I’m not a fan of acceptance. It is highly regarded, I know. I’ve been reading about it again (it crops up everywhere) in a 20th century devotional, enjoining us to accept suffering, ‘nay to embrace it’, as the only sure path to God’s grace, and to the only sure joy: the after-death variety.
It’s been that kind of week.
But I also encounter this injunction to accept suffering during much saner weeks and in completely uncalcified places. It has a big following. People even take classes in it and practically march in philosophical, spiritual streets for it.
But I don’t buy it. Not as an emotional state to aspire to.
Yes, if it is the acceptance of external circumstances in this moment for what they actually are – denial begone – then fine. Good. Great. March.
But if it is the acceptance of some ‘inevitable’ inner emotional state in response to those circumstances; if it is ‘making peace’ with keen discomfort, or fear, or grief or worry because ‘that feeling is natural in these circumstances’ and so in these circumstances we have no agency, no power, no way to dissipate those feelings? Forget it.
Humans are hardwired to face what is verifiably real, to accept it (on the road to changing it when possible), to express vigorously whatever un-joyful feelings arise in the facing of it, to find and replace any untrue assumptions that have given rise to those feelings and then fairly quickly to regain joy.
Joy is the natural default, the built-in state of the human being. Woe is only a natural response to threatening circumstances (or to the lived-as-true untrue assumption of threatening circumstances). Woe as a natural response is intended to be acknowledged honestly and expressed fully and then, its expression having produced healing, it is to be on its way, replaced vigorously by joy.
If I sound confident about this, I am. If nothing else, current medical understanding of the human immune system tells us all we need to know about joy. Joy produces immunity. Woe depletes it. Joy, therefore, lengthens life. Woe shortens it. Joy we must embrace. Woe we must replace.
So our job, it seems to me, is not to accept woe as even an occasionally decreed state. Our job is to dislodge it and return to joy. Then our job is to negotiate any real threat, meet its challenges and reconfigure our lives.
Simply put, there is nowhere in the human design an inevitable requirement of victimhood. Even the victimhood of acceptance of woe. There is instead (and wonderfully) the built-in inner power to regain inner power. The power, as Wendell Berry said, to ‘choose joy, having considered all the facts’.
William Blake said it, too:
Joy and woe are woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine, runs a joy with silken twine.
Life loves fine lines. And this is one.
Let Him Be
Poor Christ. I feel for him. In my heart I shout, ‘Christianity, back off and let him be. Stop in your Sunday tracks and notice him’. Him. Take off your robes and see him.
He was enough, don’t you think? Just him. Just his uncapitalised, be-sandled, chiton-ed nomad self, that searching, teaching, healing, transforming, suffering-of-the-little-children, seeing self. Wasn’t his understanding of love enough?
Wasn’t only one line, in fact, of his message on the mountain, enough? Wasn’t ‘Love your enemies’ enough for uncountable lifetimes?
Christopher and I are watching a new (2023) BBC documentary about Putin. It opens with video of him striding solo on alabaster and onyx, through enfilades, passing pilasters, cornices and maiolica onto miles of red into the luminescence of two thousand worshippers exultant, privileged to prostrate their lifted-up earlier worker selves to magnify him, to get a peek. This vault of vulgarity is a vapid vestige of the idea of dignity and equality for the vilified poor, the despised and rejected majority. Wasn’t that little-c communist thought, that vision, that urge enough? An idea impossibly, and thus wonderfully, worthy? Worth even coming close? Even for a moment? I guess not. They moved it all into their PalaceChurches, laying red all the way to their pulpits.
I see Putin, and I think of us. He and we had a duty, and we failed. We had a body of thought to embody. We had the very same majority cast-asides to embrace and raise up, but we raised altars and chalices instead. We stayed outside the idea by standing inside the palazzo.
Both entreaties to love fell into the churning, chomping, insatiable spitting vat of grandeur. Before Christ had been dead a second (293 years), out came the places of worship, and soon the marble and gilt and balustrades and colonnades and sculpted fenestrations, the chasubles, the thrones, the fonts, the funny-hatted guards, the turrets with tea cosy tops, the sceptres to separate untouchables from untouchables, processions through glazed halls around gluey-eyed gargoyles and into infallible Authority.
We defiled the Christian idea in all its forms through all our forms.
Can we please go back?
Can we just sit on a log somewhere among the Trilliums and think about ‘Love your enemies’?
Can we do that even once before we die?
Can we stay home just one Sunday and do that? Or gather plainly with others in silence and do that?
Which enemy would you choose to love? And how will you know when you’ve loved them?
