Forgive and forget (2)

Last week, I wrote about forgiving and forgetting offences done unto us. This week is all about those who forget what they have done. Does the fact that they do not remember that they have hurt us make it easier or harder to achieve a forgiving state with regard to them?

Several years ago, a friend introduced me to an episode of Babylon 5 by way of a theological reflection. The episode is entitled, “Passing Through Gethsemane,”* and it centres around a judicial practice called “the death of personality.” The person thus sentenced undergoes a “mind wipe,” which removes all of their memories and, in the design of the writers, thus destroys the personality that did foul deeds. The person is then “reprogrammed” with a fervent desire to serve society, and sent off to a life of fulfilling community service, with no memory of their crime or punishment. Some see it as a utopian solution; others as a cop-out. At the end, as the question of direct interaction with those hurt by the crime is revisited, despite a closing handshake, the quandary remains: is this forgiveness, or does the fact that it has become impossible to relate to the person as the one who committed the crimes make it impossible to forgive? Is resignation to the inaccessibility of the past closer or further from forgiveness than repeated and frequently faltering efforts to deal with it gracefully?

This is not a hypothetical question, nor is it restricted to science fiction. Various dementias, brain traumas and diseases can lead not only to a forgetfulness of past misdeeds, but in fact the construction of a whole new set of memories that directly contradict everyone else’s. A tyrannical father remembers himself as the gentlest of men; an abusive lover remembers only acts of love; a sharp-tongued sister remembers only laughter at her cruel jokes, never the tears, and assumes that she was, in fact, sweet and funny. A confrontation with the reality that belongs to everyone else is impossible: the brain will not accommodate another set of memories alongside the new ones. The person who did the deed has undergone “the death of personality,” and is inaccessible to the one trying to forgive.

Replacing the hurt with pity for the person’s new state is not forgiveness. Neither is pretending to forget along with them. If forgiving is, as someone has described it, the gradual release of resentments, of those grains of unpleasantness wished upon another, those little atoms of hatred, letting them go one by one, or piece by piece, or drop by teardrop – that is work that can be done without the collusion of the one being forgiven, as in the case of the dead.

The presence of the person who does not remember in this case presents an obstacle, because the cause keeps being represented, without the means to address it head-on. I think that forgetfulness makes it harder work to get past the point of fist-clenching anger and pain, and ease towards the release of those grains of resentment; but it is not an insurmountable obstacle.

Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-3)

We know very well when we have been hurt, and we know when another’s recollection of reality does not match our own. Their efforts to paint themselves with a rosier hue are frustrating and hurtful in themselves – but they may reflect a very real impulse to be a better person than past actions would suggest, to live a better life, with kinder relationships, than our memories allow; they may even represent a kind of repentance. And there is always the question of what we ourselves have forgotten.

I met a woman once on vacation who remembered me. I didn’t remember her. We ran through everywhere we had lived and gone to school, where we might have overlapped, then she had it – a youth orchestra and choir combined event at a further education college in Cardiff. We had been for a weeklong residential course together.

I didn’t remember the woman. I still don’t remember anything about the course, except that she was right, I was there. I remember that college. I have carried a snapshot memory of its entrance, being dropped off in its circular driveway, since my teen years, and I had occasionally puzzled where it came from, and why I remembered it, because I did not know why I would have been there. As soon as she told me, I knew she was right. But I still don’t know why I don’t remember that week. I don’t know whether it has merged with other memories and lost its edges, blurred and blended in, or whether I have blocked it out, because something about it hurts me or threatens me or my self-image. It does appear lost to me. What sins did I commit that week that I have no memory of doing?

Of course, God knows all and forgives us everything, whether we remember or not, but I use that evidence of the fragility of my own memory as an aid to forgiving others who have forgotten, never knowing where I might need forgiveness all unknowing. “For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” It may turn out to be a good investment for me to be generous with my own efforts to forgive what I cannot forget.


* Babylon 5, Season 3, “Passing Through Gethsemane,” released 1995, by Babylonian Productions, Inc.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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