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Psalm 32 is the psalm in the Common Lectionary for today. It is about confession and forgiveness: the psalmist says that he was miserable while he kept his sin to himself, but was relieved of its burden when he confessed it to the Lord. The odd thing about this is that you would suppose that God knows what you've done without your needing to tell God. The psalmist even says to God that he was miserable because "day and night thy hand was heavy upon me". You might guess that the point is that the psalmist is relieved of his burden when he asks for God's forgiveness, but that is not what the psalm says: "I acknowledge my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." Not only does the psalmist not ask God's forgiveness, he doesn't say he's sorry, to God or at all. (What does it mean to "be sorry"? To regret? To feel guilty? Ashamed? Chastened?) He doesn't say he won't do it again, or that he'll be good from now on, either; telling God what he has done is sufficient to be forgiven for it (and this certainly seems to be a recurring lesson in the bible: if you're going to live in good standing with God it can only be through grace and not through justice because you are not going to be able to stop yourself from transgressing over and over and over). There is supposed to be a power in saying the words out loud. This is of course a pretty standard assumption in religious and magical thinking ... one that is very much involved in my ongoing issues about saying and writing things (particularly in propositions, but not only in propositions). Obviously there is a tremendous power in saying things out loud to other people. If I confess to you then you are now (let's suppose) 100% sure that I have done the thing I confess doing, and there is really all the difference in the world between being 99% sure and 100% sure. (That said, you ought always to remember that people confess all the time to things they didn't really do, and that the thing I am confessing having done may not be the thing you hear me confessing having done.) Moreover in confessing I am calling upon you to confront and respond to the thing I've done and not turn away from it. If God always already knows what I have done, and especially if I know that God always already knows what I have done, then confessing to God can't have effects like these. Still, in saying the words out loud I am expressing my willingness to put what I have done in God's hands, even if I believe that everything is always in God's hands anyway--there is certainly nothing that requires my actions and attitudes toward God to be consistent with each other.

A couple of times in recent years I've been told (by, if you're reading this, most likely not you) that I need to "forgive myself", which to me seemed not the right way of framing the problem I was having. (There was a time when I was having a more particular problem to which forgiveness did seem very relevant, when I wished I had the kind of God available to me who will forgive you when no one else will (including yourself?)--or at least when forgiveness is not available from the only person or people from whom it would be relevant.[1]) But I don't think it's clear at all what "self-forgiveness" means. (And it is not so clear to me now that "self-forgiveness" isn't an important part of my problem, but ... it's complicated.) What it means to forgive other people is hard enough to make out. It has to have something to do with not blaming them, but what exactly it means to blame another person isn't clear either. Blame seems to have something to do with a desire for punishment or at least for some kind of evening-up or atonement or penance ... but maybe it makes sense to say that you forgive someone for something and also believe that some kind of atonement is necessary? (How exactly does the logic of confession and penance work for Catholics?) Or maybe it doesn't. At any rate it doesn't seem like I can forgive you and still want retribution against you ... forgiving you means giving up ill-will toward you. Most basically if I forgive you for something I'm not mad at you about it anymore ... except that obviously I can blame you for something, and not have forgiven you for it, while never having been mad at you for it. In fact I can blame you for something, and "hold it against you", even while never having any desire for any kind of penance on your part. In fact I might prefer that you never carry out any penance so that you can never "pay off the debt" and force me to think I should forgive you! But if I'm a nicer person, or a more detached person, I might feel like it just doesn't make any difference to me what you do about what you've done, I don't even care how you feel about it, I'm just going to hold it against you over here and you can do whatever over there.

It struck me thinking about "self-forgiveness" that there's a kind of Catch-22 involved in it: if I have done some wrong to you, my regretting having done it normally would motivate you to forgive me for it; the more I regret it, the more you should be motivated to forgive me for it. But when it comes to self-forgiveness, the more I regret doing something the less I am motivated to forgive myself for it. My regret for having done something is the thing I need to "forgive myself" to overcome. But to the extent that I regret doing it I don't forgive myself. Which leads me to another way of framing what it means to forgive another person: to hold as nothing the wrong they did to you and treat them as if they did no wrong to you. This way of framing forgiveness may make nonsense of the idea of self-forgiveness; how can I be entitled to hold as nothing the wrong I've done to you? This after all is what makes the encroachment into criminal justice of forgiveness on the part of the the wronged person so terrifyingly arbitrary--the fate of the wrongdoer becomes subject to the dispositions, not to say the whims, of the victim. Only you are entitled to forgive me for what I've done to you, and whether you do or not is entirely up to you. (But then again I can take my regret as a kind of penance and judge for myself when it is reasonable to consider myself as having completed my penance....)

But maybe I can forgive myself for wrongs I've done to myself ... and here things get even more convoluted.

I have to set this aside for now, but here are some points to depart with and depart from:

- One More Time with Feeling talks about trauma as a kind of disruption to life that makes it impossible to go on in the same way ... in its making "time elastic", in a way it makes it impossible to go on at all; the trauma keeps snapping you back in time to itself so that you're just stuck there in it.

- the final blow that completes the demolition of Winston Smith's self is his saying--out loud--under extreme duress, "do it to Julia". He is destroyed by shame imposed as a trauma.

- here is Nick Cave dealing with the trauma of his son falling off a cliff to his death. Imagine an imaginary Nick Cave dealing with the shame of having (in anger, say, but without premeditation) pushed his son off a cliff to his death. ("But when did I become an object of pity?" There are a whole range of responses from others you might have to deal with as you are dealing with your shame ... depending on what others know of it and how others perceive and judge what the shame is about. Just one aspect, not exactly the main one, but an important one.)

- the third interwoven theme of One More Time with Feeling, along with trauma and time, is narrative--you might say that trauma disrupts time (and selfhood, which also comes up--Nick Cave says he couldn't have imagined before giving the kind of interview he's giving now, not because he couldn't imagine being interviewed about his son's death but because he didn't take himself to be the kind of person who could talk about his personal life in this way) by disrupting narrative. Proposition: shame works in the same way.

- last spring I said I wanted to come back to Margaret Laurence's and Ian Angus's "Scottish takes on history" and the prospects for escape from it ... the point I was aiming at there and am still aiming at is that while the stories you tell yourself about yourself, whether as a person or as a "nation" or whatever, are indispensable to your understanding of yourself and others and to your knowing how to go on ("after this nothing happened"), it is all too easy to take the way you fit into and hang on to and live out these stories as being what is most important about your (individual or collective) life. Knowing how to go on in a certain way not only can block you from knowing how to go on in other ways but more importantly can block you from appreciating that knowing how to go on in some way (and success in doing so) is not what is most important about human existence. But a crisis in knowing how to go on can even more acutely block that because it can so intensely focus you on the problem of knowing how to go on, of what you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to do.

[1] I keep feeling like I should issue some kinda disclaimer--I mean, ya know, say it out loud (with, of course, the usual problems about why I am saying this)--concerning the possible appearance that I either have "gone Christian" or, maybe if you know me a little better, am very busily painting my sepulchre. Maybe in some way (as indicated in my Ash Wednesday homily) I am very gradually continuing to "go Christian" but not in any way that involves a personal relationship with a personal God.

Currently at Havelock: -5.6. Got below -20 this morning for what should be the last time this cold season.
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