Would you ever need robes, crowns, crosses, stained glass, genuflection, pews and their brass dedications, aisles or even candles again?
We say we worship the message of love. Then let’s embody it. Let’s sit down until we love someone we loathe.
Would we ever get up?
I was just trying to help. We all were. We wanted to protect her. She is nearly 83. She laughs that she is pigeoned-toed and only found out in her 60s (really), and now understands why she falls over the dishwasher door and trips up the stairs and slams into table legs and gets caught in throw rugs. Good, I thought. Always super to know why about things. Whenever.
It’s the what that gets me. I’d been ‘trying to help’ my belovéd big sister for so many decades it had become my fingerprint response to her every injury, illness or whammy. It also had justified my judgement when in the middle of any of those she would decide to keep going, accommodating them as if they had not happened. Sure, she saw her doctors for some of them, and her brilliant osteopath and her very own physical workout expert. But mostly, vastly mostly, she just went on with her extremely active life.
‘Self-care, where are youuuuuu’? I want to shout.
And sometimes I came close. I certainly huffed – self-righteous, definite. Right. And I advised. With a vengeance. For me advising is like flooring the accelerator and hoping the cops are on their break. I know it is wrong, okay, I really do. But with her I often override it. Trying to help.
Then last week, in the middle of one of my controlled advisory tirades of helping, I heard her say, ‘I love my life as I have never loved it’. She started to cry. ‘I could never have imagined', she said, ‘that I would be doing what I am doing now. I am becoming acquainted with a part of me I did not even know existed, not in this particular way. I am feeling up to going to all my things today, but all of you think that is stupid, that I am wrong for being so active after experiencing pain like that.’ She paused. ‘And I don’t want to risk alienating you,’ she said.
I don’t want to risk alienating you. Jeepers. God, I thought. In fact, it must have been ‘God’ who right then in that very second descended into my dumbo, entitled brain and shook me and said, ‘She has a right to her own decisions no matter what the risk. She is not stupid. She is assessing the risk. She is being careful. She is different from you. But she is entirely equal to you.
‘And she surpasses you in her knowledge of what she actually needs, in her soul, not just in her body. So buzz off'. (‘God’ is unlikely that rude, but then again she/he might be, for cases like me.)
Wondrously, I heard myself say, tenderly, ‘Merl, if you knew that, after getting as much accurate information as you can, you are the only one who can know what choice is best for you, and that being true to your core self is worth the risk of alienating us, what would you do today? And how would you feel?’
She cried again. This time the blissful kind, the relieved, elegant kind of crying. The thank-you, thank-you, thank-you kind.
The next day she said she felt ‘empowered’. She felt smart. She felt wonderful. And that she was being very careful, taking care, caring for herself. Caring.
I got it. And I praised whatever had moved my mouth from injury to inquiry so that I could care, too. About her. About her.
Then out of whatever that famous ‘blue’ is (providence: does it ever fatigue?) a dear friend sent me a link to a philosopher I had not heard of before, Farbod Akhlaghi. What he said was so exactly salient I’d thought he must have been listening in. He captured it. The thing in Merl I had suddenly honoured, the thing I have known and taught and researched in a different context with a different name for forty years, but had forgotten; the thing that mysteriously kicked in, so that I magically, unaccountably, instantly became my better self and could formulate that question for her. And shut up. So she could thrive. Akhlaghi captured it.
He calls it, ‘revelatory autonomy ’. (Isn’t that beautiful?) He defines it as:
‘The moral right to decide autonomously to discover how one’s life will go and who one will become by making a transformative choice.’
Good Friday came and went and left me, as usual, ensnarled in its meaning. Here is my progress so far.
Good Friday retells the story of the torture and death of Jesus of Nazareth. For Christians it marks the self-sacrifice Jesus made to secure eternal life for people who believe in Him. I am still working on all of that and don’t really expect to know what I think about it, ever. But I honour Christians (as I do all people of faith). So I honour that day.
For me, though, Good Friday demands more of us than belief in an afterlife secured by a death. For me, it commands rigorous examination of on-earth reality. Jesus, or whoever uttered the teachings ascribed to Him, often threw real-life challenges like that at our feet.
The Good Friday challenge is, I think, to forgive.
And that is hard. So hard, in fact, Jesus presumed to remind even God to do it, just in case, I guess, God was having second thoughts, given the heartbreaking unspeakable wrench of watching His only son be brutalised and killed. ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’
They know not what they do.
They do not understand.
We forgive them because they do not understand. Jesus did not say, ‘Father, help them to understand so that you can forgive them.’ He said, ‘They do not understand and that is why you must forgive them.’
