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.

The Straight Dope on Spanking

In George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics, he compares the conservative Strict Father morality and the liberal Nurturant Parent morality. One of the distinctions is that Strict Father morality in terms of parenting is more condoning of physical violence used as punishment to ensure moral behavior.

The following video discusses the research that shows the ineffectiveness (or rather negative effect) of spanking and hitting children. This relates to capital punishment which has also been proven not to prevent criminal behavior. However, spanking and hitting children is even worse than capital punishment because spanking and hitting actually increases the unwanted behavior in that, for example, such children are more likely to be more aggressive themselves towards other children.

Sense of Place, of Home, of Community… or lack thereof

As I work as a cashier, I always have plenty of time to read and there are often newspapers available. Otherwise, I’d be mostly ignorant of old media. There is something quite relaxing about reading a paper. Anyways, the pleasure of physical reading material isn’t the point of this post. I just wanted to give credit to the dying old media.

The real reason for this post is an article I came across in the Wall Street Journal:

The Homeward Bound American
By Jennifer Graham

[taste.graham]

That article is about the data from recently published research:

Residential Mobility, Well-being, and Mortality
By Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Schimmack

The research is about moving and the impact it has on children (family being a topic that has been on my mind recently: Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). I guess it does relate to old media and to the world that once was. It may be hard to believe that there was a time when moving was uncommon. Once upon a time, every town probably had at least one if not several newspapers offering local perspectives on everything. Could you imagine reading the same newspaper your whole life which was reported by and which reported on the same local people you knew your entire life?

In the United States, though, the stable community has always been more of an ideal than a reality. We are, of course, the land of immigrants, the land of a people constantly moving Westward. At this point, it might be in our very genetics. All the people with homebody genetics stayed in their homelands while their restless family members ventured to the New World. Those who weren’t given a choice in making this ocean trip, such as slaves and refugees, often had their entire culture destroyed and their connection to their homeland lost. Americans are a rootless people, whether by choice or not (which I’ve written about before: Homelessness and Civilization; in that post, I point out the Christian theology of homelessness).

It took Americans to create something like the internet which has challenged old media and traditional communities. Even the media Americans create tend towards rootlessness. A lot of good things have come out of this American attitude of embracing innovation, of embracing the new. It’s easy for us to rationalize our national character as being a great thing. Americans idealize optimism, but optimism can’t deny reality. No matter how willing we are to move (with about half the population moving in their lifetime), the above linked research shows that it doesn’t necessarily lead to healthy results. I intuitively felt this to be true, but until now I haven’t had hard data to support my intuition.

My thoughts on the matter are influenced by my own personal experience. I’m an American and I think I’m a fairly typical American in many ways. I moved around some while growing up. By the 8th grade, I had lived in 4 states. The place I spent my high school years in was a large city and so it wasn’t conducive to developing a sense of home and community. I actually ended up longing for the previous town we had lived in because I had many friends there and it was a small town with more of a stable community. In the different schools I went to, there was always a core group of kids who had known each other their entire lives. I could see the immense difference between them and I. This may have been made even more clear because I spent my early years in the Midwest before having moved to South Carolina. Along with the sense of having loss my home and my friends, I experienced some major culture shock. The entire time I lived there, South Carolina never felt like home. My brothers and I moved back to the Midwest as soon as we had an opportunity. I suspect this somewhat transitory childhood has had long-term impact on myself and my brothers.

Let me first point out some of the results of the research. Here is from a Science Daily article about the same research:

Moving Repeatedly in Childhood Linked With Poorer Quality-of-Life Years Later, Study Finds

The researchers found that the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower life satisfaction and psychological well-being at the time they were surveyed, even when controlling for age, gender and education level. The research also showed that those who moved frequently as children had fewer quality social relationships as adults.

The researchers also looked to see if different personality types — extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism — affected frequent movers’ well-being. Among introverts, the more moves participants reported as children, the worse off they were as adults. This was in direct contrast to the findings among extraverts. “Moving a lot makes it difficult for people to maintain long-term close relationships,” said Oishi. “This might not be a serious problem for outgoing people who can make friends quickly and easily. Less outgoing people have a harder time making new friends.”

