The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
That is perhaps the second most famous quatrain from the Rubai'yat of Omar Khayya’m of Naisha’pur, and for good reason. It speaks to a continuing sorrow of the human condition: that what is past is past and cannot be changed or erased. There is a rather comforting theory of the fourth dimension that says that everything is happening at the same time, that the past, present and future are all happening at once, and therefore there really is no difference among them. Even if that be true, however, and I will admit that it seems to me evidence that math doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with reality, that is not the way we experience it. Our experience shows time as a one-way bridge that crumbles behind us so that we cannot go back to change what we did at any point, though what we did still shapes what we are.
There is a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times. I suppose we always do, really, but this past year has been a little more interesting than I care to deal with. There are the continuing horrors of Haiti where weather continues to batter them but suffering is exacerbated by incompetent government. There was the tragedy of the floods in Pakistan and the human created disasters of war and terrorism. There was the almost unbelievable mean-spiritedness of the last election, and the fears for a stymied government. There were also some high points — the rescue of the Chilean miners, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and in Florida the passage of Constitutional Amendments that mandate fair redistricting, but taken as a whole, I’ll be well enough pleased to let 2010 go. Next weekend we will celebrate that this year is past and we can have a new beginning, but in spite of the fact that what is past is behind us, we know that the past is not gone, that it influences and shapes the present and the future in part because it cannot be changed. We can’t go back and too often the reason we would wish to erase the past is to fix our own mistakes, erase our own errors, uncommit our sins, but those realities, too, remain with us. The only thing we can do is what the Jewish High Holidays require at their New Year in the fall, atone, forgive, and try to meet the coming year with the past not erased but dealt with, justified, and left behind. Their most important lesson, however, is that it can’t be simply left behind. We can’t merely shrug it off and forget about it. The shadows are with us in the new day, and they will not be gone simply because we have a new calendar with a new year marked on it. We cannot erase the errors, but for those things for which we do bear responsibility we can atone and forgive — in that order, and only then can we truly move on.
If the past is the past and cannot be erased or altered, there might be a question whether or not atonement is possible or even relevant. There was a letter in an advice column some time ago from a son whose father had just joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and as part of the 12 steps was asking forgiveness from all those whom he had wronged because of his enslavement to alcohol. The son not only was not willing to forgive, he was furious at the whole process. He thought it was not only empty but hypocritical, a mere going through the motions to fulfill the demands of the program. He was carrying a terrible burden of anger, and probably forgiveness would have been good for him no matter what it did or did not do for his father, but it may be that he felt that his father could have atoned for at least some of the past and was simply asking for forgiveness without making that atonement. It is sometimes hard to forgive, and perhaps it is even too soon to forgive, when you can see ways in which the evil consequences of past mistakes or misdeeds can be alleviated and are not being alleviated.
I used to have a perfect mechanic for my car. It’s not that his mechanical ability was perfect, though he was a good mechanic, honest and competent, but his life was perfect. He told me that since he had been reborn in his faith he had become perfect. He had not sinned, he told me, in seven years. My response was, and still is, somewhat skeptical, though perhaps my definition of sin is somewhat broader than his, including such things as hubris and complacency, and he may be right as far as his own definitions go. I told him that I preferred the grace of forgiveness to perfection.
That may not actually be true, when I think about it. My father once said that he had no desire for the common conception of heaven because perfection would be so boring, but he had to agree with my caveat that if it were boring it wouldn’t be perfection. True perfection would be preferable to anything else because it would include everything good including the wonderful feelings that forgiveness offers. However, in this finite world of ours, I do not believe in the existence of perfection, even in my perfect mechanic, and therefore the need for forgiveness, and the necessity of its being preferred over a mistaken sense of one’s own perfection is obvious.
There is an old saying whose provenance I do not know, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Surely there is truth to that, and it is the divine in us which allows us to forgive the error of humankind, both that of ourselves and of others. However, there are other concepts of value, and one of those is justice. I do not think of it as of higher value — in fact, I prefer mercy on an absolute scale — but I think it should precede it, and atonement, if it is possible, should precede forgiveness. And if it is possible and is not attempted, then perhaps forgiveness should be delayed or even withheld.
A new year symbolizes a new beginning, and new beginnings can happen, over and over again. What is that old 70’s saying? This is the first day of the rest of your life? We can celebrate that at the new year, but not, it seems to me, quite that easily. We need to recognize the immutability of the past and the existence of new opportunities to do better, to avoid repeating those past sins or mistakes, without obviating the duty to make up for them, to pay, to ask forgiveness. If it is possible, atonement must be made before forgiveness is even appropriate. Those we have injured should be compensated, repaid, apologized to, whatever it takes to do what one can to alleviate the present pain caused by past error before we should ask forgiveness or even accept it.