Forgiveness, then, requires the sacrifice on our part of being understood. And that is hard.
In fact, it is nearly impossible to grasp. Do you really know what forgiveness is? Have you ever done it? I’m pretty sure I did it once. But it wasn’t a ‘now I am forgiving you’ thing at all. It was gradual, almost imperceptible, until it was just how things were. Christopher thinks forgiveness is a state rather than an event. I think he’s right. It certainly is not a project we can launch, steer, finish, take a bow after and write a book about.
So I wonder what makes it possible. If I’m honest, I think that the time I experienced forgiving someone did entail their understanding me as well as my understanding them. But my colleague, Andrew, agrees with Jesus that true forgiveness comes from understanding the transgressor, and that feeling understood by them, though it may help, is entirely unneeded. And we shouldn’t seek it.
So maybe my forgiveness was not true blue forgiveness after all. Or maybe there are two kinds of forgiveness: Forgiveness 1 which is the real deal because it requires us to understand the transgressor but not to be understood by them. And Forgiveness 2 which requires both being understood and understanding, and so is imperfect but pretty amazing and definitely worth going for. Most Christians I know seem to agree that Jesus sets the bar, and we clear it as closely as we can, usually falling, but at least on the other side of the issue.
Regardless of which level of forgiveness we are aiming for, we can get started by remembering that forgiveness is different from endorsement. We easily confuse the two. If we forgive, we condone. So we fear. But no, forgiveness experts assure us that we can forgive and still hang onto the wrongness of what was done to us. Jesus certainly did.
What we have to let go of is the feelings associated with that wrongness. We have to stop wanting vengeance for it. We have to let go of the rage and resentment and self righteousness generated in the past when they wronged us, feelings that have been hitchhiking through our lives ever since.
Fine. But humans don’t actually let go of feelings. We replace them. Yes, it helps to release them by crying, raging, talking, etc. Release can reduce the load. But fully to let go of feelings we have to replace them with something else.
And that seems to be, yes, understanding. That means we have to get inside the world of our transgressor, inside their context, their reasons for doing what they did to us. And that all comes down to that powerful thing of figuring out what they were assuming that led them to do what they did.
This question, then, may be a key to forgiveness: ‘What were they assuming that led them to do what they did?’
Optimally, through dialogue with them, we can get an answer to that question. But if we can’t, we can at least come close by thinking about it dispassionately ourselves: ‘What were they probably assuming that led them to do what they did?’ It is surprising how quickly and accurately we can find sound answers to that question. From those answers can come understanding. And from understanding can come forgiveness.
Jesus, for example, understood that Pontius Pilate and his team of torturers were assuming that He was trying to overthrow the government of the day and prevent the collection of taxes and the wellbeing of Roman rule. Their assumptions were untrue. Jesus was merely trying to overhaul their religion (with a bit of culture thrown in), which I admit sounds big, but actually was perfectly compatible with Roman rule, as Emperor Constantine eventually proved, ushering in as he did the Middle Ages which began this impressively flourishing time for Jesus’ new religion.
So, it seems to be a good thing to replace the old bad feelings with new understanding. In that way we let go of the wronged past. As Christopher also said (he is good on this topic), ‘Forgiveness is a decision to be fully in the present with the person.’
Let’s say, then, that we set out to do that. How will we know when we are there, (or here as it were)? How will we know when forgiveness kicks in and distinguishes itself from merely ‘getting over’ it, from having ‘moved on’? I don’t know. There is no ‘You are here’ on this map. Forgiveness just slowly settles in, and when we notice that it has, we don’t need to shout about it. We just live it. It is sweet.
So I am beginning to feel at peace with the Good Friday story and its monumental injunction to forgive.
I have just this one issue: What about the disturbing contradiction at the heart of the story?
‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.’
Forgive them? Shouldn’t Jesus have said instead, ‘Praise them, Father, for they fulfil your promise’? Why would Jesus ask God to forgive the very people who made possible the single most important act of His life — His death? Weren’t they doing humanity a favour by killing Him? Didn’t that execution, that sacrifice of Jesus’ life, become the singular act that gave humans entry into eternal bliss? Isn’t that why the crucifixion can be the focal point of churches and the cross the symbol of victory?
So why forgiveness?
Christians say it is one of hundreds of holy mysteries in Jesus’ teachings and the entire New Testament. The job of humans is to have faith in the story and its meaning, not to solve its mysteries. Only God can do that.
The trouble is, I am a solver. I’m not great with mysteries that can’t be solved.