Forgiveness is something we all grapple with in one way or another. The U.S. songwriter Howard Dietz (1896-1983) surmised in 1953, “all the world is a stage,” to which I would supplement that one or more of life’s stock characters – the abusive parent, the backstabbing co-worker, the gossiping friend, the bullying boss or the unfaithful spouse – is bound to be hanging about in the shadowy backstage of each of our minds, waiting to play a part in our own personal tragicomedies. No matter how much we may wish to, we cannot simply write them out of the script.
When we take control of our own thoughts and emotions though, we give ourselves the opportunity to become the directors of our own lives. In this way, we can decide how much of the limelight of our precious days these noxious stereotypes will receive. Perhaps, if we’re capable of enough empathy and subtlety of thought, we will even be able to see that they are not really stereotypical villains at all, but characters just as complex, and every bit as heroic and buffoonish as ourselves. Like us, they are often playing parts not of their own choosing. Like Constance Ledbelly, the heroine of Ann-Marie McDonald’s (1988) play Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), by seeing things as they really are we can fulfill the role of one of Shakespeare’s wise fools, able to creatively transform tragedy into comedy and lead a better life.
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia, one of the characters, a police officer, talks about the difficulty of making judgements about others. Being a cop, he finds that he necessarily splits the world up into three categories: people who need to be given a helping hand, people who need to be forgiven, and people who need to be put in jail. Deciding who should be forgiven, he says, is the hardest part of the job and in fact, “the hardest part of walking down the street.”
But what if we choose not to make those judgements? What if we choose to grant a general emotional amnesty to everyone that we feel has ever wronged us? Surely, that would simplify things and let us direct our energies into more valuable pursuits. After all, most of us don’t have to carry a badge, a gun and a pair of handcuffs, even metaphorically. Everybody ultimately creates his or her own destiny in this life. Just as the good will be rewarded without our intervention, the truly destructive and malevolent will build and inhabit their own cages without us having to act as enforcers and prison guards.
Forgiving does not mean forgetting, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we have to maintain a relationship with those who have done us wrong. It just means that we need to free those individuals from our consciousness, set them loose to look after themselves, so that we can concentrate on what really does matter, and those who are worth the energy and effort.
Anderson, Paul Thomas (Director) (1999) Magnolia [Film]. New Line Cinema.
Dietz, Howard (Songwriter) and Arthur Schwartz (Composer) (1953). That’s Entertainment [Song]. The Band Wagon. Chappell and Company.
MacDonald, Ann-Marie (1988). Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) [Play].