I’ll admit, I’m having a little bit of trouble figuring out what to do with forgiveness, now that I’m an atheist. I don’t mean that I’ve suddenly taken to holding permanent grudges. People who apologize to me still get to hear a some variation on “I accept your apology.” My crisis is more metaphysical. I was raised to think of forgiveness in a very Christian context. Sins were stains on our soul, but forgiveness washed them away, and just as God washed our sins away, we are required to follow his example and forgive others. Now that I’m an atheist, forgiving still feels like a generally good thing to do, but why? What am I really doing when I forgive? Now that I don’t believe in a God demanding that I forgive everyone, is it ever acceptable to choose to not forgive? Is that ever a good decision?
The second Veggie Tales episode is one of the many Christian stories that helped form my understanding of forgiveness, prior to atheism. It opens with a letter from a kid who is frustrated by this whole, “God says forgive everyone, seriously, you do not have a choice in this,” issue. Larry leads us straight into the first story; The Grapes of Wrath.
This one is actually a bit bland and preachy, as Veggie Tales goes. It was only the second episode, and I think they were still finding their voice. It opens with a family of grapes driving around, being petty and mean for no reason, until they encounter Jr. Asparagus. They bully Jr. until he starts crying and Jr’s Dad comes out to see what’s going on. He then puts on his best patient grown-up lecture voice, and explains to them that the thing about being mean is that being mean is mean and you should probably not do it. This is apparently a novel concept to them. They apologize, with a promise to not do it again, and Jr. forgives them.
The grapes keep their promise for all of five seconds. Jr’s Dad comes out and reminds them of that whole “don’t be assholes” thing, and they apologize again, and then Jr. is told to forgive them again.
Jr. isn’t a fan of this, but all it takes to get him to accept the apology for a second time is the reminder that Jesus once told his disciples that they should forgive people “not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) This was apparently a complex metaphor for “you never stop forgiving.”
This is one of those places where Christian teachings did not set me up well for the future. The trouble with repeatedly forgiving somebody is that sometimes the fact that they keep having to apologize means that, A. they don’t have any actual intention to improve their behavior, but are merely apologizing as a learned behavior to avoid consequences and therefore B. they are not actually good people to be around. The trouble with sticking around people after they’ve hurt you again and again is that often you end up getting hurt really badly.
That said, I do actually think it is important for kids to learn to forgive repeatedly. The fact is that humans, despite the best of intentions, often screw up a few more times before they actually change for the better. In little kids, this tendency is a wee bit exaggerated. In the short term, they have very little self-control, but they are also in the middle of forming their personalities, their identities and their whole style of interacting with people. They will make mistakes and need to be forgiven again and again and again. However, the lesson of giving second chances, once learned, sometimes does have to be unlearned. Adults, have more self-control in the short term, but are less malleable in the long run. A mistake an adult makes a second time is more likely to be a mistake they make a third time, a third mistake more likely to be repeated a fourth one, and so on. Sometimes, you really are better off not forgiving them, and erecting some barriers instead.
Which brings me to the second story of the episode. Bob and Larry tell a story about when they were younger and worked taking people on luxury boat tours. There is apparently a Gilligan’s Island parody in here as well, but I’ve never seen the original show so I’m not qualified to dissect it. Wacky hijinks lead Larry to crash the boat and strand them all on a deserted but very photogenic island, and they all yell at them.
He apologizes, and they don’t forgive him. He apologizes again, and they still don’t forgive him. They erect bamboo huts, and when he bunks down with Bob for the night he tries apologizing again, but Bob just tells him, “sorry isn’t good enough.” Larry lies there thinking about this, and decides that “sorry isn’t good enough,” really means “you’re not good enough.” He decides this means that everyone would be happier if he wasn’t around anymore, so he runs off into the jungle.
His correlation between “sorry isn’t good enough,” and “you’re not good enough” sounds like an overreaction at first, but I think there’s actually something to it. Sometimes it means, “you need to do something to make up for this,” but in this case there is nothing that Larry can do. It could also mean that Larry needs to rebuild trust, but that could have been communicated more clearly. “I still care about you, but if we ever get off this island I will need to see you work on your attentional issues before I can trust you to steer a boat again,” would have been more honest, kinder, and much more constructive. In this case, “sorry isn’t good enough,” is just a way to shut Larry out, which is making Larry feel like he’s not loved enough to be forgiven.
The next morning, Bob wakes up to find Larry missing, and goes looking for him. Meanwhile, Dad Asparagus, who is a scientist in this story, is experimenting with inventions to get them all back on shore. The catapult he’s trying to demonstrate misfires and knocks Bob into the other two passengers, but when Dad Asparagus apologizes everyone forgives him. They start talking about how good it feels to forgive and be forgiven, and suddenly realize why Larry ran off. They find him, forgive him, and then a successful invention of Dad Asparagus’ gets them all home safe.
There are two types of forgiveness demonstrated in the episode, as well as two justifications for forgiving people. The two types of forgiveness are forgiveness of someone who has done something maliciously, and forgiveness of someone who has done something unintentionally. In the second story, Larry isn’t a bad person. He didn’t want to do harm, and not forgiving him just feels cruel. In the former, there is some question of whether or not the grapes really deserve to be forgiven. Both stories, however, leave out a crucial part of the narrative. Do the offending people recognize what they did wrong, and attempt to fix it? Forgiveness is an act of trust. It says, “I will let go of this experience, and I trust you to keep it from happening again.” Sometimes that trust will have to be offered more than once, but at a certain point the repeated mistakes becomes a dangerous pattern. But how do you know when you’ve reached that point? Is there a middle ground, a type of forgiveness where you keep holding onto the relationship, but become more wary in the future? Also, is it really forgiveness if you just realized the whole thing was an accident or a misunderstanding? In that case, there isn’t really any blame, so how can there be forgiveness? It seems like there can only be forgiveness where there is real blame, which brings me back to the question of whether it is really wise to forgive fully and unconditionally every time? I still don’t have answers to those questions, and possibly there aren’t any.
The two justifications given are “because God tells you to,” and “because not being forgiven hurts.” The first one, of course, has no relevance to my life anymore. The second one does. I like people. There are people who I care about in my life. All of them have hurt me, at some point in my life. I have hurt every one of them, at some point. I have forgiven and been forgiven because that’s what you need to do in order to keep on having relationships with flawed yet wonderful people, and the thing about flawed yet wonderful people is, number one, they usually do work on doing better right away, and number two, they are the only kind of wonderful people out there.
This issue of forgiveness cuts to the heart of something I have been struggling with, and still don’t have a good answer for. How do you strike a balance between letting people into your life, and protecting your own heart? There are people out there who should not be trusted with anyone’s heart, and still more who might be all right with some people but can have toxic dynamics with others. How do you know when someone has crossed that line? Is it possible to tell who will cross that line before they actually do? When is forgiveness noble, and when is it only foolish? I don’t know, but one of the things I like about atheism is that it lets me say, “I don’t know,” instead of serving me the answer on a platter of “because God said so.”
Up next; Veggie Tales talks about loving people who are different from you.