The findings showed neurotic people who moved frequently reported less life satisfaction and poorer psychological well-being than people who did not move as much and people who were not neurotic. Neuroticism was defined for this study as being moody, nervous and high strung. However, the number and quality of neurotic people’s relationships had no effect on their well-being, no matter how often they had moved as children. In the article, Oishi speculates this may be because neurotic people have more negative reactions to stressful life events in general.

The researchers also looked at mortality rates among the participants and found that people who moved often as children were more likely to die before the second wave of the study. They controlled for age, gender and race. “We can speculate that moving often creates more stress and stress has been shown to have an ill effect on people’s health,” Oishi said. “But we need more research on this link before we can conclude that moving often in childhood can, in fact, be dangerous to your health in the long-term.”

My brothers and I all have some predispositions toward such things as introversion, depression and anxiety. I don’t think any of us deal with stress all that well. Of course, I can’t know how we would’ve turned out if we hadn’t moved around so much. The only comparison I can make is with my parents. Unlike their children, they had relatively stable childhoods at least in terms of growing up in a stable communities (I know my mom even lived in the same house while growing up, the house that her father built). The difference is that they chose to move after they had become adults and their relatively stable childhoods seemed to have provided an internal sense of stability that allowed them to adapt well to moving to new places. If they hadn’t wanted to move or decided they didn’t like their first move, they could’ve chosen not to move away from their home or they could’ve chosen to immediately move back to their home community. As children, my brothers and I had no such choice because our parents chose for us.

I’m of mixed opinion. I don’t know how much parents can be blamed, especially in the past. Much of this research is recent and so people didn’t used to know about it. On the other hand, my parents knew stability and have always stated a belief in family values. So, why didn’t it occur to them that a stable home and community might be an integral part of family values? To generalize beyond just my parents, why do conservatives (and other Americans as well) idealize the nuclear family as an isolated entity with extended family and community simply being nice things to have around if convenient? Part of me wants to pick on the conservatives because they particularly seem obsessed with the 1950s sitcom ideal of the suburban nuclear family. But to be honest I have to admit that this warped view of family cuts across ideological lines.

At the same time, Americans are obsessed with the idea of community maybe for the very reason we lack a traditional sense of community. I’ve heard Europeans note that Americans are very social in that we constantly like starting and joining groups. In the Midwest, there is even a popular type of group whose sole purpose is to welcome new people to the community. Over all, Midwesterners have more of a real sense of community because early farming communities were so isolated. Midwestern pioneers, quite differently than Southerners, were highly dependent on their neighbors for survival. My observation is that Southerners tend to base their sense of community on their sense of family rather than the other way around. As a general rule, beyond mere formalities, Southerners (in particular middle to upper class Southerners) aren’t very friendly with their neighbors. For example, when a Midwesterner invites you over for coffee they genuinely mean it, but when a Southerner invites you over for coffee it may just be a formality.

As for myself, I internalized from a young age the Midwestern sense of community and neighborliness. It’s not that I live up to it in my personal behavior, but it does form what feels normal to me. Because of this, my disjointed and rootless sense of the world somehow feels wrong. It seems to me the world shouldn’t be this way… and yet it’s the way my world feels. I’m not as close to my family as I wish I were, but I feel that a disconnection has formed in my family that can’t be bridged. One of my brothers became married and had kids. He ended moving away to a nearby town, but he is busy and is incapable of disentangling himself from his wife and children. My other brother has moved around following his career. He essentially has become like my dad in not settling down. Part of him values family and part of him likes the distance moving around provides. None of us in our family get along perfectly well and I think we all value distance to some extent, but I can’t help wondering if it could have been different. If our parents hadn’t sacrificed family and community for career (we were latchkey kids with both parents working), would our family have been much closer than it is now?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s too late now. My parents made their decisions and the time lost can’t be made up. They had been down South for a couple of decades and only recently moved back to the Midwest. My brothers were at one time all living in the same town as I am now living in, but that hasn’t been the case for a number of years. The brother that has been moving around quite a bit did for a time move back to the area before moving away again just as my parents were moving into town. Even though my parents used to live here and used to have many friends here, they’ve been away too long and my dad in particular left behind the community he felt a part of in South Carolina. When you spend so much time apart in different communities and in entirely different regions of the world, you lose the basic daily experiences on which personal relationships are built. The people my parents know generally aren’t the same people I know. In chasing money and career, why didn’t my parents consider the clear possibility that it would undermine our entire family? People always think there is time later on to develop personal relationships, but then after retirement one realizes that some things once lost can’t be regained.

