no vegetables, no exercise, overwork, not dealing with my lifelong anger problems, not finding loving ways to relax and interact with my children, who I loved very much but nonetheless couldn’t help but torture…. you know, that’s not a life for a person who doesn’t expect sudden death.  When I got the news, six days before I died, it made sense, it was really not a shock.  My only question was ‘what took so long?’  The skeleton looked around, seemed to sniff the autumnal breeze.

“Well, listen Elie, I know your hands are sore, and you had strange spasms last night in both of them that shook you up, and you’ve been typing in furious overtime the last week or so, so let’s leave off here.  In the end, do you forgive me?” said the skeleton.  

I don’t forgive you, and I know this will sound hard, but I don’t forgive you for not forgiving yourself.  If you’d been able to do that, everything else would have gone more easily.  That’s the thing I don’t forgive you for, can’t forgive.  

Everything else, of course I forgive you, dad.


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