How nice it would be, what a relief it would be, if you could call back that moving finger to erase at least half a line, sometimes even one word! Guilt and regret are two of the most painful emotions we can feel. But it really is impossible. When the milk is spilled, it is spilled — and spoiled. That is past and can’t be undone. However, the consequences of that spilling are not past. There is a mess that still exists right now and needs to be cleaned up, and there’s milk for the breakfast cereal that needs to be replaced. That’s what atonement is: cleaning up your past mess and fixing whatever other consequences of your error may still be around. If there is, right now, today, something you can do — not to change the past which cannot be changed, but to alleviate the present pain caused by that past — then you ought to do it, no matter how long ago it was, how small it was, or how unintentionally it was that you erred.
One of the consequences of the psychobabble of the seventies was the proliferation of self-help groups modeled at least partially on Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t know if all of them use the serenity prayer, taken from one written originally by Reinhold Neibuhr, that is so important to members of AA, but I know that some of them do. You are all familiar with the version that they use, I’m sure:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
It’s a good prayer, but sometimes I wonder if some of the people using it have gotten past the first line.
We have discovered that a low self-image is the likely basis for most inability to cope with the exigencies of life, so we work on telling ourselves that we are lovable and capable, and forgiving ourselves for our mistakes. Today is still the first day of the rest of our lives. The past is gone. And that’s true. The moving finger has written and moved on. Nevertheless, there are still consequences in the present of that same past, and we bear responsibility for them. If we can atone, therefore, it is our responsibility to do so, rather than to wallow in the facile acceptance of our own fallibility and an equally facile self-forgiveness.
I am not saying that we should not practice forgiveness of ourselves as well as of others. We surely should and must. There is no point in wallowing in guilt over something about which we can do nothing. It is not only pointless, it is probably immoral, since such wallowing immobilizes us, and we cannot do the good that we are called to do. It is also wrong as well as pointless to harbor anger against others who can do nothing to change their past errors or atone for them today. That is when forgiveness of oneself or others is divine.
Perhaps it is that my concern is more with moral than with psychological health. I suppose some people would consider sociopaths mentally healthy since they feel no guilt and have a good self-image. However, most of us consider that a psychological aberration and deplore the absence of a conscience. With a conscience we will feel guilt, we will feel a sense of moral failure and the need to atone or to be forgiven without atonement, because that is what a conscience does when we don’t live up to our highest values, and despite what my perfect mechanic thinks he has achieved, none of us in this world does that unless our values or our awareness are lacking. So in order not to be prisoners of our consciences, we always need atonement and/or forgiveness. Frequently both.
First atonement, then forgiveness. It’s a question, however, when atonement is no longer possible and you have to seek forgiveness without it. Using the analogy of the milk, after you’ve cleaned it up and replaced it, you’ve thoroughly atoned, unless you got some on someone in the crash, and then you need to get the dress (or whatever) cleaned. What, though, if it is made of some unprecedentedly fragile material and the spot won’t come out? Well, you can pay for it, and that might atone, but my experience tells me that a piece of clothing you really like is very apt to be irreplaceable. Then all you can do is sue for forgiveness.
I suggested earlier that until all avenues of atonement are explored, it might be appropriate to withhold forgiveness, and I do think that is true, but it is also dangerous, because it is too easy to self-righteously assume that people can atone, when sometimes they really cannot because of particular circumstances of fact or personality. I think of that man I mentioned whose anger at his father is so intractable. He may be right as to his father’s surface penitence, that it goes no deeper than that, but he may be wrong, and the father may, by his apologies, be doing as much as is humanly possible. Even if he is not, it would be far better for the son, even for his own well-being, not his father’s, to assume that he is, and to forgive. To hang on to that kind of anger over a long time is usually more painful to the one who is angry than to the recipient of the anger. If the actions that produced the anger are regretted and no longer indulged in, it is time and past time to forgive. It is not for us to judge what is possible for others to do.
It is even a problem when self-forgiveness is at issue, because we sometimes set higher standards of behavior for ourselves than we can actually achiever, and then we think that we can atone, feeling guilty and worthless when we discover that we cannot. Of course, there are always those others who expect acceptance of the way they are, even when the way they are is unacceptable. There is a certain insouciance in the way some people say, “Oh, I’m afraid you’re going to have to forgive me. That’s just the way I am.” Don’t bother. They’ve already forgiven themselves, and you therefore have no obligation to do it too.
There is a misconception that some people, even some Catholics, have about the rite of confession. They understand that if you have confessed and have done whatever penance has been assigned that you are therefore cleansed, and your sin is no longer something you have to worry about, and you can even go out and do it again, so long as you manage to get to confession before you die. That is not the proper understanding, however. Confession and the doing of penance are worthless unless there is true contrition, and therefore the intention not to repeat the wrong action. All those Hail Marys won’t do you one ounce of good unless your repentance is real. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be shriven of the same sin more than once, since Catholics, like everyone else, occasionally fail to live up to their best intentions. However, the honest intention must be there to do better in future.