It pisses me off. I always wanted a family I could rely upon, but on an emotional level (which isn’t rational) I don’t have a sense of trust towards my parents. I don’t fundamentally believe they would necessarily be there for me if things ever went wrong. I understand it isn’t entirely rational. My parents do value family and they are caring people. It’s just that I have this very basic sense of disconnection. I’ve lived in this town longer than anywhere else and I love this town. It’s my home. Still, I don’t feel entirely connected to even this place, to the community that I’m surrounded by. My sense of place is always in the past, in the memories of my childhood in this place. It’s hard to explain. When I moved away after 7th grade, I spent years going over and over my memories of this place. Once I returned, everything had already begun to change. So, my sense of place is only loosely connected to the place itself. My suspicion is that it would be different for someone who lived in the same place their whole life because the place would have changed as they changed. One’s personal changes would be grounded in the changes in one’s sense of place. Once you move away, you can never come home again. So, it’s more than a desire for a stable sense of family. It’s a desire for a stable sense of community, a stable sense of place, a stable sense of personal reality. My whole life I’ve wanted to fit in, wanted to feel like I was accepted, like I belonged. Instead, I feel broken.

Of course, I’m not special. Everyone grows up and everyone loses their childhood, but it seems particularly traumatic for those who have moved around, most particularly if they have certain personality traits. Even so, this sense of malaise seems to be a common factor of modern civilization. From my studies, it’s my understanding that indigenous tribal people don’t share this sense of malaise… not until they’re introduced to modern civilization. We moderns are extremely disconnected from the world around us. Even the person who has never moved is unlikely to have a deep sense of place as was once common when all humans were indigenous.

I noticed the above research was mentioned in an article in The New York Times (Does Moving a Child Create Adult Baggage? By Pamela Paul) which led me to another article:

The Roots of White Anxiety
By Ross Douthat

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

The reason I mention this article is because rural areas represent the last communities that have maintained some semblance of stability, although it’s eroding quickly. These poor, rural whites maintain their communities and their poverty by not moving much. That is what the author of this article didn’t fully comprehend but which some readers made note of in the comments:

dc wrote: “The issue is class, not race, not political affiliation, and certainly not religion.”

Yes, class AND culture… the two being inseparable.

Poor rural people (of any race or religion) are less willing to sacrifice family and community for social advancement in terms of education and career. They’re less willing to play the moving game. But, in a society that doesn’t value the rural culture, such stable cultures aren’t likely to represent the best of society. Loss of family farms and the decline of small towns has caused rural communities to become impoverished and so they have tons of social problems, but these communities once were relatively good places to live and to raise a family… and they still are in some ways. The article does make a point that whites have reason to be worried, paranoid even, about the undermining of this traditional rural culture. Still, no one in particular is to blame. What America is becoming is an almost entirely inevitable result of how America began. It’s noble that these rural folk self-impose (consciously or not) an isolated sense of community. They choose to homeschool their kids and send them to state schools or community colleges. By doing this, they maintain their family ties.

My parents, on the other hand, were willing to make sacrifices that many rural people are unwilling to make and because of it my parents have been more successful in their careers. My parents apparently weren’t contented to just be working class or to otherwise limit their careers to one specific community.

It makes me wonder about the future, my personal future and the future of society. I don’t feel optimistic about my own family and community. My depression and introversion combine in such a way that I lead a fairly isolated life. What really saddens me is that I’m far from unusual. Are people like me merely a sign of what our society is becoming? What is the future of communities and families? As a society, will we ever again collectively value community more than career, family more than success? Will we ever stop building ugly, soul-destroying suburban neighborhoods? Will the warped ideal of the nuclear family ever be brought back into alignment with concrete realities of the world we live in? Is there any hope for modern people to regain the sense of place without which “home” becomes a mere abstraction?