A Lesson I’m Trying To Unlearn: Punishment vs Forgiveness

I was thinking about forgiveness lately. Maybe it’s that end-of-the-year mentality causing me to consider the failures of the past. I came across a very personal article from the Guardian which shows how difficult it can be to either seek or offer forgiveness.

In my life, I’ve come to realize I’m in certain ways not a forgiving person. I don’t become angry easily and I try to not worry about the small stuff. However, there is one category of behavior that is hard for me let go of: betrayal of trust. This isn’t an issue most of the time for there are few people I trust enough ever to feel betrayed.

As for those I do trust to a great extent, my attitude is very different. If a relationship is important to me, I’ll put a lot of effort and commitment into it. My willingness to forgive will go far, but after some p0int too much just is beyond my normal capacity for forgiveness. I have these very clear boundaries, lines in the sand. Other people may not realize they are there, but they will know of them when they cross them. If you recognize I’m angry or upset or even just highly annoyed, the only good response is to back off. You really don’t want to test me.

This is an issue in my family. I’m very much my mother’s son and my mother’s family is known for holding grudges for years. I suspect it is genetic because I’ve inherited this ability to a lesser degree, despite my not having grown up around my mom’s family. For me, my grudges tend to be based on a desire to communicate. If I feel a failure of communication, I tend to lose hope… and if it lasts too long, I lose the connection with that person that made me care in the first place. Not being able to make myself understood frustrates me to no end. On the other hand, to be able to express myself and in turn to understand the other’s perspective can sooth the worst of conflicts.

In thinking about forgiveness, I was reminded of something my parents taught me as a child… and I began to feel resentful, wishing they hadn’t taught me such a lesson. Here it is: During a difficult time in my childhood, I was struggling in school and generally sad about social changes with leaving elementatry school. I just wanted to escape or at least avoid my problems, and so I would sometimes lie. What my parents taught me was that once trust is lost it can take a long time to be earned back.

That seems like a responsible thing for a parent to teach a child. However, the more I thought about it, I came to see the dark shadow it casts. The implied morality behind it is hardly uplifting. Let me break it down.

First, there is the message that transgressions must be punished. Those who hurt you must be taught a lesson. To forgive people right away would simply give them an easy way out. The guilty person must fully feel their guilt, must suffer under the scowl of judgment, and only long after may repentance lead to the harmed party deigning to forgive the unworthy transgressor.

Second, forgiveness isn’t something given freely. It must be earned. The harm caused must be paid back in some form. It’s close to an eye for an eye sense of justice. Maybe the person doesn’t have to pay back with their own eye but at least something equivalent. The parent who loses their trust in their child then punishes the child by losing a sense of trust. No one is allowed to fully trust the other until recompensation is achieved.

My parents weren’t bad parents, but they definitely believed in the ‘goodness’ or at least the effectiveness of punishment. I sometimes feel an urge to hit my cats when they do something wrong, not hit them hard but just swat their butts. I realize I feel this urge because this is how I was raised. Even though my parents weren’t abusive, they did make clear that we kids were to obey without being told twice. I don’t like that I’ve inherited this aggressive dominance style of authority. I don’t want to be that kind of person toward others. I don’t want to be that way toward my cats and I would hate myself if I had children and treated them that way.

It’s a thorny issue. I don’t know what I think about all of this. I understand why parents swat their children. I’m of course against kids being abused, but a light swat to the butt isn’t the same as being beaten. As I’m not a parent, it’s hard for me to judge others and it’s hard for me to know what kind of parent I would be. Anyway, it isn’t the physical part of punishment that I’m concerned with here.

Is punishment, especially the psychological or social component, the only or best ‘solution’ to transgression or conflict? Why should punishment come before forgiveness? I would agree justice should accompany forgiveness, whether before or after, but vengeance and justice aren’t the same thing. This is particularly clear when dealing with more personal relationships.

