To Err and to Forgive

I’ve known for a long time that the weather in New England can be unpredictable. At times tempestuous, at times calm, but always changing. Given the tumultuous past few weeks in my own life, my reflection for this week might reflect today’s weather–unexpected, and at times a little chaotic. I ask you to bear with me as I try to organize my thoughts and feelings on the page.

To be honest, I didn’t have clear idea of what I wanted to write about this week. I had just finished two midterms for my phonetics class, and I was sitting down to another quiet evening at the office. I had uploaded the sermon from this past Sunday, in which Dean Hill meditated on Matthew 5:39 and the meaning of resistance. But when I opened up the blog to read my fellow Marsh Associates’ reflections from this past week, the title of Denise’s reflection caught my attention: “Sunflower”

When I was in high school, my sophomore year history teacher introduced us to a book by Simon Wiesenthal, called The Sunflower. The book talked about Wiesenthal’s experiences in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, and the outlook of those in the camp with him. The core of the book, though, lies in an ethical dilemma. While in the camp, Wiesenthal is taken to the bed of a dying SS officer, who asks if Wiesenthal can forgive him for killing several hundred Jewish people a year prior. The officer was holding a sunflower in his hand, a flower that was planted in the graves of SS officers who had died.

In the end, Wiesenthal says nothing and leaves. He then presents an ethical dilemma by asking a single, haunting question: Should he have forgiven the soldier, or not? The second half of the book contains the answers and reflections of several dozen individuals on this question–scholars, theologians, professors, and many others. There’s too much in their answers for me to address here (and it has been a long time since I last read them), so I will focus instead on the question Simon Wiesenthal asks; namely, the question of forgiveness.

There is a saying that “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The English saying has been attributed to Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism.” Part of this phrase, though, has even older origins, in a Latin phrase that is sometimes attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca. One of the formulations of this phrase is as follows: “Errare humanum est, perseverare autem diabolicum.” This translates to, “To err is human, but to persist (in error) is diabolical.” These two phrases, when paired side by side, have very different meanings and implications, which seem rather self-explanatory at first glance. But when they are paired together, they capture a lot of the tension and conflict that come up (at least for me) regarding the question of forgiveness.

The Latin word “ignosco” can be translated into “to forgive.” This is interesting etymologically, because it contains the roots for the words “to ignore” and “to know.” Thus, the word “to forgive” in Latin could be broken into the literal phrase, “to not know,” or “to ignore knowing.” This presents a challenge when I think about what it means to forgive someone. Can you genuinely forgive someone by overlooking what they’ve done, especially if it has harmed you or people close to you? When I think about the situation that Wiesenthal was in with the SS officer, I am inclined to say no. This attitude strikes me more as complacency than as genuine forgiveness.

What about other takes on forgiveness, though? Matthew 5: 38-48 offers a different perspective:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

If someone were to ask me which part of the Bible I struggle with the most, this is one of the passages I would likely first point to. I’ve heard interpretations before that note there is a lot of historical context surrounding this passage that is missing from the text. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough of that context to adequately comment on these interpretations.

I have trouble with this passage for the same reason that I have mixed feelings about the Latin word “ignosco.” Namely, I disagree with an interpretation that one could draw from both of these views: that forgiveness is something that is given blindly.

If forgiveness can be understood as an internal state or feeling (whether it’s human or divine is debatable), then I would guess that it tends not to be the first thing people feel in response to a wrong done against them. In general, forgiveness takes time and processing to emerge, and it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect someone to feel immediately forgiving toward anyone who has done harm, especially if they are considered an enemy. Perhaps if they are ready to forgive, then that internal state may help them heal and move on. But I don’t think feeling forgiveness is necessarily the right way or the only way to heal.

But this doesn’t get at Wiesenthal’s question, which was should he have done something to forgive the officer, not if he should have felt something. Should you forgive someone for the harm they have committed against you, against another, or against an entity? My answer, as unhelpful as it might be, comes in the form of another question: Why are you offering forgiveness? Are you giving it for the person who would receive it like the officer, so that they might have some peace of mind? Are you giving it for yourself, so that you may find healing? Are you giving it because that’s what you were taught to do? Or are you giving it because you believe that is the right thing to do?

