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THE FORGIVENESS OF INJURIES
IT is not unprofitable to examine from time to time the meaning of certain words which clothe in an unchangeable garment thoughts that have themselves become transmuted.
To take for instance the word "forgive," which appears, at first sight, one of the most beautiful in the language: does this word still, did it ever possess the sense of almost divine amnesty which we assign to it? Is it not one of the terms that best set forth the good-will of men, inasmuch as it contains an ideal that has never been realised? When we say to one who has injured us, "I forgive you and all is forgotten," how much truth is there at the bottom of this speech? At most, this, which is the only engagement into which we can enter: "I shall not try to harm you in my turn." The remainder, which we believe ourselves to be promising, does not depend upon our own will. It is impossible for us to forget the wrong that has been done us, because the profoundest of our instincts, that of self-preservation, has a direct interest in remembering it.
The man who, at a given moment, finds his way into our lives is never known to us as he is. For us he is only an image which he himself outlines in our memory. It is quite true that the life that animates him has an indefinable, but powerful selfrevealing face. It conveys a host of promises, which are probably deeper and more sincere than the words or actions that will erelong belie them. But this great sign has little more than an ideal value. We are in a world wherein, either through force of circumstances or as the result of an initial error, very few beings live in accordance with the truth which their presence there foretells. At long last, our fretful experience teaches us to take no further account of this too mysterious face. A plain, hard mask covers it and bears the impress of all the acts and deeds that have affected us. Kindnesses illumine it with attractive and delicate colours, whereas offences channel it with deep grooves. In reality, it is only under this mask, modelled according to the recollection of pleasures or cares, that we perceive the man who approaches us; and to say to him, if he have offended us, that we forgive him is tantamount to telling him that we do not recognise him.
It is a question of knowing what influence this inevitable recognition will have upon our relations with the man who has injured us. In this, as in so many other respects, as soon as our good-will is roused, its first, as yet unconscious steps bring it back to the old road of the religious ideal. At the summit of this ideal, we might set up, as a symbol, the legendary group of the Christian woman burying, at the risk of her life, the execrated remains of Nero. There is no denying that the action of this woman is greater and goes farther beyond human reason than the action of Antigone, which dominates pagan antiquity. Nevertheless, it does not exhaust the limits of Christian forgiveness. Suppose that Nero be not dead, but staggering on the last confines of life and that an heroic rescue alone can save him. The Christian will owe him this rescue, even though she know for certain that the life which she is restoring to him will, at the same time, bring back the persecution. She can rise higher still: imagine that she have to choose in the same moment of anguish between her brother and the enemy who will doom her to destruction. She will reach the topmost summit only by preferring the enemy.
Of this ideal, which is sublime even where an infinite reward for it is taken into account, what are we to think in a world that looks for nothing in another world? At which of the three superhuman moments shall we call him mad who flings himself into one of those three abysses of forgiveness? We shall even to this day find a few traces of footsteps around the first; but no one will now stray around the two others. Let us admit that we have here a sort of heroic march of faith which is no longer possible; but, taking away faith, there nevertheless remains, even in the unreason of that ideal, something human that is as it were a presentiment of what man would like to do if life were not so cruel.
And let us not think that instances of` this kind, taken from the farthest ends of imagination, are idle or absurd. Existence constantly brings before us equivalents that are less tragic, but no less difficult; and the solution of the humblest cases of conscience depends upon the spirit which presides over that of the loftiest. All that we imagine on a large scale will end by being realised on a small; and upon the choice which we would make on the mountain depends exactly that which we will make in the valley.
