Sunday, April 1, 2012

Context and the question of forgiveness

April 1, 2012

Dear Friends,

We can, all of us, think what we cannot do, dream what is impossible, and long for something forever out of our reach.

What do you think that peculiar human trait is all about?

Whatever the ultimate significance of this trait, it certainly can confuse and complicate human relationships and make nonsense out of the semantics of forgiveness.

Last week I shared my story of the great tuna-fish-breakfast-food disaster at my local market in which a frail fragile white-haired woman accidentally bumped two end-of-aisle displays, and brought the greater proportion of both down under the feet of a hurried crowd of shoppers.

She was clearly distraught, and close to tears. She said repeatedly to the amiable young store employee, “I’m so sorry—please forgive me.”

I raised the question of the appropriateness of her request for forgiveness. Was forgiveness the issue?

Several of you gave thoughtful responses that I greatly enjoyed. But at risk of repetition, I want to restate the point I want you all to think about.

Clearly, it was appropriate for the woman to say that she regretted the confusion and mess she had made that the young employee was now responsible to clear up. I agree with that. I have little affection for people who make messes and take the clean-up work (and workers) for granted. But forgiveness?

Forgiveness for an aging frailty that made the mass of hurrying people and towering piles of products overwhelming? For a confused sense of the space available in the crowded aisle? For problems resulting from the combination of limited peripheral vision and unsteady balance and an unwieldy grocery cart? What is to forgive about any of this?

My brief glimpse of what I thought was a flash of her tears, however, raised another question for me. Suppose that woman carried an inner self-assigned level of performance that required of herself--regardless of age--eyes that never dimmed, balance that remained stable, and a sense of timing and space that enabled her to merge smoothly into the rapidly moving human traffic in which she was caught. If she was asking of herself what which she could not do, then, rightly understood, there was a forgiveness issue. She needed to forgive herself for asking of herself that which she could not do. When we condemn ourselves for “failure” in this sense, the issue is not faulty performance but rather the failure, or the refusal, to accept our limitations realistically and live with them gracefully.

As I watched from my safe island in the pharmacy, it seemed to me that it was the young stock boy who got it just right relationally.

He understood his job and the occasional disagreeable moments that went into it. It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last mess he would be required to clear up. The chaos was not a personal issue for him. No one was “picking” on him, neither God nor the frail distraught woman who had engineered the disaster. The presence of a less-than-perfect customer appeared to fit comfortably into his reality of a less-than-perfect-world in which (I would guess) his less-than-perfect-self had a less-than-perfect job. His cheerful face seemed to say, “Less-than-perfect is the way it is--the world and people alike.  So…lots to regret, lots to clean up, and lots of reasons to get on with the job.”

But seeing the woman's distressed face, he added, “No problem.”

No problem, with cans of tuna fish and boxes of breakfast food all over the floor and irritable people trying to steer around the mess?

Wannabe wordsmith that I am, I think the stockboy had the issue spot on, but his words confused.

The woman had indeed done something that she regretted—and something he too regretted. Cleaning up the mess would not be fun. Both the woman and the stock boy were, I suspect, sorry about the mess and the consequent work it would require.

But forgive?

In the young man's gentle “no problem” I heard an awkward acceptance of the woman that lay beyond her acceptance of herself. In some wordless way he saw her in her limitations, and seeing her behavior in the context of those limitations, he saw nothing for which forgiveness was required. Here was a call for grace, not condemnation.

“No problem,” he said.

Thinking with you how difficult it is to see people as they are, not as I dream (or they dream) that they may be, and, knowing, accept with grace their limitations and my own.

See you next week.


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