In what attention I’ve paid to recent news cycles, the dominant theme – the one thing that we still collectively agree on, one might be forgiven for thinking – is anger.
Anger with causes both righteous and dubious. Anger that is justified and anger that is rooted in pure, spleen-venting malice. Anger that fuels the engines of progress and anger that feeds the devouring flames of destruction and death.
The cancel culture, sprung up from that same fetid, fertile soil which grew the court of public opinion to a stature such that it towers over any actual ruling court of law, demands a curious new form of instantaneous retribution, the parameters of which are set by the prevailing mob.
Disagree with someone on social media? Cancelled. And perhaps shadow banned or reported, just for good measure.
Disagree with someone at work? Cancelled. HR complaint lobbied, perhaps accompanied by a laundry list of past shortcomings and errors over the previous years.
Disagree with someone in your family or circle of friends? Cancelled, disinvited from Thanksgiving – which itself will probably have to be cancelled, this year, too, for being so inappropriate, come on – and removed from the group text.
As I stood brushing my teeth last night, contemplating the ideological extremism draping our nation and, one could be forgiven for thinking so – a large swath of the developed world – in a frenzy of hatred: of self, of neighbor, and of nation, I couldn’t help but think that so much of the violence in the streets, in the media we consume and produce, and in our own hearts is rooted in a near-total illiteracy in the art of forgiveness.
If humanity has lost the God-given ability to extend and receive forgiveness, whether because it was not modeled for us by our parents or because vengeance and cruelty holds a dark, primal attraction (and acting on primal urges has been having a bit of a moment, these past few decades, has it not?), well, it comes as little surprise.
A culture that glorifies violence, specializes in vitriol, rewards greed, and pardons excesses of every kind is not a culture that is quick to extend forgiveness.
And in fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether we’ve purged the concept from our collective memory entirely.
It wouldn’t surprise me.
Alexander Pope knew it, and I’ll repeat the phrase for my fellow public school graduates out there who may or may not have had to google its origin as I just did: to err is human, to forgive, divine.
In other words, humans mess up, and it is not in our nature to let each another forget it. Ever.
But it is in His nature. And to the degree that we are emulating His nature, accessing the graces flowing from the sacrament of our Baptism which make us like Him, we can take on His nature, we can resist the primal urges of our created and fallen human nature, and we can overcome our baser instincts to be like God, in whose image and likeness we are created, and by whose Blood we are redeemed.
But can a culture which has deemed God nonessential, relegated Him to the rapidly reorganizing annuls of history, or forgotten about Him in an unconscious sort of benign neglect, still access the divine super power of forgiveness?
I guess we’ll find out.
Meanwhile, I’m planning to double down on a practice my spiritual director introduced me to months and months ago, maybe even a whole year ago.
I remember thinking he was kind of over the top at the time but now? Woo boy. He told me this: that he was doubling down on his own adherence to the laws of decency, of common courtesy, of basic civility.
He said “as society becomes more and more lawless, I will become more law-abiding. I will follow the posted speed limit. I will bite my tongue when I am inconvenienced. I will turn the other cheek when I am angry, and will respond to wrath with peace. And I struggle with wrath! In short, I will allow the present conditions to call me further and further back to Christian charity, so as charity erodes from the public square, I can be a beacon of charity that remains.”
Because he possess a similar temperament to mine and is quick to rage against injustice and mightily tempted to leap into action, I found his proposition at once horrifying and almost hypnotically attractive.
It turns out, also, to be difficult as hell to put into practice.
But I’ve found that like every other pursuit of virtue, it’s the small, incremental, and almost totally invisible actions, choices, and habits which make up the whole of what we actually are.
I have been very, very angry these past few months. I am no sweet tempered saint. My blood boils hot and it boils quick, and I have no trouble at all stepping right up to confrontations that smarter people might let pass.
But meekness? Gentleness? Biting my tongue until it’s nearly bleeding? Those, my friends, are heroic acts of the will in my book. And as I look around at our wounded, suffering, seething culture, I know that I am not alone in this.
In the words of that truly banal tune (and probably misattributed prayer) of St. Frances, Lord, make me a channel of your peace.
If enough channels open up, an ocean of mercy awaits, and it can quench the fires of a world that is burning to the ground in hatred.
And if not an ocean? Well, even a ragged stream winding its way through parched ground is a welcome sight to a fellow traveler.
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