Moreover, we can learn to forgive as completely as the Christian. We are no more prisoners than he of this world which we see with the eyes in our head. We need only an effort similar to his, but directed towards other gates, in order to escape from it. The Christian, just like ourselves, did not forget the injury; he did not attempt the impossible; but he first proceeded to drown any desire for revenge in the divine immensity. This divine immensity, more closely considered, is not very different from our own. Both, in reality, are but the feeling of the nameless immensity wherein we struggle. Religion raised every soul mechanically, so to speak, to the heights which we ought to reach by means of our own strength. But, as most of the souls which it drew thither were as yet blind, it made no vain endeavour to give them an idea of the truths which we perceive from those heights. They would not have understood them. It contented itself with describing to them pictures appropriate and familiar to their blindness, pictures which, for very different reasons, produced nearly the same effects as the real vision that strikes us at present. "We must forgive offences because God wishes it and has Himself set the most complete example of forgiveness that it is possible to imagine." This command, which we can follow without opening our eyes, is exactly the same as that given to us by the needs and the profound innocence of all life at the moment when we contemplate them from a sufficient height. And, if this latter command does not, like the first, go so far as to urge us to prefer our enemy because he is our enemy, this is not to say that it is less sublime, but that it addresses hearts which are more distinterested and minds which have learnt no longer to appraise an ideal solely according as to whether it be more or less difficult of attainment. In sacrifice, for instance, in penance, in mortification, there are, in this way, a whole series of spiritual victories which are more and more painful, but which are not really higher, because they rise not in the human atmosphere, but in the void above, where they shine not only without necessity, but often in a very hurtful fashion. The man who juggles with balls of fire on the point of a steeple is also doing a very difficult thing; yet no one dreams of comparing his useless courage with the devotion, nearly always less dangerous though it be, of the man who flings himself into the water or the flames to save a child. In any case -- and perhaps more efficaciously than the other -the command of which we were speaking dispels all hatred, for it no longer springs from a foreign will, it is born within ourselves at the sight of an immense spectacle in which men's actions assume their real place and meaning. There is no more ill-will, ingratitude, injustice or perversity, there is not even any more selfishness, in the magnificent and boundless night wherein poor beings move, guided by a darkness which each of them follows in exceeding good faith, believing that he is fulfilling a duty or exercising a right.
Let us not fear lest this vision, together with so many others which are grander and no less exact and which should always be present to our eyes, let us not fear lest it should disarm us and make victims or dupes of us in a life of vaster and harsher realities. There are very few among us that have need to strengthen their means of defence, to whet their prudence, their mistrust or their selfishness. Life's instinct and experience provide for this but too lavishly. We are never in danger of losing our equilibrium on the side opposed to our petty daily interests. All the efforts of a watchful thought suffice only with great difficulty to keep us erect. But it is no matter for indifference to others and especially to ourselves whether our movements of attack and defence are outlined against the dull background of hatred, contempt and disenchantment or against the transparent horizon of indulgence and of the silent forgiveness that explains and understands. Above all, as the years pass, let us keep to the humble lessons of experience. There is in these lessons a dull and heavy part that belongs by right to instinct and descends to the necessary clay-soil of life. There is no need to occupy ourselves with it: it buds and multiplies prodigiously in the unconscious. But there is a purer and more subtle part which we must learn to catch and hold before it evaporates in space. Every act allows of as many different interpretations as there are diverse forces in our intelligence. The lowest of them appear at first the simplest, the most natural and just, because they are the first to come, the idlest, those requiring the least effort. If we do not struggle without respite against their cunning and familiar encroachment, little by little they devour and poison all the hopes, all the beliefs out of which our youth had formed the noblest and most fruitful regions of our mind. Soon there would remain to us, towards the end of our days, nothing but the most miserable residue of wisdom. It is meet, therefore, that the loftiest interpretation which we can give of the facts that hustle us at every moment should rise in proportion as the gross treasure of the practical 'sense of existence accumulates. According as our sense of life increases in the soil by the roots, it is indispensable that it should ascend in the light by the fruits and flowers. It is necessary that an ever-vigilant thought should incessantly lift up, air and quicken the dead-weight of the years. Moreover, experience, seemingly so positive, so practical, so easy-going, so tranquil, so ingenuous and so sincere, knows full well that it hides some essential thing from us; and, had we the strength to drive it to its most secret retrenchments, we should end to a certainty by wringing from it the supreme avowal that, upon the upshot and when all and everything is said, the loftiest interpretation is invariably the truest.
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