I can’t say whether the answer to any of these questions is right or not. That, after all, is the beauty and the difficulty of ethical dilemmas. But the next time you are in a situation where you must choose to forgive or not, whatever your decision, I encourage you to reflect on why you make your choice. What motivates you to forgive, or not to forgive? There, at least, you may find some answers.

Sunflower

I love the spring. I love the melting snow, walking without a jacket, seeing green, but above all the sun. One of my friends jokingly called me a “sunflower” last year and it is one of the best descriptions of my personality that I have heard. The appearance of nice weather and sunshine is rejuvenating. Days feel much shorter and more pleasant when I am not bundling up for the cold. Needless to say, I have enjoyed the last couple days.

Even if cold weather returns, it has been a reminder that as Emily Dickens wrote “we’re closer to spring than we were in September”. The signs of life among us are rejuvenating. I am able to enjoy my walks to classes much more now. They are no longer a race from one warm space to another, I can are casual strolls. I am comfortable enough to listen and breather and reflect as I move. That makes my whole day better. That is why I am a sunflower.

A Proud Roommate

This week I had a road block: I did not really know what to write about. I usually do not about specific people; however, this blogpost I must mention my roommate. A week ago today we were sitting in the top lounge in 575 Commonwealth Ave doing homework. I won’t say the specific time that we were working; but, let’s just say it was pretty late at night. My roommate was hungry so he decided to go to 7Eleven across the street and get some food.

After a half hour I look out the window and see a group of police cars in Kenmore Square. I called my roommate to see what was going on and he did not pick up. About 15 minutes later my roommate came back upstairs.

He told me that he had found a young woman who was visibly distraught and screaming for help. She had been raped and robbed. My roommate was the only person who stopped to help her. He had stayed with her the whole time until the police came and even stayed to help while they were they were asking questions.

My roommate did not want to take much credit; but, I feel like I must post something to thank him for what he did. Not many people would have been able to handle the situation like he had. In fact, many people just walked by her. I am very proud of him for what he did. Thankfully, he was able to get the young woman the help she needed.

We do not know if they ever found the man who defiled her. However, what my roommate did is still commendable. He came to the woman in her time of need and did everything in his power to make sure that she was okay. I’m proud of you and proud to call you my friend.

“I haven’t heard drums in what feels like years”

This past Sunday I visited Saint Marks Church in Roxbury where Ms. Kennedy of the HTC is a member.  I walked into the small and homey church and saw children’s paintings and church mothers in their “church hats” and I felt at home. As I listened to the choir sing, I realized that this was the first Sunday that I’ve heard the rhythm of the drums in a while. I wasn’t home. I was in a foreign church in a part of Boston that I had only pasted through on my way to my Grandma’s. However, something felt good. I was in an atmosphere of spontaneity and life. I love my family here at Marsh and the sermons by Dean Hill always have me asking for more, but there’s something missing.

Marsh is theologically one of the most sound churches I’ve ever been to. There is a commitment to knowing your bible in ways that you cannot imagine and being aware of tradition and reasoning. I enjoy the services and the choir and all the differences there is from my traditional ideas of church. However, there is something missing. A feeling that can’t be replicated at Marsh. It is more than music. There’s a cultural aspect that’s missing for me at Marsh. I was raised in that cultural. I fell in love with it from a young age. I thought that I could maneuver within the church without this part of me, but no place will feel like home without this culture. Marsh is and will continue to be a safe place for me. A place for growth and continued exploration, but I’ll never have the ability to be my full self. Maybe not in any future church setting. I’ve felt the other side of church life to ever trust the church fully again. My faith in God will always be what I hold close to my heart, however, the church is a separate entity that has proved to be multifaceted.

Moving Towards Progress

Yesterday, M.O.V.E. finally had our first meeting. After two weeks of detailed planning with Denise and Nick we launched our new program.

It is both exciting and worrying to start something new. My perfectionist attitude towards my work is difficult to appease and I generally feel as though my work should be improved.

