Wednesday, April 18, 2007

i choose neither

There is a roundtable discussion happening over at Julie's which simply asks which is of greater necessity, justice or forgiveness.

Try as I might, I am unable to discern a qualitative difference in value that might construe degrees of necessity.

I perceive justice as a social, political, & legal conceptual framework (a by-product of, and an important ingredient in, the perpetration & perpetuation of the illusory battle between the forces of good & evil) that is forever relative to context, culture, world view, and history. Justice, in juxtaposition to fairness, appears extremely difficult to measure, and its distribution oftentimes appears arbitrary. An eye-for-an-eye sounds easy enough, but a particular crime might warrant a 5 year probation where I live & a 20 year prison sentence elsewhere. So which penalty is more just (and should measures of justice be adjusted when prisons are under/over-crowded)? In this legal sense, justice oftentimes feels like state-sponsored revenge, subject to availability and/or fiscal opportunity; and while no two courts can agree on how much revenge is sufficient, victims & their families tend to agree that neither the amount nor the nature of the revenge is ever sufficient.

Readers of Plato's Crito know that Socrates would crush any one concept of justice within three minutes and ask three questions, the last answer to which would directly contradict whatever definition of (and justification for) justice was originally proposed. Justice is like a butterfly - the harder you pursue it the better it evades you.

I perceive forgiveness as an ego-centered decision-making process. The process may be healing as a self-soothing cognitive-behavioral psychology, but I believe it misses the greater mark. The act of forgiving (an other) appears divisive, judgmental, & ethically & morally authoritarian. Forgiveness uses subjective judgment to reconcile the pain of oneself with the guilt of another and, in the process, creates a critical distinction between self and other, between self & all. In forgiving, we may miss an opportunity to grapple with authentic suffering, understand the deeper/broader roots of the transgression and, worse, cheat the transgressor out of these opportunities for him/her self.

Besides, the hardest person to forgive is yourself. Even if someone forgives you of something, you & I both know it is meaningless until you learn how to forgive yourself. Forgiving oneself, in my experience, takes a lot of practice & self-love and itself necessitates a very forgiving experience. Nobody can beat me up quite like me. I torture my own guilt complex, know the perfect buttons to press, and nobody can relieve me of that but myself. Please, if you value forgiveness & want to practice it, practice on yourself. Leave forgiving others up to supreme beings, whose many teachings speak of the power of forgiveness and absolution, but mixed in that too is a forgiveness of self, a new beginning. Such an act is infinitely more valuable to the cosmic order of things than the assertion that we can free others from the machinations of their own tortured mind by informing them that we have decided to absolve their guilt.

So instead, I take the other fork in the road and choose compassion as the greatest necessity. Compassion does not suffer the amorphous framework of justice, nor does it suffer the ego-trap of forgiveness. To manifest compassion is to suffer with - to acknowledge the true nature of suffering, precluding judgment, and to experience one's fundamental sameness & interdependence with another - in essence, embodying love for all things, at all times.

Compassion exists with or without a transgression, whereas forgiveness & justice can only exist in response to a transgression. Compassion can prevent transgressions, whereas forgiveness & justice are retribution for transgressions. Compassion validates a person's experience of and response to pain, whereas forgiveness & justice punish a person for their experience of pain, and for the maladaptive strategy they devised for coping with that pain. Compassion is a state-of-mind, not a choice or a decision-making process. Compassion is a way of life, not a reaction. Compassion is communal. Compassion is opportunity.

However painful or joyous, I am you, you are me, and we are one. We suffer together. No one suffers alone. No one is exempt. No one chooses to be an asshole. Next time you meet one, ask yourself: What torment has this person suffered such that this heinous defense mechanism on display before me has successfully pirated a once innocent child's life for the pure & simple purpose of that child's survival? Doing this makes it hard to look at an asshole in the same way again.

Not that, you know, you ever looked at assholes in precisely the same way before.

In this view, innocence and guilt are arbitrary...but not meaningless. Forgiveness re-wounds the child (affirming primal worthlessness). Justice punishes the child (scorning the very mechanism that ensures the child's survival). Compassion acknowledges & joins with the suffering of the child. Compassion loves the child, not the act, and stands for the possibility of transformation, mindful evolution, a paradigm shift. In this view, compassion presents an opportunity, whereas both forgiveness & justice seek to bring closure - where there is none.

