Forgive Us Our Trespasses

A previous version of this essay was published in The Intimacy of Communication.

Throwing Judo Moves

Originally published in French in 1976, Symbolic Exchange and Death finds Jean Baudrillard incorporating into his thought the work of Marcel Mauss, a French sociologist who studied gift exchange in primitive societies. Mauss wrote about rituals in which each member is obligated to give gifts, receive gifts and provide counter-gifts, all of which contain traces of the person’s soul. The “goal” of the ritual: a gift-receiver must overwhelm a gift-giver with a counter-gift so powerful no further counter-gift is possible. In the process of trying to one-up each other, tribal members deliberately waste excess resources to ensure no one accumulates too much wealth.

Baudrillard views these rituals as a radical form of symbolic exchange, a concept he uses to critique capitalism. Emphasizing community and submission to fate, primitive peoples put to shame American values like greed, self-importance and celebrity worship.

Civilized societies based on economic exchange retain elements of symbolic exchange that haunt modern life. Still, Baudrillard argues, if we wish to save what makes us human, we must challenge the homogeny of the capitalist system with a gift it can’t return. We must force the system to humble itself before the world.

Nothing is more spectacular or subversive than suicide.

Death as creative act. Suicide as counter-gift. This is Baudrillard’s private revolution against capitalism’s reign of terror. People in Western cultures don’t kill themselves, Baudrillard contends, because resources are scarce. They crack under the pressure of mandatory consumption, their bodies too weak to enjoy a lifetime supply of products and services they don’t need and never asked for.

Thankfully, we don’t have to die to issue a challenge. We can commit theoretical terror, like Baudrillard does in his writings, or we can sacrifice ourselves through super-obedience to the logic of the system, devolving into passive-aggressive citizen-robots. In both cases a duel commences in which the weaker party throws what Baudrillard calls “judo moves” at its much stronger opponent, turning the system’s power against itself.

Compassionate Anti-Violence

While I’m intrigued by Baudrillard’s provocative analysis, I’m here to issue him a challenge of my own. We live in a violent world rooted in socially constructed systems of power, oppression and abuse. We hurt, so we hurt each other. Rather than responding to violence with more violence, we must learn to forgive ourselves and each other for all our trespasses.

An understated but radical concept: forgiveness as the ultimate counter-gift.

There’s no reason to forgive someone who hurt me, just as there was no reason for him to hurt me in the first place. As a survivor who learns to forgive, I resist an impulse to give up. I can then devote myself to promoting an ethics of what I call “compassionate anti-violence,” which means fighting for empathy without punching people in the face.

This is not merely a personal healing. Survivors who acknowledge the truth of their ordeals are free to confront evil and protect others from harm, reducing suffering throughout the world. Poverty, slavery, human trafficking, sexual exploitation, terrorism, war: these are just a few examples of social and political traumas that threaten individual lives and the foundations of entire cultures.

Of course, anger and sadness are normal responses to injustice. I don’t deny anyone’s right to express outrage or disgust, but staying angry increases misery. To make matters worse, many survivors mistakenly blame themselves for events beyond their control. An inner-directed forgiveness has the power to heal self-inflicted wounds.

An Existential Burden

I live between extremes. One moment, I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. A few minutes later, I’m numb, disconnected from reality, an imposter in my own body—a classic case of depersonalization.

When I’m hypervigilant, I’m keyed up from living in protect mode. When depersonalization sets in, I’m desperate to confirm I’m alive. I find danger lurking in all directions, each step a trudge through the middle of imaginary battlefields.

There’s a reason for my distress: as a child I endured years of physical and psychological abuse. As a teenager, in addition to clinical depression, I received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, an existential burden no amount of medication or therapy will ever erase.

Everyone suffers. My attacker was hurting when he hurt me. I assume he struggles to make sense of his actions years later. I don’t want to compound my suffering—or his—by hitting back.

Of course, I’m no saint. I’ve hurt family and friends, even lashed out at strangers. One spring day in 2003, I took more pills than my bottles directed. This got me a date with an ER nurse whose name escapes me. She poured me a pitcher of soot water to neutralize the poison.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”

There’s a chart somewhere with my personal history. I don’t know if I thanked her for filling in the blanks.

A Radical Metamorphosis Of Identity

In her groundbreaking 2012 book The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage, Catherine Malabou assumes different roles. She’s part psychoanalyst, part neurobiologist, part philosopher.

Malabou writes extensively about the plastic nature of the human brain. By “plastic” Malabou means the brain’s capacity to develop itself as we use it—as we create ourselves and live out our individual histories. Genes set the tone but humans are not genetically predetermined; plasticity ensures that we can actively change how our brains work, which in turn affects who we are, and how we see ourselves.

