Yes, I only think in children’s books…

Yes, I only think in children’s books… May 7, 2011

I ended up in a lot of conversations about forgiveness and whether hatred necessarily warps the character of the person doing the hating after I posted about my reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death and the celebrations that followed.  I’d like to do a few posts trying to address why I think its necessary try to offer forgiveness and charity to the people we hate, both for their sake and ours, but, today, I just want to link back to two interesting examples of this problem in children’s literature.  (If you haven’t read either Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or A Wrinkle in Time, read on at your peril).

The last book in the Harry Potter series makes it clear that Voldemort cannot commit evil without harming himself.  The fact that he is irreparably wounded by his own willful cruelty does not diminish the suffering of his other victims.  Harry comes to feel pity rather than anger for his nemesis, but he still has to destroy Voldemort, since the dark wizard refuses to accept the pain necessary to heal.  I’m excerpting the scene from Harry’s almost-death, when he finds Voldemort’s stunted, broken soul.

Then a noise reached him through the unformed nothingness that surrounded him: the small soft thumpings of something that flapped, flailed, and struggled. It was a pitiful noise, yet also slightly indecent. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was eavesdropping on something furtive, shameful….

He recoiled. He had spotted the thing that was making the noises. It had the form of a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and rough, flayed-looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath.

He was afraid of it. Small and fragile and wounded though it was, he did not want to approach it. Nevertheless he drew slowly nearer, ready to jump back at any moment. Soon he stood near enough to touch it, yet he could not bring himself to do it. He felt like a coward. He ought to comfort it, but it repulsed him…

“What is that, Professor?”

“Something that is beyond either of our help,” said Dumbledore.

At the climax of A Wrinkle in Time, Meg is trying to save her little brother Charles Wallace from IT, the malevolent, totalizing force that has possessed him:

If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.

But she could love Charles Wallace.

The fact that Meg is not capable of loving IT does not change the fact that IT ought to be loved.  Plenty of people might be beyond our ability to heal, and, if they pose too great a threat to others, we might have to destroy them, but we should do it without joy, remembering this is not the outcome we truly wish to seek.

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  • What you're saying is right (and should include Star Wars references, even if dialog from the prequels is painful), but I think misses why people might have been celebrating OBL's death. Some of it was definitely hate, and a feeling that vengeance is intertwined in some way with justice. But I'm willing to bet that a lot of it was relief, too. September 11 was the symbolic beginning to the GWOT, and this provides a rather nice symbolic end. Nothing provides quite as much uncertainty as a "war against an idea," as it has been framed, and I don't think people were just celebrating because we killed an individual, evil person. I had a moment when I was listening to the announcement, reading coverage of expanding democratic protests in Syria on CNN, where I suddenly got the feeling that, "Wow, we can actually win this thing." Sure, it's oversimplified and was quickly tempered by reality, but I think it was that sort of self-reassurance that made people profoundly happy to find out OBL had been killed. It felt like we weren't just wasting time, and that a lot of values that we hold quite dearly aren't going to be toppled by some incorporeal threat we've been trying to tackle for almost a decade but can't quite get our hands on. People were glad at the death of a person, which is morally vague etc, but I think most of the reaction was about the death of an idea, which I think it's perfectly fine to celebrate. Or maybe I have too much faith that other people reacted the way I did.

  • Forgiveness is a concept I really struggle with. I think it just confuses me. What does it mean to "forgive" somebody? It seems like people's definitions are always contradictory like, "well you can forgive someone, but that doesn't have to change the way you feel about them." When, really, shouldn't it? Like, what about forgiving your ex and realizing that you still never want to talk to them again? Is that forgiveness then? Cause obviously it's not just pretending nothing ever happened.I read one discussion of forgiveness which said that it meant to hope for the after life for somebody, and that made a lot of sense to me. I had trouble praying for Osama to go to heaven, I mean, would I really want to see him there? But I think if I honestly can't pray that for somebody, I probably haven't forgiven them.I'm curious about what forgiveness means to you. It something I'm developing my conception of so I'd love to hear different definitions!

  • 1. Yes. This is a moment when I depart significantly from C. S. Lewis. Maybe we must go to war (maybe) but I couldn't justify doing it cheerfully.

    2. "September 11 was the symbolic beginning to the GWOT, and this provides a rather nice symbolic end." Do you really think this is anything like an end? I don't suppose this war of terror is a discrete event; even if it is, it isn't over yet.

    3. "It seems like people's definitions are always contradictory like, 'well you can forgive someone, but that doesn't have to change the way you feel about them.' " This sounds profoundly unlike forgiveness to me. I can't claim to have a definition, but to forgive you must at the very least let go of anger. In the example of the ex, perhaps the desire to never speak to them again is an indication that you haven't entirely forgiven, but it might also be the recognition that even as you've forgiven that person, you know they are still incapable of behaving in constructive ways. (I'm not sure how I'd define forgiveness, though.)