When China invaded Tibet, the Dalai Lama called for neither justice nor forgiveness, but simply compassion. Sure, he would like to get the land back to reestablish an independent Tibet, but for the last 50 years all he has ever displayed or asked for on behalf of China is compassion. For what insatiable craving (the root of all suffering) would drive one political body (that already controls one of the largest pieces of land on Earth, that already governs one-sixth of the world's population, with uncontested rights & access to an enormous supply of natural & commercial resources) to invade a sovereign peaceful neighbor, pillage an entire society, rape nuns, torture monks, murder innocent women & children, imprison farmers & peasants, and systematically try to destroy & desecrate an entire ancient culture, civilization, psychology, esoteric tradition, way of life, and world view? The Llama's got a point, extraordinary as it is, that such an act calls for our love & compassion - for surely such an act is borne of tremendous dis-ease, and no act or acts of vengeance will eradicate such a disease but, in fact, may strengthen it. The Dalai Llama stands for the possibility that Tibet's destruction presents global opportunities for transformation, mindful evolution, and paradigm shifts.

In George Bush's America, I stand for that possibility, too.

Whew. So conceptually, I believe this to be my answer. Easier said than done, friends. Throw a stone my way and ask how I would feel if someone caused pain to my child. Would I want justice? Probably. Could I find the strength to forgive? Probably not. Could I practice what I preach & experience compassion for the person whose pain was so great that it lead them to harm my baby? A question I hope goes forever unanswered. But when I think through these options, justice and forgiveness ring hollow. Suffering, no matter how it is dressed & presented, does not alleviate suffering.

Intellectually I get it. Spiritually I must practice it. J and I talked about this for quite a long time last night, and he put his thoughts into this post too. If nothing else, it's a timely topic, Virginia ringing in my ears as I write.


NotSoSage said...

Wow. I've got to come back to this and read it again, but I wanted to say this.

I used to drive people crazy because when they complained about a person I would say something along the lines of, "Yes, but imagine what they went through to get like this."

In recent years I've started to say that a person's past explains what they do but doesn't necessarily excuse it. As I come to know people who have been through what I consider hell who still come out on the other side as kind, thoughtful people.

I don't know what to make of it anymore. Perhaps I'm becoming hardened in my old age.

thailandchani said...

Wow... excellent! You've certainly taken the words out of my mouth.

I let this post stand as speaking for many of us. No addition necessary from me.



QT said...

Unfortunately, Socrates also believed that only a virtuous man could decide what is just - try finding one today.

Nicely done post, friend.

sober briquette said...

I've been thinking about this for a while - I think someone's interview contained a question about justice and forgiveness - and I only got as far as the hollow ring. Thank you for offering me another path to explore.

Susanne said...

Thank you for that post. I'll have to think about that... (In fact, I'll have to add it to my list of things to think about and then probably will forget about it for a while.)

Justice somehow doesn't seem possible. I'm not sure about forgiveness. I'll have to think about about compassion for sure.

kgirl said...

You're a good person. Don't ever let anyone tell you different.

bubandpie said...

Your take on forgiveness here captures what is missing from the common conception of it as a kind of freebie, a way of letting people off the hook. Forgiveness is offensive. It insists unflinchingly on the wrongness of the action.

Of course, that's what I LIKE about forgiveness. It takes humility to accept forgiveness, but humility need not be humiliation.

I read once that the thing that helps a cheating or leaving spouse recover the fastest is if the cheat-ee or leave-ee expresses anger. I'm not sure what that means, though. Does the expression of anger clear the air and promote self-forgiveness? Or does it simply give the offender an excuse to evade guilt by blaming the victim?

Karen Forest said...

I feel that love is the reflection of compassion.

"......and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."


Gwen said...

Dude. I bow before both your intellect and your loving spirit.

I don't know about the forgiveness thing, though. I know what you're saying about it seeming like a response of superiority, of judgment, but I'm not sure all people define it that way. For some, forgiveness IS compassion.

Good stuff, you.

slouching mom said...

