It is amazing what a simple picture can communicate, without any words yet with so many emotions. More than 5 years ago this sculpture of the Burning Man festival challenged me while I was just looking for a nice background photo for my phone. More than 5 years ago, again, this is partly about my ex or rather the period of my life that I shared with her. It is becoming a habit; my articles often talk about it. Some might see it as a ghost breakup, which still haunts me after all these years, or an unspoken (and unspeakable?) love, to a person I have chosen to remove from my life.
Yet the questions raised by my references to this painful past are far from those of a masochistic and nostalgic gaze, turned towards a time that has certainly brought many tears but also so many bursts of laughter, or those of an illusory hope of the « what if? », which knows how to replay in our minds just like a genius director the best — and theworst, with more passion, better lighting and, always, the happy-end that goes well.
No, those questions are resolutely looking forward, more than ever in my life. This lust for life that I have recently discovered in me calls me to jump with all my strength towards my future, but for this I need to take all the necessary support on my past, in order to go as far, as high as possible.
Why this picture? What does it show? What did it tell me at the time? Love, this work by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov (photo credit: thestevenjames), depicts two adults of metal back to back, two adults with apparently nothing more to say to each other. But the two children in them, shining with a bright light, turned towards each other, seem to still have everything to say to each other. The welded metal bar structures that make up the adults were certainly not chosen randomly. Like prisons, they lock up in them these children who, if they could, would go towards each other, throw themselves into each other’s arms.
Even if at the time I discovered this picture it was still going rather well in my couple, like a bad omen, it showed me the drama that plays out every day in the lives of so many couples, families or even friendships, the drama that would play out a few years later between my ex and me.
For me this picture, before talking about love, as the name of the sculpture indicates it, speaks of forgiveness, a forgiveness that we cannot give each other when we should, when we would like to. It speaks of the fact that in us there is this child’s soul who just wants to forget those arguments, those grudges, those wounds, just to return to our games, to our laughter, to our happiness. And it also speaks of the fact that on the outside there is this carcass, this heavy framework of our rigidized habits, our structured — and structuring — attitudes, which prevent us from taking the first step, from opening the door to new possibilities.
I literally lived this picture, not only in my couple, but in various relationships and at various levels of affection. But every time, while I believed that the only memory of this sculpture, like a totem, could give me the strength not to let the drama happen again, not to let the child be imprisoned in the adult, I found myself — just like the other in front — trapped in the mechanism of conflict, in the machinery of resentment, the quicksand of apprehension, in which every second that passes seems to drive us ineluctably from all hope of pacification.
Forgiveness, the word is said. This word that fascinates, that makes both dreaming and trembling. This word that we idealize, elevates in chimera, above our too sordid realities. Or for others, this word that we submit to our will, that we censor, that we frame with meticulously drawn and marked borders. Indeed, here we mainly have two schools: those who believe in the power of forgiveness but do not do it, as an unspeakable superstition, a shameful belief, to which one cannot abandon himself completely, for fear of disappointment after being turned down flat by the opposing side – the friends of « I would love to forgive him, but I don’t know if I’m able to »-; and those who, failing to believe or even understand its power, choose to tame forgiveness, to tolerate it, but according to their own rules of the game, a game in which of course they never lose —the defenders of « I have forgiven, but I have not forgotten ».
But what about unconditional forgiveness, palpable forgiveness? If we push to extremes, we must ask ourselves the question of the forgiveness that allows us to hear still today incredible testimonies of fathers forgiving the murderer of their child, of women forgiving their rapist, of entire communities forgiving their oppressor of a whole century. Is it fake? Is there a trick? I’ve been looking for it, so far I haven’t found the transparent threads that an illusionist would be drawing behind the scenes of those shattered lives, the special effects that a prodigious director would be using to magnify these tragic miscellaneous news items. Finally, the only magician I was able to discover during my personal and existential questioning about forgiveness, it is Jesus. His subversive doctrine in his time but still revolutionary today has brought to light a power in the human being that is still too often unsuspected or even unknown nowadays. Indeed most of the time we are wrong about forgiveness, and doubly. Not only because we underestimate its effectiveness and reality in our lives, but also because we mistakenly believe that the first beneficiary of forgiveness – if not the only one – is the forgiven.
