Tag Archives: forgiveness

Forgive Us Our Trespasses

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.

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.

A Unique Burden

I live between extremes. One moment I’m hypervigilant—scanning my environment for threats, startled by the sound of my heartbeat. 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. I was, in a way, “gifted” a unique burden, one I continue to carry with me.

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. Despite attempts to erase him from my mind, I realize we’re forever linked.

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.

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Voice Recognition

A young psychoanalyst named Fliess once asked Freud how a therapist knows when a patient has been cured. When the patient realizes therapy never ends, Freud said.

I’ve been thinking about taking a break from therapy in the near future. After at least one monthly session for the last decade and a half, I’m ready to move on.

We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, each of us simultaneously a personal expert and unreliable narrator of our lives. We awake each day in the same body we went to bed with, but our worries and neuroses, played out in dreams or nightmares, don’t disappear overnight. Our core conflicts persist but manifest in different ways according to our moods or external stressors. Yet every morning we begin again in the middle of things, psyching ourselves up for the inevitable challenges of facing the world in front of our mirrors.

My personal narrative includes memories of individual therapy sessions spent crafting and revising an inconclusive autobiography, therapy itself a series of stories-within-stories, a self-reflexive automatic writing of the soul.

There’s no cure for the trauma I’ve suffered, but I’ve learned to recognize the sound of my own voice again, which speaks to the kindness of my therapists. A kindness I’m now showing myself.

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Everybody Hurts

I can’t hide from it: I’m a sensitive guy. Sometimes I lie awake and picture the people I care about, focusing on my connection with them, recalling what about them makes me feel good. But there’s not one person I love who hasn’t suffered in this world. And this makes me sad. And the sadness I feel for myself rushes through me. I acknowledge, in their pain, my own.

We’ve all screwed up at one point or another. I’ve had my fair share of missteps. God’s forgiveness is easy to get. All you do is believe. Securing the forgiveness of others is difficult, but it’s never out of the question if you humble yourself and make amends.

The hardest part is learning how to forgive myself. If I could find myself walking down the street, emerging from a faceless crowd, what would I say to me? How might I comfort this sensitive guy, move out of his way and let him pass?

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Don’t Be Cruel

The other night I had a dream worthy of some Freudian analysis. A figure outside myself but clearly a part of my psyche asked me a question: Why be kind?

Why be kind when the world is full of cruelty? Why be kind when people can be so awful?

I’ve heard from more than a few women, upon expressing their desire not to see me anymore, that I’m a nice guy. I pride myself on treating people well regardless of the situation. We’re all suffering in our own way and the odds are often against us; a little compassion goes a long way.

But mean people take advantage of nice people. Sensitive men are often seen as effeminate, over-civilized mama’s boys. It’s not easy being kind. Sometimes I wish for a harder shell.

A dream full of questions left me with a partial answer. Why be kind? Because when you’re kind to people you’re showing yourself compassion. You’re being kind to you.

But my illness, hell-bent on keeping me down, challenges this axiom. In my darkest moments I abandon myself on the precipice of disaster. Life sucks and I turn the vacuum on full blast. I’m cruel to myself, curse my imperfections, swear off hope for a lifetime of dread.

I forget that I can’t show kindness to others without first caring for me. The world is tough enough. I can’t be strong for you if I’m too busying beating myself up. The question isn’t why be kind but how can we learn to forgive ourselves.

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Little Secrets

Little Secrets

we were children once
and nothing more
taught to keep
our little secrets

chaos in control
the past comes back in a flash
nightmares in the noonday sun

we overindulge in spirits
too meek to inherit
the weight of the world

at home in fear
there’s danger beyond strangers
no need for make-believe
when everyone pretends

we find ourselves in hiding
passing souls composed of air
fighting to forgive
the trespassers against us

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