The tricky business of forgiveness

Recently I saw the movie Unbroken.  This is the true story of Louis Zamperini, an American soldier who was shot out of the sky in WWII and survived on a raft in shark-infested waters for 47 days.  When he was finally discovered, it was by the Japanese, who took him to a POW camp.  There, he became the favorite victim of a sadistic officer called Bird, who took a special interest in torturing him until the end of the war.  The movie ends there, but I’m told that the book goes on to describe Mr. Zamperini’s struggles with PTSD after the war, and finally, his conversion to Christ.  He would eventually return to Japan to meet and forgive his captors.

As a matter of fact, one hears WWII reconciliation stories between Americans and Japanese fairly frequently (at least in my line of work).  It appears there’s been a great deal of healing and forgiveness on both sides, which is a beautiful thing.

But let’s be honest–forgiving someone who’s intentionally hurt you is not easy.  Even watching the movie, I found that Bird reminded me strongly of someone I know, and I began to feel angry and hateful until I reminded myself that, like Mr. Zamperini, I needed to forgive.

It’s a blurry line, sometimes, between forgiving and enabling, one that I’ve struggled to clarify since returning to the Church.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to acknowledge one’s pain, sadness and anger at being mistreated.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be assertive in order to put an end to abuse.  I think where the trouble starts is when the bitterness and desire for revenge creep in.

Isn’t it the most maddening thing to picture one’s enemy laughing gleefully and getting away with everything in the end?  But as a Catholic, I’ve come to realize that’s impossible.  Everyone will face their sins eventually.  Either they will repent of them and be forgiven, or they will be punished for them.  There is no gleeful “getting away with it.”

When I think of my sins, how I regret them, and how overwhelmingly grateful I am to God for giving me a second chance,  I find that I would sincerely wish for that same forgiveness to be extended to my enemies should they come to repentance.  And I would much rather see my enemies repent and become the loving people God intended them to be, than to see them choose evil and suffer for it.

These are the things I want to remember as I strive to become a forgiving person.

 

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When fitting in is a sign that you’re crazy

In Japan, it’s called “culture.”  Staying at work until late at night (or early in the morning) without overtime pay.  Maintaining perfect deference to your superiors even as they bully and abuse you.  Basically perfecting the art of denying yourself a lot–even healthy things.

So why are some foreigners so eager to fit into this culture?

“We’re full of self-loathing,” an American colleague once remarked at the lunch table.  I had come to suspect the same thing.  Maybe there was something about Japanese culture that appealed to us codependent types.

Only, as I had discovered, it was difficult for someone from a Christian background to sink to the depths of self-abandonment the Japanese were capable of.  My self-loathing had limits, and when I reached them, I would direct my anger outward at whoever it was who was currently making my life difficult.

Perhaps only the Japanese could have pushed me to my breaking point, and perhaps that needed to be done in order to wake me up to my own expectations of how people should treat me.

Interestingly, I think it was beginning to realize this–that there was some part of me, deep inside, that would not accept the erasure of my healthy sense of self-assertion–that cured me of my desire to assimilate into Japanese culture.  As the Church would say, I became aware that I believed in my own dignity as a human being.

After returning to the Church, though, I would eventually learn that anger–whether directed inward or outward–was not something to aspire to.  And so, after praying many novenas to Mary, Untier of Knots, and slowly becoming aware of my issues, I’ve embarked on a journey of learning to be assertive–changing the things I can and accepting the things I can’t, as the prayer goes.

 

Leaving the Tao

I was on the plane to Japan for the first time when a seatmate handed me a book about Zen Buddhism written by a Western scholar.  (You will remember that at this time, I was an atheist.)  To me, the introductory chapter on Taoism was the most interesting.

Now either Taoism is as the author described it, or else he misunderstood it, or else I misunderstood his description of it, but looking back now, I can say that the impression I formed of Taoism after reading that book is nearly exactly what is called hedonism in the West.

From what I could gather, Taoism seemed to teach that we could find happiness by cultivating spontaneity–determining what it was that we felt like doing at that moment, and then doing it.  At the time, it seemed like a great idea.

The only problem was, it didn’t seem to work that way in real life.  If I was bored at work and felt like leaving, I couldn’t.  So basically I still had to spend the majority of my waking hours not being spontaneous, which according to Taoism was the definition of unhappiness.  Thinking that way really only amplified the agony.

In fact, I would retain this frustrated desire to have enough control over my circumstances to be spontaneous until I returned to the Church.  There I encountered a way of thinking that didn’t ignore large swaths of reality–it told me what to do about them.

Yes, there would be times when I would have to suffer through something I didn’t choose and didn’t like.  But I learned that suffering counts for something.  I could please God by patiently enduring suffering.  I could atone for my sins in the great system of justice I had now learned existed.  I could even offer up my suffering for the benefit of others.  Imagine that–the more I suffered, the more I could be of benefit to loved ones who I might otherwise have little ability to help!

Suddenly suffering took on a heroic cast.  I wasn’t alone in it.  There was Someone who was watching and cared how I handled it.  And I found that to be more satisfying than stewing at my inability to be spontaneous.

Leave Africa to the Christians

Yesterday I sat on a panel of judges for a high school English speech contest.  There was one girl, in particular, whose speech really stood out to me.  She spoke movingly about extreme poverty and philanthropy in Africa, and how she believed that, as someone who was well-off, she had a duty to work for the dignity of the poor.  When I suggested to the other judges (all of whom were Japanese) that she ought to be a prizewinner, the reaction shocked me.

One of them said, “But she talked about helping people in Africa.  That’s so . . . Christian.”

Before I could ask what, exactly, the judge’s hypothesis about the girl’s religion had to do with judging a speech contest, she continued derisively, “Look at this, it says she’s from a Christian school,” as if that sealed the argument.

I suppose that was my cue to ask whether I had missed the part of the judging rubric that took into account whether the child was suspected of being a Christian (what is this, the Tokugawa Period?) but in the actual event I was shocked speechless.

The other judges carried on with their deliberations while I stared at the table in disbelief.  If the reigning ideology here was that anyone suspected of being a Christian wasn’t worth listening to, then how could I make an argument?

My deepest apologies to the girl who worked very hard on her speech.  It really rips up my heart.

Now, you might wonder why an interest in helping those in extreme poverty in Africa would be labelled Christian.  Of course, it is a very Christian interest to have, but one likes to think that there are plenty of people of goodwill in the world with such an interest.

However, recall the first Christians in Rome, who were considered a curiosity because of their interest in helping widows and orphans.  As talk of them spread, charity began to catch on in secular Rome as well.  The world we live in now has been transformed by an idea that was once quite unusual.

And Japan, which purposely sealed itself off from Western, and especially Christian, influence for so long, still remembers a time when extreme poverty in Africa was somebody else’s problem.