Wow, jen, this is just brilliant.

I don't see forgiveness as a negative, though. I see it as transcendental, rather like your compassion.

This may just be semantics, no?

Blog Antagonist said...

Wow. Bravo. Just...Bravo.

Julie Pippert said...

Oohhhhh...Jen. FANTASTIC. I'm collecting the posts for the link list just now but oh wow, you make me think of so many things. I will have to come back and add in my actual comments later.

venessa said...

A very beautiful and provocative post, Jen. I'll certainly be giving this some thought.

urban-urchin said...

To me forgiveness is about letting go of the hate and anger toward another person- so it doesn't engulf me. So in that respect it is selfish. The common misconception of forgiveness is that it excuses consequences. I choose to forgive the man who hurt me, for example, but that doesn't mean that I don't believe that he should go to jail for a long long time. Compassion I believe is a by product of forgiveness.

Forgiveness also isn't an emotion but a conscious act. I have forgiven many people when I didn't feel forgiveness toward them, the emotions and yes the compassion comes later...

Once again Jen you have me thinking deeply about the things that form my center. Thank you.

Oh, The Joys said...

I don't know. I'm not sure that they don't all have their time and place - being the very most necessary at different times depending on the situation...

Bon said...

Christ in a handbag, that was well-written.

and something i needed to read, i think, today, as i got caught up in my own petty, protective tizzy.

compassion. okay. compassion. i think justice and forgiveness may be necessary concepts, sometimes, for getting to compassion...but perhaps that's another post.

thanks, Jen, for being out there.

Jocelyn said...

Damn, but you smart, Jen.

I focus on the word "necessity," and find myself leaning towards "justice"--"forgiveness" feels like a process that isn't required but is helpful.

As I get older, I'm finding myself more and more compassionate; I used to think I knew something and would, therefore, be judgmental. Now I realize I know nothing.

Mary-LUE said...

Disclaimer: I don't usually visit your blog. I followed a link from Woman on the Verge and I am also participating in the roundtable discussion. Normally, I wouldn't comment with such a strong opinion, especially on a blog new to me.

No one chooses to be an asshole.

I think well, I know, that I disagree with this statement. I have a very well-developed habit of finding compassion and understanding for what makes a person who they are in life. It is an integral part of who I am. (I'm tooting my own compassion horn just so that you might know that I don't abandon compassion completely to favor personal responsibility.)

Moobs wrote a great piece on his grandmother-in-law, what a pill she was when he met her. As he got to know her, she always remained a pill, but he understood why and had love and compassion for her. I love that he could see that.

However, I think we all have choices to make. (And, I'm sure, this is all fuel for the Nature v. Nurture debate.) Not everyone who is abused becomes an abuser. Not everyone who is abused remains a victim. On any level, from being a pill to being some who victimizes others in more horrible ways, there is a time and place to make a choice. Some people have circumstances so overwhelming, that yes, I don't think it is likely that they can make the best choices. However, many, many people have the knowledge and the awareness to make a different choice. A choice to not make your family miserable with your complaining, a choice to not heap verbal abuse on your child, a choice not to lash out at the salesperson who just screwed up.

I have a responsibility, I believe, to not be an asshole. I fail at that responsibility, it's true, but the inevitability of that failure doesn't absolve me of the need to keep trying to make the better choice.

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts on your post--and if this comment disappears, I'll understand! ;)

jen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Momish said...

Jen, as always, you make my head heart from too much thinking!

I love your words about compassion and the plight of Tibet. I think compassion is a worthy goal in anyone's lifelong quest. It is vital to being a human being.

When I first read Julie's post on this, it just seemed to me that justice was more of a public affair deligated to society as a whole. Forgiveness, on the other hand, was more personal and left between two parties.

So, I think I agree with you when you say you would choose compassion. Compassion goes a step further for me, delegated to the entire human race (or even all beings). It is humbling to have compassion. To say that you can completely understand how another being can fall, be led astray or act in a certain way simply because you share the same nature.

Also, I have to applaud you. I just love that you stepped aside and took this challenge in your own way. To quote Paula, Randy and Simon, "You made it your own."

Lawyer Mama said...