A sentence I heard one day during a sermon completely reversed my mindset and opened my spirit to the true potential of forgiveness. « Forgiveness is the most selfish act that can be committed, for it has the power to completely free us exclusively from the evil that the Other has done to us, while leaving the latter to his own guilt ».
I found it extremely powerful! To realize this, we need to remember what a conflict is. Etymology helps here because conflict could be translated by » the act of fighting together. » Together! As we hear it, it sounds implausible. When the origin of a conflict is the break that will turn two people into enemies opposing each other, and even in many cases breaking up emotionally or diplomatically, we learn here that in the end the first thing that this break creates is an object in common, an unwanted but indeed present offspring: the conflict itself. That is, as long as a conflict can last, the two people he opposes will bind, grow attached to each other, even sometimes love to hate each other. Once this notion was clarified, I could understand more easily how forgiveness is an exclusive privilege: it allows me, to preserve my peace and my well-being by unilaterally denying the other his right to conflict, his invitation to fight together.
Today, I imagine the number of times in my life where I could have used that power. I think of the time I would have won, the headaches that I could have spared myself — in the end all this is not so selfish because the other would realize at some point what he also has to gain, and my past couple experience which, even if not saved, could at least have been paced and ended more peacefully.
In the gospels it can be read how Jesus replied to Peter asking him how many times he should forgive the one who would harm him: « you will forgive him 70 times 7 times. » Put into context, his answer evokes the infinity of the power of forgiveness once our mind opens to it, and not a heavy and almost inhuman burden imposed by God on humans. Indeed, forgiveness is a gain, an overpowering gift that allows us to get rid of the chains of grief and resentment, while creating in the other a possibility, for him also, to get out of the trap mixed with guilt and pride that would close slowly but steadily on him without ever undoing its embrace. From the moment we understand it, we can then enter a hugely different reality, where peace is cultivated and harvested at hand, like a child’s play.
I was also able to discover, that the first step of forgiveness, as simple as it may seem, is vital, not only for the relationship that is at stake but also for oneself. This first step is to forgive yourself. It is sometimes obvious, and sometimes much more complex, but in a conflict there is very often some guilt on both sides. Even those who consider themselves aggrieved may either regret actions or words that could have hurt the other one and possibly led to the reaction of the latter that ultimately hurt them in turn; or outright conclude through convoluted psychological mechanisms that they are ultimately solely responsible for the harm that has been done to them. Whether you’re the responsible for the wound or the wounded, forgiving yourself seems to be something quite easy when it is just said, but I’ve had the opportunity to realize more than once that the collateral damages created in a conflict, that second wound that consist in guilt, is actually much harder to heal than we think. In any case, it all starts there: in the same way that I think we can’t love the other one without learning to love ourselves first, we can only win the war against hate with the power of forgiveness if we let the latter win its first battle inside us.
I am far from being a saint, and the picture still taunts me regularly today. Emotions, habits, instinct of defense – or attack, there are so many things in us that make us miss wonderful moments, or even entire blocks of life. But what helps me is to think about what I missed, what I would miss without forgiveness: so many laughs, so many sharing, so much love. Forgiveness is real, I am convinced about it today. I saw its power in action: in the Bible, in History, in lives like of Kim Phuc, survivor of a Napalm attack in south Vietnam, that of Pope John Paul II, seriously wounded during an attempted murder in Rome, that of the Amish community, bereaved by the West Nickel Mines School killing, those of the Tutsis and The Hutus, who after civil war and the genocide of the former by the latter are now living in peace in Rwanda.
Yes it is real, and I also want to enjoy it maybe alone or, I hope, with all those who, if they wish to, if they forgive themselves first and forgive me then, will be able to use with me this power that can change the world.