Throughout these past weeks of building this service team I am constantly reminding myself to not expect a finished product, and instead enjoy the process of creating. I look forward to the change M.O.V.E. can bring and I am excited to see what our team can bring out in each other and in those we work with.

Unrelenting Grace for an Unrelenting Failure

I walked out the side door of Marsh Chapel. The air outside was refreshing. I felt my head running at hundreds of miles per hour, except this time it was not the result of a fear or anxiety. It was not guilt or pain or hurt.

It was the sermon I heard today, and the conversations I have had over the last couple of weeks and the sentiments and the collection of experiences that altogether culminated into a few words that crashed over me like a massive, relentless wave. A massive wave of Grace.

No, it was not anxiety. I felt alive.

I was going to get lunch and do some programming, but before I do that, I wanted to think about this more. I placed headphones into my ears, and, while walking along the Charles River, decided to listen to Watsky’s four rap songs on his most recent album that are part of entire series of spoken words and poetry, called The Lovely Thing Suite. These songs together form a small art piece within a very messy, sometimes over the top album. But is not that what sometimes makes art so wonderful: its messiness? Life is messy, and this art is messy.

As I walked down the steps, the first song, “Conversations” began playing. In it, Watsky details a series of conversations he has with his father about death when he was a child, and then later as an adult. In the song, a young Watsky is afraid and anxious as every human being appears to be sprinting toward that impending brick wall of death without enough thought. Later, an adult Watsky now discusses with his father the plans for their family after he passes away. As each conversation wrestles with the anxiety of fate and death, the chorus sings:

“[I can see you’re in a hurry but don’t worry cause] That isn’t for a long, long time
That isn’t for a long, long time
That isn’t for a long, long time
That isn’t for a long, long, long, long time”

As I walked along the Charles I looked down at the awestruck wonder in the world around me, I felt so alive. The melting snow piles were melting into fractal shapes of coastlines. It was as if the piles of snow were continents of white standing over oceans of brown and green grass. The fractals were both organized to some fashion, and yet also messy. There was beauty in the order, and order in the disorder.

And then the song “Conversations” ended and “Knots” began to play. The transition was immediate, and the piano in the song shifted keys and the rifts became dark. The piano played gloomy rifts, while Watsky began talking about the pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s failures. Arthur had tasted success as an artist, but at the time in the song, where he was sitting in a Berlin hotel, he had fallen through a series of failures and he had lost his opportunities to both support himself and his internal drive as an artist. Watsky speaks, rather cynically:

“What a strange and impossible sum
To be old while to still be so young
To have sung before speaking a word
To be heard
To be hailed
Then to fail
To be done
To love but to be so naïve
To trust and to be so deceived”

Oh, I get that cynicism sometimes. What a lovely thing it is to fail, right?

The weight and guilt of failure becomes unbearable, and the imagery takes darker and sadder turns. Then, the piano begins to play sharp rifts that cut right into the song, while maintaining a level of darkness. And Arthur begins to gather everything he needs to attempt to end his life, and Watsky describes it all in detail and then ends the song with these words:

“To bid adieu to all of you until there’s nothing left to do but
Climb the chair
To cinch the collar
Find the edge
To step into the air”

And then the piano plays rifts that reflect a dizziness.

At this point I was far down the Charles past the Citgo sign. The trees rustled in the cool breezes and danced. Each trunk contained branches, and each branch contained still smaller branches. These branches followed a mathematical fractal of a sort, and yet they were disorganized. There was beauty in the order, and order in the disorder.

And then “Roses” started playing after the dizzying tones:

“Don’t let my ghost drag you down
If you don’t see me around
It doesn’t mean that I fell
Yeah I’m doing well
I got some roses to smell
I hope you smile when I’m gone
It means I had the strength to move on
To find another story to tell
To answer the bell
I got some roses to smell”

And Watsky invokes the sentiments of another Arthur, Arthur Conan Doyle. He then raps about his wrestles with ambitions, with losing friends, and with moving on from it all. He questions his own motivations for his art, and wonders at the purpose of his ambitions being his drive, and how he finds that he himself is a workaholic. He concludes he is already wealthy, regardless of his personal success and fame. He accepts himself as a human being, despite his successes and, more importantly, his failures.

