On learning how to forgive and let live | Lloyd Sheaffer

We are becoming a people who do not want to forgive. We are becoming a people who are unwilling to accept or even overlook differences of opinion

October 18, 2022 6:30 am
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President Biden Announces Student Loan Forgiveness

This ABC News headline immediately twisted the knickers of the country’s right-wingers into a knot. Predictable hue and cries have already been clamored: “It will raise inflation”; “The President is overreaching his authority”; “It’s an abuse of power”; “It’s not fair to those who did not take out student loans”; “Why should honest, hard-working taxpayers pay for someone else’s education?”; “Yada, yada, yada” ad nauseam.

Some folks of a cynical mindset might even feel these anti-forgivers are fearful that offering such financial relief to low- to lower-middle class income groups might narrow the egregious gap between the haves and the have-nots that plagues our current culture.

Other scoffers might be asking, “But what’s in it for me?”

How about: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” . . .  as espoused in the Preamble to the United States Constitution.

That’s what’s in it, not just for you, but for us all.

I’ll let further discussions of this issue to the legal eagles and the political wonks. 

I think that an even deeper issue underlies this and many other divisive issues facing our society today; it lies in the word forgiveness, an act generally recognized as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed—literally or figuratively—you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

We are becoming a people who do not want to forgive. We are becoming a people who are unwilling to accept or even overlook differences of opinion.

We are becoming a people who feel that any disagreement or contrary position is a personal attack. We are turning into a people for whom words such as reconciliation, compromise, and concord play no role in our relationships with each other.

“I’m right and you’re wrong, end of story, go away and don’t speak to me again.” “It’s my way or the highway.” “I know better than you, and I know what’s good for you.” “If you don’t agree with me, you’re my enemy to be exterminated.”

These are the types of attitudes that have eaten away at the essential societal dynamic of forgiveness and/or acceptance of differences for both interpersonal relationships and community strength. Such inexorable attitudes have long persisted on the extreme ends of the political spectrum, but it seems that such attitudes are infecting more points in the mid-positions, too. 

An unwillingness or an inability to forgive or accept others, i.e. to hold a grudge, leads to negative manifestations in one’s character.  According to the Mayo Clinic failure to forgive others leads one to

  • Bringing anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience; 
  • Becoming so wrapped up in the wrong that you can’t enjoy the present; 
  • Becoming depressed or anxious; 
  • Feeling that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you’re at odds with your spiritual beliefs;
  • Losing valuable and enriching connectedness with others.

To me, these traits seem to characterize an angry, egocentric, combative person; when such people gather in a group, the result is likely an angry, egocentric, combative mob.

On the other hand, letting go of grudges or forgiving wrongs, real or perceived, can be beneficial, for the body politic and the common good. Marina Cantacuzino and Katalin Karolyi of The Center for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas note the importance of forgiveness for community building: 

  • Forgiveness can bring new insights;
  • Forgiveness can help transform attitudes; 
  • Forgiveness can help repair broken relationships; 
  • Forgiveness can help break the cycle of violence.

I suggest that these same boons accrue when forgiveness and/or acceptance occurs between individuals as well.

For full disclosure, I admit my outlook on forgiveness might differ from the common perspective, since mine is informed by my Lutheran theology.

While often the view of forgiveness in our world today is a tit-for-tat interaction—if you do this or this or that, then I will forgive you or overlook what you did to me/us—Martin Luther’s Reformation credo suggests that forgiveness of others comes as a result and reflection of God’s forgiveness of humankind as an unearned gift. It is not an if/then compact in which one side wields and maintains power over the other.

The errant transaction in question is acknowledged and the parties involved address the matter and move forward. Transformation occurs for both positions. Both sides win.

“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die,” notes novelist and activist Anne Lamott.  

“Grudges are like hand grenades: it is wise to release them before they destroy you,” opines former Harvard professor Barbara Johnson.

“Then Peter came to him and said, ‘Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother who sins against me? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times!’” (Matthew 18:21-22 [New English Translation]

Unfortunately we have become a society of divided families, neighborhoods, communities, states, religions, politics. If ever there was a time we need to exchange the gifts of forgiveness and pardon, it is now.

Whether the schism occurs in political actions such as student loan relief or in angry words spoken in the heat of an emotional moment, understanding and clemency must prevail.

Otherwise, as Native American Chief Seattle wisely warned us, “We are all children of the Great Spirit, we all belong to Mother Earth. Our planet is in great trouble and if we keep carrying old grudges and do not work together, we will all die.”

Live and let live?  No. Forgive and live? Yes.

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].

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Lloyd E. Sheaffer
Lloyd E. Sheaffer

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Pennsylvania Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].