I understand from various casual sources that this commonplace was most famously recorded, if not coined, by Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace, which I have yet to read:
“Tous comprendre, c’est tous pardonner.”
There is a reason it has become such a commonplace. It has some of the fundamental elements of graceful relationships: that we are all basically worthy of love and capable of forgiveness; that all of our motives are mixed, and many unfathomable; that our free will (and ultimate responsibility) are tempered by the pitfalls and stumbling blocks placed before us by original sin, or by nature or nurture, psychology or society; that healing comes from recognition of the good in one another.
Theologically, one might call upon the incarnation to bolster Tolstoy’s view. “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
Yet God already knew all there was to know about us; God had, after all, created our very essence and being. More telling, God had already decided to forgive us, out of God’s steadfast mercy and faithful love, testified over centuries before Jesus’ advent, before Jesus’ incarnation; why else send us this great high priest at all?
By the time anyone takes the trouble to understand the one who has hurt them, they have already opened their heart to the possibility of forgiveness. They have already chosen the road to reconciliation and healing. The understanding may be a vehicle to help the journey along, but unless forgiveness is already an option, we will not embark, and unless forgiveness is our firmly fixed destination, we will get stuck when the engine of understanding gets derailed by senseless acts of violence or betrayal, when wrong decisions were made which cannot be rationalized away, because there was a choice to do the right thing instead of the wrong.
If we make understanding a condition of forgiveness, then we are tempted to contort ourselves into unlikely shapes and positions in order to achieve it; I am reminded of Cinderella’s stepsisters forcing their feet into someone else’s shoes when they are simply not designed to fit. If an act can be understood sufficiently to be excused, then stepping into another’s shoes will help us to do that; but what about forgiving that which is inexcusable?
A friend sent me the link to a wonderful and difficult NY Times story about forgiveness, understanding and justice. It’s worth a read just for its own sake, but in this context, I am struck by the parents’ refusal to be derailed by the lack of mitigating circumstance, by the deficiencies in empathetic excuse. They do not forgive through intellectual understanding so much as through a decision to be forgiving, merciful, loving people. This is the legacy they wish to leave for their daughter. If they had relied on understanding everything in order to begin to forgive it all, this was the moment that would have ended the whole pious project:
“I thought it was going to make sense,” Andy [the father of the victim] told her. Later, Andy told me that he had fantasized or hoped that maybe it had been an accident, maybe Conor’s finger had slipped — that he would hear something unexpected to help him make sense of his daughter’s death. But Conor’s recitation didn’t bring that kind of solace.
… He didn’t try to shirk responsibility at the conference or in long conversations with me about the murder. “What I did was inexcusable,” he told me. “There is no why, there are no excuses, there is no reason.”
The essence of classical tragedy is the unfolding of an ironic series of events which seem so nearly inevitable as to be excruciatingly sympathetic; yet which we know could have been otherwise, had just one decision been differently executed.
Seeking to understand one another, to find God’s reflected image in one another, that divine spark which holds us together in love is a powerful and profound quest. Forgiveness, the giving and receiving of it, is likewise bound up with our understanding of the great Other: to err is human, we say, but to forgive is divine.
Yet they are not, I think, so tightly bound together as to depend on one another, and set free, they may be of more help to one another than tangled. Sometimes understanding will outstrip forgiveness, and it will take a while to apply the learnt knowledge of why hurt happened. Sometimes, forgiveness will defy understanding, strike out boldly in love and hope and in the face of all that is unreasonable and senseless.
At the least, it is important to divorce the concept of understanding from those of condoning, excusing, or rationalizing in order to forgive. That which most needs forgiveness is often that which is the least rational, reasonable, excusable, comprehensible in human activity. To hold our forgiveness hostage, in such a case, to internalizing all from which our minds and imaginations recoil, may be to make victims of ourselves all over again.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a summing up for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spoke thus:
“We have been shocked and filled with revulsion to hear of the depths to which we are able to sink in our inhumanity to one another: …That is one side – the ghastly and somber side of the picture that is emerging thus far.
But there is another side, a more noble and inspiring one. We have been deeply touched and moved by the resilience of the human spirit… It is quite incredible the capacity people have shown to be magnanimous – refusing to be consumed by bitterness and hatred, willing to meet with those who have violated their persons and their rights, willing to meet in a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation eager only to know the truth, to know the perpetrator so that they could forgive them.”
Desmond Mpilo Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), pages 119-120