Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

the problem of forgiveness

Yesterday on our flight home I finished Trollope's novel The Duke's Children. One incident in the novel struck me.
A wealthy young man of noble origins in 19th Century England, named Lord Silverbridge, owns a race horse in partnership with Major Tifto. Major Tifto lacks wealth, noble birth or standing in society, adopting the term "Major" largely as an honorific and employing himself largely as a master of fox hounds. Silverbridge gets Major Tifto admitted to a club, admission to which Major Tifto might not otherwise have attained.

The details of the plot are not all relevant, but it comes to pass that Major Tifto becomes a part of a conspiracy to swindle Lord Silverbridge. He "nobbles" the horse that he owns in partnership with Lord Silverbridge, by placing a nail in its hoof. He receives for this a fee from gambling folks who wish to bet against the horse. The result is that young Lord Silverbridge is cost 70,000 pounds in wagers, a very tidy sum of money in that time. The young noble's father is called upon to make up this sum, which is duly paid. Although everyone realizes that the race has been tampered with, nobody takes any steps about it, for want of proof.

Near the end of the novel, Major Tifto meets Lord Silverbridge. He confesses that he did, indeed, drive the nail into the horse's hoof, preventing it from running the race. He offers to go to the police, and get the principal co-conspirator arrested, even if it means that Major Tifto himself must go to jail.

The plot turn here is interesting. It is not altogether surprising that the defrauded noble does not wish the public stir of a reawakening of the matter of the race.
What surprises instead is that Lord Silverbridge not only tells Major Tifto he forgives him--he also places Major Tifto on a small pension for the rest of the major's life.

In the novel, Trollope uses the incident to make some points about maturation and, less directly, class distinction (the noble in essence feels that he is in part to blame, by associating with Tifto in the first instance and bringing him into the club). But the incident struck me because it got me thinking of the simple notion of forgiving someone who has behaved entirely in the wrong.

Almost all of us forgive people every day, I suppose. People make mistakes, or do things which offend us in a minor way, and we overcome our offense and forgive them.

But as to large matters, I wonder how much forgiveness I really employ in my everyday life. I've been fortunate, I suppose, because I have rarely been mistreated in such a way that a lot of forgiveness from me is required. Still, I can think of a few instances in which what I perceived to be a "wrong" was done to me, and I have had a hard time either forgiving or forgetting the wrong. Old romances, of course, are fertile ground for this, and I can think of one past situation in which I was treated badly that I have quite a hard time fully forgiving the wrong done. Chance instances of mean behavior are also difficult, as I can recall one silly incident years ago in which someone as a supposed act of "conceptual performance art" said something damaging (and false) about me to a third party, to see what reaction it would elicit. The perpetrator "set things right" on the facts, but nonetheless left in me a little mustard seed of fury that has not abated to this day.

I am attracted by the Christian concept that one should forgive anyone who persecutes one, even if that person has not repented or otherwise become "deserving" of forgiveness.
I know that another school of thought plausibly argues that one should only forgive those who are sorry or willing to change, but I just don't see myself as being a very good judge of who is "deserving" of forgiveness. Instead, I see forgiveness as a sort of balm, as carrying anger around for years seems corrosive inside me and in my dealing with others.

During 2002, I realized that I was still carrying some anger around about an incident which took place when a relationship fell apart in 1982. Twenty years seems to me a very long time to nurse a grudge over a matter of what was so profound then, but now seems to me to involve more than a bit of youthful silliness all around.

It's a funny thing, though, this attachment to an old wound. Surely I could have learned the lesson(s) that episode taught me without the need to still carry it around quite so long. Maybe holding on to such things is part of trying to define oneself. But surely I am better defined than as someone whose "heart was broken" at 23? Similarly, the unjust boss some 15 years ago, for whom I have not worked since 1987--surely he is no longer worth being angry about. I dislike having these little grains of unforgiveness swimming around in my particular gumbo.

I will continue to regard forgiveness as a virtue, but a virtue as to which I must work to improve. Although one feels what one feels, life is too short to carry old wrongs around forever--it's a bit like literally having stickers under one's saddle as one rides. I have not ridden a horse in two decades, but I remember what sitting on a sticker is like, and I think I'd rather move on without them.

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