Nicely said. With what happened at Va. Tech, I don't know that there will ever be justice. Forgiveness? Maybe some people affected will forgive. If I were one of the parents I would be hard pressed to give it though.

I think I do agree with Mary-lue, to some extent, that we all have choices to make, but... There's always a but, right? "However, many, many people have the knowledge and the awareness to make a different choice." Yes, but I don't know that it is as clear or easy a choice as we'd like to think. For some people, I believe being an "asshole" really does have a genetic component. But for others, it is a learned habit. I'd like to think that I would be compassionate and make the correct choices regardless of my past or upbringing, but I can't say that with certainty.

Julie Pippert said...

Okay wow, Jen, wow again.

You roundtablers are blowing my mind big time. THANK YOU! I really needed more POVs, more discussion to help settle some thougths rattling around my head and heart (both of which I appear to use to think sometimes LOL). And if this paragraph looks familiar it is because I think I will c&p it w/in each of my comments because by gum it is universally true.

First, have you read my post yet? It's UP! WOO HOO! And adding to it all day and hopefully the night and tomorrow too.

Second, I don't use the word compassion but I SHOULD. I do use the concept you discuss but apply it to forgiveness.

Third, I think some of us are bent, some are creased, but some? Some are broken. Some days my friend, I count myself among the broken. Some days, it shows, and those are the times of shame, not for the weakness itself, but for the times I impose that weakness through HURT to another person.

So in that, I think, you know, sometimes we do know better, but we do not DO better and thus have made a choice...possibly a choice to be an asshole (or worse). I tmight not be a conscious decision, but it is a danger to live unconsciously (which is also a choice). It's impossible to be perfect. But it is possible to acknowledge and take responsibility for the times when we cause harm through our imperfection.

This is the point in my post I endeavor to make when I talk about justice, being removed from society, and seizing the opportunity.


It's never exclusively an individual problem. It's a collective problem, a tribal issue.

It's all of our problem, all of our responsibility.

I just read over at Oh The Joys about her signing up with CASA.

See, stuff like that? Stuff like me buying the prescription for the lady in front of me at the pharmacy? Stuff like Amnesty International's Imagine Campaign?

That's a choice. It's a good one that closes a crack, and maybe one less person will fall through.

We have to pay attention. We have to listen, hear, and speak up to be heard.

As Chani discusses, we can't fear pain or grief, we can't ask it to shut up...and as I said, we need to let it wash over us and be improved by it.

Bob said...

Your argument, as I understand it, is that justice and forgiveness both imply a relative value of one individual against another and therefore are not suitable responses to wrongs perpetrated. The alternative of compassion, you propose, removes the value judgment. The implication is that all life has equal value. One's right to live does not supersede another's. Is this an absolute? If saving your child's life means another person's death would you save your child? Does this mean that in defending yourself another's life is taken, you should instead allow yours to be taken?

All of these are value judgments. Almost all social systems either imply or outright state the value of the individuals within it. I think this probably arises from our biological imperative for self-preservation.

How do we reconcile the two?

Gwen said...

Okay, I'm back. Woot! (I haven't been to Julie's yet ....)

I've been thinking about this forgiveness thing all day, this idea that forgiveness implies relative value (B&P touched on this here and on my post) and also that forgiveness has a way of ignoring suffering. "Oh, I'm sorry!" "Okay, I forgive you!" There's so much emotion missing between those two sentences.

But the truth is that people cause one another hurt. Sometimes it's not so much intentional as it is careless. Sometimes it's planned. Either way, without forgiveness, what does one do with the hurt? You can't simply explain damage away through compassion, because that denies compassion to yourself.

What I like about yoga principles is that they don't deny feelings (being the child of fundie missionaries--short hand, no offense intended ... see? sorry, sorry, oh so sorry--this is a novel concept to me, that feelings just are, neither good nor bad). Yoga only requires that you experience each present moment fully. Is it possible that feeling the pain and then choosing to move beyond it is an act of forgiveness, too?

And re what Mary Lue said: I'm a firm believer in having a choice. It's only by choosing that we become. At the same time, I understand that some choices, for some people, are far more difficult than they are for others. Perhaps this is what you mean by compassion.

Deezee said...