My parents occasionally cross a line and it really pisses me off. A somewhat recent incident led me to not talk to my mom for an extended period of time. She crossed a line she shouldn’t have crossed and she wouldn’t acknowledge how wrong her action was. What made it worse was that she simply refused to try to communicate. She instead left it to my dad to repair the broken relationship. If my mom had been willing to apologize sincerely and fully right away, the incident would have blown over without much further tension. For me, communication is everything.

It seems my mom saw my ‘grudge’ as being irrational or not her problem, that she would just let me get over it on my own. She was treating me in the way she treats her brother when he holds grudges against her. She sees other people’s grudges as the failure or weakness of the other person. This isn’t an entirely unfair or irrational position to take in certain situations, but it can be used as a way to avoid taking responsibility and an unwillingness to take an emotional risk in opening up to the other person.

The problem in my mom’s response is that I was operating under the lesson she had helped instill in me. I was refusing to trust her until she earned back my trust and she was refusing to earn back my trust. What earning back my trust would have meant was simply a willingness to communicate with me and understand why I was so upset. I thought that was a simple expectation, but apparently I was expecting too much.

Contemplating this incident, I’ve come to realize how faulty is this lesson. If we desire to ensure people are punished enough and force them to earn forgiveness, then we can find ourselves waiting a long time. So, I’m in the odd position of also trying to forgive my parents for teaching me to not forgive easily. Fortunately, my parents (my dad in particular) have demonstrated a willingness to communicate even when it is difficult… and there is a type of forgiveness in this attitude. I realize that blaming my parents isn’t helpful in all of this, certainly not helpful in becoming more forgiving. In general toward all people, I deeply want to be forgiving. The corrolary desire for communication ultimately comes down to a desire for understanding. I’ve been attracted to the idea that the best way to be understood is to seek to understand others. I’ve practiced this well at times, but not often enough.

It sounds like I’m making a New Year’s resolution. I’m not sure about forgiveness, but I think I could manage trying to be more understanding.

5 thoughts on “A Lesson I’m Trying To Unlearn: Punishment vs Forgiveness

  1. “For me, communication is everything”

    What I usually say is “I don’t want your ‘sorry’, these things happen, we all offend each other, in fact, I do not know what will offend you at anytime, all I want is for you to accept my hurt and that you have offended me, I do not want your regret, it has happened, you acted as you saw fit, but, acknowledge that you offended and must try to not offend, to cultivate a sense of humanity in spite of an inveterate ignorance that is really built-in”.

    It is related to hubris for me. It is my heart and I say you have cut it and you’re saying you haven’t and I’m being too sensitive. It’s something I also say from time to time so my other maxim is “do to others as you want done to you”. So, I’ll wait, what you do, I’ll do to you too and so I adapt to you. With another person, I’ll probably be different but it’s a complicated dynamic so it varies and doesn’t work like that so I have my trusty “sorry” in my pocket which is also related to “do to others…” so that when I’m also offended, that is, when I forget the relationship box we’ve created and take offense at something, and point your attention to it, I also get my “acceptance of offense” from the other party.

    “What my parents taught me was that once trust is lost it can take a long time to be earned back”

    I don’t think I was taught that by anyone, it simply constellated in my mind.

    “Contemplating this incident, I’ve come to realize how faulty is this lesson. If we desire to ensure people are punished enough and force them to earn forgiveness, then we can find ourselves waiting a long time. So, I’m in the odd position of also trying to forgive my parents for teaching me to not forgive easily”

    Well, I retracted my trust from my mother back in my youth until she gained it but I found it’ll be a long time before it’s gained and it never happened, I didn’t even know how such a trust would be noticed (what sign will it have? and so forth questions). In fact, I’m not a very trusting person, I believe people will betray, it’s a risk and I take it so when you disappoint me, it usually isn’t disappointing or surprising. It’s also related to my individualization of people, you are an individual, you aren’t indebted to me fundamentally but it’s nice to be good to me, it keeps life flowing with negative emotions at a dearth. We are linked emotionally but we aren’t ontologically (if I may say so), it’s like I see the people and myself, primarily, in an objective fashion. The ontological seems to rule my psychology, no wonder I’m always in it.