And the song ends with strings and confusion. In the midst of the confusion, the piano begins playing a similar rift and melody as the first song “Conversations,” but now in a different key. It is a softer, more relaxed key, and it is played slower. It is as if the piano is reminding the listener that it is aware that life is very messy and failures happen, but that it is all okay.

As I turned around, I noticed the shells of acorns all around the trees. The acorns were scattered about the trees randomly, but if one were to define loose constraints around the trees and seed different parameters into a randomized point-generating algorithm about a coordinate plane around the tree, the images generated would somewhat follow what I was observing about these acorn shells. The acorns fell randomly, but to a somewhat consistent extent. There was beauty in the order, and order in the disorder.

The final song, “Theories” began to play, and Watsky raps and sings:

“Arthur stepped off, yeah he stepped offa the chair
Couldn’t weigh a hundred forty pounds
And the rope snapped, yeah, the rope snapped
And then Arthur found himself looking up from the ground
Looking up, looking up, found things looking up
Looking up, looking not so down, no not so down
No knots don’t have to stay that way
No, not so tightly wound”

And by chance, Arthur failed another thing he attempted to do. And then Watsky sings, rather emotionally, and most certainly not-cynically:

What a lovely thing it is to fail
To release those grasping fingernails

And then Watsky describes how Arthur thought that was the end of his life, but then Arthur played for 50 more years, and Watsky’s own father by chance was able to obtain front row seats to see Arthur play, with his hands that almost did not exist. And Arthur’s wonderful performance influenced Watsky’s father as an artist, and then the concerts and music pieces that his father would play in the car influenced Watsky as an artist.

Arthur influenced Watsky as an artist, and there was a chance he almost could have not.

And as Watsky wrestles through fate and guilt in these past few songs, “Theories” begins to conclude, and Watsky raps:

“The evolution of the mind’s not the hunger to conquer
Or to want
or to seek
or to wander
Or even wonder,
but to simply to be
Until we cease to be any longer

And in pulling the courage to be in it all, and invoking an overcoming of the anxiety of meaningless that swallows up the other anxieties, Watsky reaffirms a sentiment that should be said to every guilty failure and anxious person in the world: “There’s nothing wrong with heavy eyelids.”

It is okay to fail. In fact, it is a lovely thing to fail. I have recently had several conversations with friends at bars, in the dining hall, and just around Boston. A few of my friends were so hard on themselves. They missed their marks often. At some point in the midst of these conversations I pressed an important point in a few questions: “Imagine others who make mistakes and fail like you do. What would you think of such an individual? Would you give them a break? Are they not just human?” and the response was often “I probably would, good point.” It is grace. It is “Accepting oneself in spite of being unacceptable” as Paul Tillich called it. And this grace is liberating, like a crashing wave relentlessly pouring life over me. I guess we sometimes just need someone else to remind us that it is going to be okay.

And, I hope it leads to another idea. I was having another conversation with a friend, and he repeated a sentiment I have often heard in many conversations as well, he said “But what good is loving others and caring for others when people can be so mean and awful to each other and to you. You are simply setting yourself up to be hurt.”

But I responded that just because other human beings can be awful sometimes and can hurt each other and live in selfishness, well it does not mean that I have to. Regardless of how many times I will be hurt and regardless of how many times we as human beings will hurt each other, I can still try to love others to the best of my ability and hope the best for everyone I come across. I can and should push against my personal desire to resent existence, and I will try to to, unrelentingly. Hopefully, even as my efforts to make a positive difference in this world fail, I can be as unrelenting as the grace that has unrelentingly given me freedom, because I hope others can feel just as alive as I felt, walking along the melting Charles, hearing songs by a rapper that reflected sentiments in a sermon and the wise words of prophets throughout ages and mirrored in the imagery of the life of Christ himself.

