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.

Dan Coffey on Prisons: Forgiveness and Reform

In the Iowa Source magazine, I was reading ‘Tis the Season for Forgiveness by Dan Coffey. 

The forgiveness he was speaking of is towards all of the non-violent victimless criminals who are overwhelming our prisons (and, of course, overburdening the taxpayers).  It’s a good article and I’d love to share it with you, but apparently it hasn’t been posted online.  However, he starts off with some quotes from Nicholas Kristoff which I could find online.  These quotes refer to statistics which should move anyone whose heart hasn’t become completely numb to the atrocities of our society (Coffey writes, ” Sometimes statistics speak more eloquently than paragraphs of explanation or generalization.”  How true!)… but this kind of data is already familiar to any reasonably informed citizen (by which I don’t mean to imply most citizens are reasonably informed).

I guess I should type up some of the article in order to share it:

… granting amnesty to those convicted of non-violent crimes.  Sure, there might be a few rotten apples among the blemished, but they’d be the exception, not the rule.

It’s interesting that he uses the image of rotten apples because it’s quite apt.  Rotten apples will rot other apples when you pack them close together.

We could spend the money we would have spent housing them on their educations.  Let them learn a trade. […]  This last summer, the Kentucky Supreme Court announced a pilot project that could save their counties an estimated $12 million a month by allowing thousands of people arrested for nonviolent, non-sexual crimes to post bail immediately after they are arrested.

Ever since getting touch on crime became a politician’s sure-fire bet for re-election, we’ve dug ourselves into a hle that it’s going to be hard to climb out of.  If we can’t afford health care, maybe we can at least afford this.

[…]  More than 7.3 million Americans are confined in U.S. correctional facilities or supervised in the community, at a cost of more than $68 billion annually.  For states with death penalty, savings of up to $1 billion a year could be realized simply by replacing capital punishment with life sentences.

[…]  The war on drugs must be making somebody a bundle, because the cost of imprisoning people convicted of breaking those laws is breaking the back of many a state.  Drug enforcement agencies are also able to seize cash and assets of the people they arrest, often keeping the money in a slush fund for use at their discretion.  This is the same policy that tempted Dallas County sheriff Brian Gilbert to steall $120,000 from a motorist during a routine traffic stop.  Instead of ten years in prison, a judge fined him $1,000 and put him on probation.

So obviously, the people in prison are often not being given the same advantages law enforcement and the courts offer their own.

Until we fix these problems, prudence would suggest that we stop locking people up.  Our prison mess doesn’t go away just because we’ve hidden these institutions out of plain sight.  For every person in prison, at least five others are deeply affected.

[…]  The fashionable policy of “getting tough on crime” resulted in mandatory minimum sentencing laws that took away a judge’s leeway in sentencing.  Other laws were passed requiring those convicted of certain felonies to serve 85 percent of their sentences.  No option for parole.  Any wonder why our prisons are bulging?

So, there you go.  I plan on writing more about this later.