    I don’t like to offend people so if I think something will offend, I won’t. But, you don’t know what will or not so you just have to do as you need to or as you feel and hope. That makes life a living experiment. It’s like the monks with their non-violence and compassion and so forth as some abstract law, some eternal law – full Fi. I was drawn to monks, yes, but it was for sake of knowledge that I was, first and foremost, as monks are usually very intellectual people with examples being St. Francis of Assisi and Gregor Mendel (who influenced me monumentally as a youth). I leave out non-Catholic monks to keep it simple and because, they did make knowledge and feeling overtly a way for themselves.

    • I can see your viewpoint. I’m not in a place to judge others in this regard, but I suppose your attitude is healthy enough.

      I understand the lesson I was taught. I’ve even internalized it. It’s been a part of me for so long that I don’t know if I’m capable of thinking outside of it. It makes perfect rational sense, but that is precisely the problem. Forgiveness isn’t about rationality and so forgiveness is perverted when made to conform to rationality… or pragmatism or self-interest or whatever else.

      I want to be a forgiving person, but I realize I don’t forgive easily. None of us deserves to be forgiven for anything. The suffering in this world is immense. We all are constantly hurting one another, intentionally and mindlessly.

      I’m not even sure what I expect from my close relationships. All that I can think of is that desire for understanding. It seems a more humble aspiration than forgiveness. If genuine forgiveness is possible in me, then I see no path toward it except by way of understanding. This relates to my valuing of truth. Maybe I’m just setting up a stumbling block for myself, an Fi stumbling block… but what is an Fi guy to do?

      I just get tired of all the suffering in the world, and so many people seem oblivious to it. It’s not just about my feeling wronged. In response to all of this, I’m likely doing it all wrong. I can imagine myself becoming a resentful old man.

  2. “All that I can think of is that desire for understanding”

    This got me thinking about my comment. I lost sight of it while I wrote. I realize my way is also that of understanding. What the hell is forgiveness then?

    • A good question, indeed! What the hell is forgiveness then?

      I think I have at times felt something akin to forgiveness, but it has always followed a profound sense of understanding. It always comes by seeing past the superficial attributes that we tend to identify with and instead feeling out the essence of who a person is. Even if it never becomes clear, there is still a kind of understanding in just recognizing the immensity of the other, realizing how simplistic it is to claim the right to judge them or judge anything for that matter.

      It’s an understanding that brings on a foundation-shaking humility. That is the closest thing to forgiveness that I’ve been capable of so far. There is compassion in such an experience of another person, whether or not forgiveness is ever possible. It is a compassion even toward the seeming impossibility of forgiveness.

  3. I realized what my basic beef is.

    It comes down to the suffering aspect. The world has so much suffering. Forgiveness seems so meaningless in the big picture for it changes nothing.

    Also, I sense that forgiveness has a secret relationship to punishment. We only need to forgive because we desire to punish. Compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t have this kind of relationship to punish. What compassion focuses on is suffering, but the to appease or lessen or understand suffering rather than cause it. Compassion doesn’t require forgiveness for it has no interest in the taking back of punishment for the very concept of punishment is outside of its domain.

    I was raised by conservative parents. But like many people I was raised with mixed messages about compassion and forgiveness. The punishment angle, however, is particularly emphasized in the conservative worldview. As I’ve grown older, I’ve gained a strong distaste for the worldview of punishment, of meritocracy where everything must be earned, of hierarchy where some are more worthy than others. I find that a severely depressing worldview.

    In a world of punishment, forgiveness is just part of the continuing game of suffering. There is only ever a temporary reprieve. Forgiveness can offer nothing permanent as long as punishment hangs over us like a guillotine, ever waiting for us to slip up and do something wrong.

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