Friday, December 23, 2011

A Rose By Another Name

I've been thinking a lot over the past few weeks and months about forgiveness and its role in friendship. My thoughts are still a bit muddied and in-process, but I decided I'd like to try to articulate them as they are forming, instead of waiting until they settle into shape.

Sometimes the process is more important than the product.

My thinking started the other day when I heard "Sympathy" by The Goo Goo Dolls. I had always felt a strange sympathy for someone who was only in my life for a very short time and who hadn't really ever earned either my sympathy or my friendship. (Quite the contrary, actually.)

This song always makes me think of him.

In the end, it was my own strange sympathy for him that became the source of my sense of forgiveness and the clarity that accompanied it.
"And I wasn't all the things
I tried to make believe I was...
And all the talk and all the lies
Were all the empty things disguised as me.
Stranger than your sympathy..."
Mahatma Ghandi once said, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong."

The other day, I realized that the benefit of forgiveness is the clarity that accompanies the action.

The strength inherent in the act of forgiveness stems, I think, from a willingness to see things as they are and as they have been, and yet to agree to let go of the feelings of anger and resentment, no matter how well-deserved they might be.

I agree with Ghandi: the weak cling. They have to, perhaps, because they need a full sense of the ways in which they were wronged if they want to assert that they are--and presumably always were, in fact--right.

Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz has said, "Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence." There's more to life than being right all the time, and in some ways, it takes a certain courage to realize that and to be willing to speak and act accordingly.

So I think that my current attitude is that forgiveness is a gesture--and an important one, obviously.

But I also think that linking forgiveness and friendship, as if one automatically entails the other, is like saying that a wave of one's hand is the same as the hand itself.

It's a disservice to friendship.

Szasz (rather cynically) claims, "The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget."

Despite the cynicism of Szasz's claim, I think he has a point. We can wipe the slate clean and forget what was once written on it, but should we simply forget that it was ever written upon at all?

I don't think so. I think there's a difference between the friends you've forgiven and the friends you've never had to forgive at all. To treat the former as if they are simply and seamlessly included among the latter is to devalue the latter.

They don't deserve that. And recognizing that distinction is essential to proving oneself to be a good friend in turn.

Almost every language in the world has some variation on the following proverb: "A friend to all is a friend to none."

Friendship is a choice and a fabric. We choose what it will consist of, we establish the warp and the weft, and then we mutually weave the result. It is textured and dyed by the nature and color of our experiences.

A friend of mine once told me about how it took her years to forgive her ex-husband. She said she remembered the relief she felt at finally being able to see him and listen to him and not feel anger--to be able to genuinely wish him well in the world.

She then immediately commented, "That doesn't mean I'd give him the chance to do it all again."

I was thinking of this the other day, as I was noticing that, for some people, friendship is all about tone and attitude and style, and not at all about content.

Friends talk with a sense of the content of the exchange. If I chat cheerfully with someone about things that don't matter to me at all, that's fine, but I'd never call us "friends." If I talk with someone for an hour and they never once ask, "So how are you? How have you been? What's been going on with you?" and wait for an answer, that's also fine, but I walk away knowing that this isn't really a friend.

That's why it's called "small talk." Because it's small.

Friendships are large, beautiful, cumbersome and occasionally inconvenient things.

Friends make distinctions, they know the nuances, they show up even when it isn't convenient. They do the work, day in and day out. When there's a problem, they pitch in and try to fix it.

They don't retreat to a safe distance and wait for the storm to pass: they weather the storm with you, and they try to make you laugh when there isn't much to laugh about. They don't show up when it's over and try to claim credit for thoughts and feelings and intentions that their actions never made manifest--for the work they just simply weren't ever really willing to do.

What I've realized this year, among other things, is that not everyone gets it. And that's okay. I have what I have and I know what I value and what I offer to others on a daily basis, and I know that not everyone will see it or know how to appreciate that in a way that works for me.

Forgiveness gave me the clarity to see that, and I'm grateful that I have that perspective and that I know how to implement it in my life on a daily basis. After months of spinning my wheels, I was suddenly able to move forward with a jolt and a rush and now I can look back and marvel at the distance I've come.

The 19th-century British novelist George Eliot once wrote, "It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses."

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."