Near Enemies

“’The near enemy. It’s a psychological concept. Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other, is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other’s sick, twisted.’ (. . . )

“ ‘There are three couplings,’ said Myrna, herself leaning forward now, and whispering though she didn’t know why. ‘Attachment masquerades as Love, Pity as Compassion, and Indifference as Equanimity.’” –Louise Penny

My mother has been a fan of mystery novels for as long as I can remember. She would read books by writers such as Agatha Christie and Ian Rankin, which to this day remain on  bookshelves at her home in Brookline. A few years ago, my grandmother introduced the two of us to books by Louise Penny, a Canadian mystery author.

These books are set in the town of Three Pines, a fictional village inspired by the Eastern Townships in southeastern Quebec. One of the characters in this village, Myrna, is a former psychologist who runs a used bookstore in Three Pines. Throughout the series, she provides the detective solving the mysteries with insight into human emotions and motivations. In one of the books called The Cruelest Month, she tells him about the idea of near enemies, pairs of emotions where one masquerades as the other.

As I think about a certain date that has recently passed, I am reminded of Louise Penny’s words. They provide a certain cautionary wisdom about the different ways in which love can manifest itself. But before I get into that, I should elaborate on the three pairs of ‘near enemies’ that Myrna is referring to.

When Myrna explains attachment and love, she gives the example of a mother and her child. She describes love as an emotion that would allow a mother to raise her child to become independent, grow into their own, and move on in the world once they’ve grown up. Attachment, on the other hand, would involve stifling the child’s growth–holding onto them out of selfishness, and not letting them go.

She frames pity and compassion in terms of equality between persons. When you feel compassion toward someone, you see them as an equal. Pity, she argues, inherently involves feeling superior to the person whom you pity.

Finally, Myrna goes into indifference and equanimity. She explains that equanimity involves embracing the struggles that life throws at you and feeling them fully, before letting them go and moving on. Indifference, on the other hand, involves not feeling or responding to anything that life does give you, for good or ill.

These three pairings have a few things in common. All of them involve letting go (or not) in some way. Love and attachment, in the sense that Myrna defines them, relates to a parent’s ability to eventually let their child go and become their own person. Compassion and pity speak to whether we can let go of our ego or self-righteousness when attempting to relate to other people. And finally, equanimity and indifference indicate whether we can respond to misfortune by tackling it and eventually letting it fade over time, or whether we simply become hardened to it and never take it on in the first place.

Something else interests me about these three pairs of emotions, though. I would argue that they all serve as different manifestations of a broader emotion that many of us might describe as “love.” Attachment and the love that Myrna describes relate to the love that exists between family members. Pity and compassion characterize the kind of love we may feel towards others who are suffering. Equanimity and indifference, however, ask how we love ourselves in order to survive. Do we embrace challenges as they come and work through them, or do we become indifferent to them in order to protect ourselves?

This last point strikes a tension with something that I heard a long time ago from the late Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.” In light of his words, how can showing indifference be a form of love? My answer, as inadequate as it may seem compared to Elie Wiesel’s, is this: indifference offers self-preservation. It protects us from feeling painful emotions, whereas equanimity may require us to genuinely feel them before letting them fade. Both can be used to love and take care of ourselves, but I would imagine that most people would openly support equanimity (as it is defined here) over indifference. Yet one is much harder to carry out than the other.

The point I am trying to make is not that these pairs of emotions are love itself. I do believe, though, that they can contain elements of love in them, and that manifestation inherently makes them harder to disambiguate from each other. How do you balance feeling attachment to someone you care about while also letting them be their own person? How do you understand and relate to another person’s suffering without comparing yourself to them? How do you protect yourself when going through difficult, painful situations without completely shutting yourself off from them? “Love” provides an answer to all of these questions, but I don’t think it’s a particularly clear or helpful one. Recognizing how love appears in and motivates each of these emotions, though, might help us come to a clearer conclusion.

I wish I could say that I knew what the answers to these questions were. Frankly, I don’t. Love, let alone feelings that involve it, is one subject that I sometimes have a lot of trouble navigating. But when I encounter situations where pairs of emotions can arise, I can remember Myrna’s words and the wisdom underlying them–that love generally creates ambiguity in the emotions that it touches. There is a kind of beautiful mystery in that, one that I take heart in exploring and not solving for the time being.