I'm with you on this. Completely. me being brief... :)

crazymumma said...

ooohhhh Jen. You've gone and made me think about how I think again. would ya stop it? I'm getting comfortably entrenched over here.

I hear all the things you say, and I agree that compassion is the ideal higher ground. It is something I trytrytry to find in my every day, perversely I find it easier to be compassionate to strangers than to my own family (aside from my children, but they do test me I tell you...).

That said, although I want to be a wholly compassionate soul and work for it always, the angry in me longs and sometimes gives in to the handing out of justice and forgiveness.

great post. timely.

kaliroz said...

Wow, I'm going to have to come back to this. To really chew on it some before I say anything, really.

But, wow. Your post is certainly making me thing through things again.

Marymurtz said...

I know you said that nobody chooses to become an asshole; I think that asshole-ery doesn't arise out of a vacuum. And some people don't realize, once they're there, that they DO have a choice.

My mother in law was tormented for years by her mother in law--my husband's grandmother. We used to say that Grandma wanted justice for everyone else and mercy for herself. She was so mean spirited and vindictive and gossippy...turns out she had a horrible childhood and some terribly psychological issues she hadn't told anyone about.

My mother in law always told me "She's just a product of her life and we have to have compassion." I didn't feel compassionate. When she died, I felt that I needed to forgive, but it didn't really help anything until I learned about her life and felt compassion.

Forgiveness without compassion is hollow and, I think, the benefits will be short-lived. How does the world advance without understanding?

boogiemum said...

I definitely enjoyed reading your post, albeit I think we do take a different approach on things. I greatly respect what you had to say and appreciate the thought you put into and have passed on to us.

Penny. said...

I don't think that justice and forgiveness are polar opposites on the same continuum.

I think they are one in the same.


Fantastically thought provoking post.. going to return for a second read in a few hours.

Ruth Dynamite said...

Forgiveness, understanding, compassion - I think they all go hand in hand.

Beautiful and thought-provoking post.

The Expatriate Chef said...

I have yet to leave your site without a head full of thoughts and a heart full as well. Thank you for this. Thank you so much.

K said...

Incredible. Just incredible.

flutter said...

compassion is all we can strive for. You've stated it perfectly

theflyingmum said...

Wow, jen - just, Wow! What a gift you have, your case for compassion was so beautifully stated. And I agree. But I'm struggling with how to teach that to Ben, when I know I'm not always the best example. Today the kitty that's been hanging around here bit him (he was wearing gloves, just in case...) and he said "I don't like the kitty anymore, she's mean."
Hmmmm. Is it a typical response, for a child? Or is that how I react to a perceived "injustice?" I'll be thinkin' about this one, oh yes.

scribbit said...

All I know is that forgiveness is much harder for me to practice than justice.

Mad Hatter said...

It's funny, I did the Myers-Briggs yesterday so that I could finally tell B&P what I am. When I got to the question where you have to choose "justice" or "mercy" I was stymied. I didn't want to choose either. I wanted to choose both, but even then I knew something was missing.

This is a wonderful, thought-provoking post, Jen, and as so many others have pointed out it is extremely well-written. I'm not a theoretical thinker and so I often find I come up short when confronted with such great philosophical discussions. I guess what I would say is that a functioning society--a functioning world--needs more than any one of these concepts conveys. It needs all three and then just a bit more. It needs intelligence and reflection and insight...

Thanks for getting my mental wheels moving.

Andrea said...

You know what? I don't agree. I think compassion can infantalize someone, when used as a replacement for forgiveness.

When I think of the times I have wronged someone, I woudl have been appalled if they had tried to excuse my behaviour as the product of a rotten childhood or a mental health issue. What am I, a toddler, who doesn't understand cause and effect or have any impulse control? No. Whatever my life has made me, in the end, what I choose to do is just that--my choice. For someone *not* to insist on my wrongdoing is, in essence, robbing me of my ability to make choices. In the name of doing me a favour. Thanks, but no thanks. I'm an adult; hold me accountable.