This is all well and good, but in The New Wounded Malabou alerts us to the brain’s capacity for destructive plasticity. Here the threat of the accident appears.

The accident is a material event. It emerges out of nowhere. Its effects are devastating. An obvious example is a blow to the head that causes brain lesions, but a host of tragic events can activate destructive plasticity.

Malabou cites “the globalized form of trauma,” such as those occurring “in the aftermath of wars, terrorist attacks, sexual abuse, and all types of oppression or slavery” (213). These events are often understood in the context of posttraumatic stress disorder, but Malabou goes beyond PTSD.

What happens after the accident is frightening in itself. The brains of the new wounded undergo dramatic changes—to the point where many victims become someone else entirely. They are no longer themselves; a shattered, post-accident self takes hold.

All of us are susceptible to this terrifying reality. As Malabou describes it:

The destructive event that—whether it is of biological or sociopolitical origin—causes irreversible transformations of the emotional brain, and thus of a radical metamorphosis of identity, emerges as a constant existential possibility that threatens each of us at every moment. (213)

Malabou is no pessimist, however. She aims to develop therapeutic models that venture beyond psychoanalysis or neurobiology, into political and philosophical realms: “Our inquiry revolves around the identification of evil. Defining the characteristics of today’s traumas—characteristics that turn out to be geopolitical—is indeed the prolegomenon [starting point] to any therapeutic enterprise” (213).

In dealing with a new wounded patient’s “deserted, emotionally disaffected, indifferent psyche,” the therapist must “become subject to the other’s suffering, especially when this other is unable to feel anything” (214).

Malabou, in arguing for the power of compassion, speaks not just to therapists but all mankind. She transcends psychoanalysis, neurobiology and even philosophy. For a thinker concerned with material events, Malabou reveals a spiritual calling: she’s interested in building a foundation for the soul.

Professional Help

I’ve heard that some people use their careers in the mental health field as an extension of their own therapy. It’s not always a conscious act and it doesn’t mean they’re neglectful of their clients’ needs. One counselor told me his psychological training alerted him to troubles in his marriage. It got him to therapy, which made him a better husband and therapist.

Lately I wonder if part of me goes to therapy to satisfy my interest in psychology. Or maybe I’m interested in psychology because I want to know what I’m talking about during my sessions. As a perfectionist, I want to be “the perfect client.” My perfectionism being, of course, one of the main reasons I’m in therapy.

Into The Woods

I’ve learned in therapy a lot about the difference between fear and anxiety. More than one clinician has used what I’ve termed “the bear analogy.”

Fear is a bear chasing you in the woods—you have to save yourself or die.

Anxiety is feeling like a bear is chasing you when you’re lying safe in bed.

Sounds simple. But there are different types of anxiety. Following the bear analogy, here are some basic definitions for the anxious and non-anxious alike.

Phobia: Pictures of bears freak me out. Real bears freak me out. Yogi Bear freaks me out. I will avoid at all costs anything to do with bears.

Panic Attack: The thought of a bear makes my heart race and my palms sweat. Some might mistake these reactions as an actual heart attack.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: I’m anxious about a lot of things. Sometimes it’s bears, sometimes it’s snakes, sometimes it’s the thought I’ll lose my job, wife, house, car, etc. for no good reason.

Social Anxiety: Oh no, I’m supposed to attend a party tomorrow with a bunch of zoologists. The host is a bear expert. I know nothing about bears; I’ll make a fool of myself.

Anticipatory Anxiety: I know tonight when I drive past that forest preserve I’ll be worried about hitting a bear. I’m anxious about being anxious about that.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: One time I returned from the nature center and felt a strong urge to wash my hands, fearing I had touched a picnic bench a bear had peed on. Now I feel compelled to wash my hands every fifteen minutes to make sure I’m always “clean.”

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: I survived a bear attack and deal with the horrors of the experience every day. The smell of campfires returns me to the terrifying moment the bear took a swipe at my face.


Depression: Sometimes life sucks so much I wish a bear would eat me.

Schizophrenia: I am TEDDY, King of the Bear-People!

Split Decision

Tonight a therapist evaluated me for an anxiety group I’ll be participating in soon. Towards the end of the ninety-minute session we reached the strengths/obstacles portion of the assessment. I was presented with a set of statements such as: (1) “I understand my illness and how to cope” (strength); and (2) “I’m not clear how my illness affects me and struggle to cope” (obstacle). My task was to indicate whether I agreed with the first statement or the second. But I was also free to go down the middle and say, “Both are true for me right now.”

“Decision-making,” the therapist said. “I am comfortable making decisions, or I am often indecisive.”

I thought for a moment. “Both,” I said. “It depends on the situation.”

With a laugh the therapist replied, “That’s something an indecisive person would say.”