On Not Forgiving

 I had every intention to read Desmond Tutu’s book on forgiveness this summer. I carried it with me on trips, and on two 12-hour train rides. It sat on shelves and desktops and bedside tables, alluring me with its cover image of a flower blooming from a tree stump. But between May and August, I did not, not even for a moment, crack open this book. You’d think I’d have no trouble with Desmond Tutu or forgiveness. I meditate. I practice Yoga. I’m married to a minister who has preached from this very book. In fact, it’s his copy that I’ve been toting around all summer. But I just can’t do it. I can’t open this book, and I’m not sure why.

At its core, I’m okay with forgiveness. I understand that sometimes forgiveness is more about the person seeking forgiveness than it is about the person offering forgiveness. I understand that forgiveness can be a first step toward moving on. I understand that certain things are difficult to forgive, and others are impossible. I agree with Cheryl Strayed, who as Sugar wrote, “Forgiveness doesn’t sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill.”  Yes, this is more how I see it, and I know I’ve spent years hauling my own old fat guy up and down hills that felt like mountains. I know there are many things I’ve forgiven, and a few I simply cannot forgive. And I’m finally giving myself permission to let the Desmond Tutu book go, to be okay with not reading it, to be okay with not forgiving.

Disease is one thing I’m not forgiving. Disease has taken too many people I love, too many bodies, too many unfinished lives. My husband and I both lost parents young. We know loss intimately. We are both sad this weekend because we are sitting with some bad news. We are sitting with the knowledge that disease is out there in the world, claiming lives, hurting people, eviscerating families, destroying dreams. And I’m not forgiving it. Not today, not tomorrow, and maybe not ever.

And I think I’m being more true to myself about this one thing than I’ve ever been in my whole life about anything. Allowing myself to be angry, allowing myself to feel the power of my heart clamping down on itself, is more liberating than saying I forgive you.

Years ago, I took a graduate class in liberation theology, and I read Beverly Wildung Harrison, who in “The Power of Anger in the Work of Love” argues that anger can be a radical act of compassion toward ourselves and others. Our anger connects us to injustice. Our anger resists oppression. Our anger harnesses energy toward change. I remember the night I first read Harrison. I was sitting in an armchair at my mother-in-law’s house, and I started to shake, as if my body were opening to a glorious new truth. Harrison granted me permission to hold onto anger, to interrogate it, to investigate all its endless shapes. She allowed me to get angry, to be angry, and not to rest until I understood where my anger wanted me to go.

This summer I’ve thought hard about a few things I am not comfortable forgiving. These things are, not surprisingly, charged with anger. I’ve questioned this anger’s roots. I’ve questioned who forgiveness belongs to and what power it has in our lives. I’ve questioned what forgiveness can actually change. Maybe that’s why I’ve carried the Desmond Tutu book around like a map, as if it could lead me to answers where I know none presently exist. All summer long, I’ve also encountered the same words by Ranier Maria Rilke. I’ve found them in essays and articles. They have followed me to dharma talks and conferences and lectures. I cannot escape them. These are the words that won’t leave me alone:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. … the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Maybe the Desmond Tutu book feels too much like an answer, too reductive and too easy. Maybe I don’t like the idea of books about forgiveness. Maybe they feel too commodified, too capitalistic. Maybe I am completely wrong about this whole thing, and would only know how wrong I am if I read the book. Maybe I am clinging to anger, and to not forgiving, because I’m intoxicated by a false sense of control. Maybe I am more in love with questions than answers. Maybe questions feel like hope, and a life unfurling toward all its dreams. Maybe answers are not really answers at all. Maybe they’re just dead ends.

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