The Dalai Lama is a great guy, and very inspiring, but like all people he has the potential to be wrong, and if he truly advocates for compassion *in place of* justice or forgiveness for China, I think he is very very wrong. Are we waiting for the world's compassion to bring light to China's eyes on its human rights abuses? IT hasn't so far. We can feel compassion as much as we like, but yes, we need to insist on an acknowledgement of wrongdoing as well.

Magpie said...

Stunning. Thank you.

jen said...

Go girl. It's sort of a bigger question, though, isn't it, than one individual wrong or right. I think the point of compassion isn't so much to offer an excuse, but to further allow for the reality of interconnection. If I hurt you, I am hurting myself. If, prior to all hurts occuring, we lived by this philosophy, then would we need justice or forgiveness?

I see the others as answering to the wrong already committed, and compassion as stopping those wrongs from occuring at all.

Does that make sense? I don't see it as an "excuse". But once the wrongdoing has occurred, what really changes with justice or forgiveness? Nothing, it's already been done. Maybe it stops future wrongs from occuring, but I don't really think so.

Everyone, I so love this dialogue, and unfortunately my own head is swimming so I can't respond to each of you eloquently as I'd like.

I'd like to say, though...that compassion does not excuse other people's's not what i meant - but if we could ALL embrace that, then perhaps we'd choose differently.

If only.

Andrea said...

I see a few problems still:

1. We're not prior to all hurts occuring. Unfortunately, we need to choose how to react in a world with a lot of pain already in it.

2. Compassion cannot stop hurt from occuring. Even if we were all perfectly compassionate and commited to acting from a place of compassion as of tomorrow morning at 10:00 am EST, there would be disease, illness, sleep deprivation, accidents, death, loss of loved ones, earthquakes, tsunamis, flood, fire, attacks by wild animals, food poisoning, drought, global climate change, and possibly a random meteor strike ending civilization as we know it. In short, there will always be pain, and some people will always be broken by it. We will always need to choose how to respond to the hurtful and cruel actions of broken people.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What you said.

Little Monkies said...

I went to see a peace activist named Yazir Henry speak the other day about memory and reconciliation in S. Africa. He noted that to have an expectation of forgiveness on the part of the abused without justice was to take away the very rights of those people who were oppressed in the first place. You can't just say "ok, we've gone through this reconciliation thing, let's get on with it" while people are still poor, still disenfranchised, still not ready to let go of pain that has been understandably deep.

His words really hit home.

I believe strongly in forgiveness, but only as a choice of the one doing the forgiveness. I don't think people can ask for it, or expect it. It's something that only an individual can initiate and then for her/his personal peace. In other words, I don't think there needs to be any reciprocity with forgiveness. It's a personal space.

I think the crux of the whole thing is that we *want* to put a name on something we feel. To label it. To standardize it. Emotion is scary as shit and it ranges vast and wide within seconds. I think that there just needs to be a nameless space sometimes, like the quiet in a Quaker meeting, that just lets things be observed.

Thanks for igniting more thinking, what a gift.

Cristi said...

Choose neither... kind of like the girl on American Idol who decided to sit on the stage. Classic. Real life situations are never limited to two choices.

"The act of forgiving (an other) appears divisive, judgmental, & ethically & morally authoritarian."

I am reminded of people in my life who pull out the guilt card by bringing up the past then saying, "I forgive you." Whatever. Like you said, forgive yourself then ask me if I need your judgmental forgiveness.

Great post. Thought provoking to say the least. There's going to be a lot of spin off from this one.

Cristi said...

Andrea makes a good point in saying that "compassion can infantalize someone." I'm not sure that forgiveness holds people accountable though, but confrontation does.

I agree with Mary-Lue that being an asshole is often a choice rather than an action, reaction response.

alejna said...

As others have said, that was beautifully written and thought-provoking.

I've always had a hard time with being forced to choose between alternatives like this. I'm with you on the importance of compassion. It's something I always try to keep with me, and I try to let it shape my behavior. At the same time, justice and forgiveness have their place also, as we cannot erase wrongs already done. Perhaps this is where compassion plays the biggest role: in tempering justice and easing forgiveness.

Alice said...

"In forgiving, we may miss an opportunity to grapple with authentic suffering, understand the deeper/broader roots of the transgression and, worse, cheat the transgressor out of these opportunities for him/her self."

This is such a beautiful post!