 

Silence and Thank You Ian

In our weekly marsh meeting, fellow intern and friend Ian said something before he began his remarks that struck me. He said, “I don’t mind long periods of silence” and it made me think that I haven’t been in silence in a while. There is always some noise around me and I purposely do that. Music in my headphones, people, or just a TV even though I’m not watching it. I used to love silence and the simpleness of it and its ability to induce thought. Now I think I run from it. I don’t want to think too much, but thanks to Ian I think I’ll make some more time for silence. It’s not awkward just uncomfortable. On the subject of thanking Ian, I realize that my time working with such a special human is quickly coming to a close. I had planned to post a thank you letter to both of our fearless leaders, Kasey and Ian, later in the year, and I still do, but I think I’ll write a little about Ian.

Ian is a quiet one out of our bunch, but when he does talk he speaks volumes. He sits in our meeting knitting away, but you never for a second doubt that he is attentively listening. I think I admire that most about him. He listens better than most people I know. He’s unique in that he’s not calculating his thoughts or even just nodding and agreeing, he makes you feel valued. Though he is quiet, he is the first to make you feel at home. He’s willing to be brave so you don’t have to be. I’ve only read a handful of his blogs and he is thoughtful to say the least. He’s vulnerable and he’s willing to stick his neck out for you. I haven’t had the pleasure of having more than three deep and thoughtful conversations with him, but I know he is someone I can trust. Seeing him leave will be bitter sweet. Marsh will be losing one of the most passionate and genuine people to come through this program, but the world will gain a person that we desperately need. Our cohort will lose our Marsh expert, do it all and then some and the only rational one in our group, but in his absence we will each grow to listen more. Perhaps, it is his willingness to bask in silence that makes him such a good listener. That in combination with humble courage, makes for the leader we need.

Ian this is only the beginning for you and for my thank you letter.

Team

Today I had my Organizational Behavior lecture. This is one of the few classes that I genuinely enjoy every single time I walk in the door. Today’s lecture was eloquently presented and tackled the topic of interdependence in groups. Professor McCarthy (the OB lecturer) talked about the difference between a team and a group. I am glad to say that I am humbled to be able to be a part of this internship; and, that the Marsh Associates are truly a team.

Today I would like to show my appreciation for my peers and all that they do. What makes us a team? There is no clear cut leader in the group. We all have equal and ample opportunity to use our personal strengths the the advantage of the group. We have an eclectic group of people. Everyone comes from a different social and ideological background and has interesting takes on experiences. This allows for us to get a very complete view on the issues that we try to tackle.

Being a team also has other perks; for example, we always have fun with what we are doing. Trust me, even cutting cake can turn into a comical event. But the greatest perk of all is that we always have each other’s back. Everyone is in it for each other and no one is left out to dry.

The difference between having a team and having a group can be boiled down to one thing: if you miss it when it is gone. I can say with utmost certainty that when the semester is over, I will miss being with this team. Thank you for being awesome!

Finding Rest in the Snow

Last week, Boston received quite a bit of snow. Thursday classes were canceled and I was free to watch the snow pile-up outside. As I watched the snowflakes drift past my window, I felt a peace settle over me.

It has been a busy couple of weeks. Come Thursday morning I was feeling drained. Watching Netflix and eating ice cream, I began to realize just how much I needed this break. Without even realizing it, I had been desperately searching for this moment to pause, ignore responsibilities, and try to count the snowflakes. The snow day reminded me of the importance of finding and creating Sabbath moments.

Life moves fast here. It is easy to get caught up in day-to-day obligations. Yet, remaining human and whole necessitates consciously filling oneself up. While I appreciated the day off from class, I was most thankful for this reminder.

As the semester progresses and the weather changes, the probability of snow days will decrease. However, a Sabbath does not require snow. As I walk through these next few months, my goal is to continue to cultivate moments that recharge me- to find the moments of Sabbath in a fast paced world.