Allow me to paraphrase a few lines from the movie The Sixth Sense: “I see clueless people. All the time. They’re everywhere. They don’t even know they’re clueless”.
This pretty much summarizes my life. In fact, this happens so often, that I’ve coined what I call Bob’s Law: You will encounter cluelessness, on average, every ten minutes of every day for the rest of your life. So you’d better start getting used to it now.
Let me cite a couple of examples. One place that these people seem to frequent is the supermarket. I’ll see shoppers, both men and women of varying ages, park their cart in the middle of the aisle while they examine something on the shelves. The combination of the cart and the shopper make the aisle impassable, and they seem to be not only unaware of this, but oblivious when other shoppers approach and wait patiently beside them.
When they finally realize what they’re doing, they’ll say “Oh, sorry” and move the cart out of the way. Social convention dictates that the rest of this encounter is pretty much scripted. The other shopper will mumble “That’s OK”, and continue on.
Whenever this (or something similar) happens to me, I always have the urge to say one of the following things:
- “Don’t be sorry – change your behaviour!”
- “I urge you sir/madam to be be more aware of your environment, and specifically, the people in it”
- “Actions speak louder than words. What you say is unimportant; the only thing that matters is what you do”
- “I don’t care if you’re sorry. What matters is how you behave in the future”
I’ve never actually used these phrases… but I’m always tempted!
The second example is a trend I’ve noticed recently among celebrities – from blubbering TV evangelists to reality television actors. After behaving poorly (and in some cases egregiously), they do the talk show circuit, putting on a display of histrionics and dubious remorse in order to elicit the sympathy (and ultimately the forgiveness) of both the studio audience and of the general public. While some will take responsibility for their actions, many will simply refuse to accept any blame and proceed to list a host of extenuating factors. Some will even delegate this task to their publicist.
In each of these examples, the transgressor seeks forgiveness, but doesn’t offer anything in return. They want to start over with a blank slate or an untarnished reputation, and despite their poor or clueless behaviour, they don’t want us to think any less of them.
While it’s very admirable of us to forgive so readily, I don’t believe that forgiveness should be granted automatically. The transgressor is missing out on an opportunity to learn, grow and better himself.
If you behave poorly, then you shouldn’t automatically be given a clean slate and continue with an untarnished reputation unless you earn it. In my view, before forgiveness can be granted, five conditions need to be met:
- Realize and then admit that you’ve made a mistake, behaved badly or made an error in judgment.
- Feel sorry for what you’ve done (and not merely because you were caught).
- Apologize for your behaviour.
- Make an effort to repair the damage you’ve done.
- Promise to correct your behaviour in the future – and then do it.
My church (the Catholic Church) says that forgiveness is a gift from God, and that there are no conditions attached to it. We should forgive freely, whether or not the transgressor chooses to change or even accept our forgiveness.
This is certainly admirable, not only because confession is good for the soul, but also because people who forgive tend to be happier and healthier than those who continue to hold a grudge. However, I disagree with the church’s position. Yes, unconditional forgiveness is a growth opportunity for the transgressee, but it should also be a growth opportunity for the transgressor. If I’m going to offer you forgiveness and the clean slate that goes along with it, then you have to earn it. Otherwise, the only thing you’ve learned is that poor behaviour doesn’t carry any tangible consequences.
I also differ with my church in another area: receiving forgiveness through Confession, also known as the Sacrament of Penance. In my church, Confession consists of three parts: disclosing the sins, contrition and penance. This is an excellent start, and it satisfies my first three conditions for forgiveness. However, I don’t think that it goes far enough.
There is no requirement for the sinner to repair the damage s/he has done. If you’ve done something that requires an apology, then you should do your best to make it up to the person whom you’ve offended or hurt. Of course this isn’t a perfect correlation because not all sins involve another person and not all poor behaviour is classified by the church as a sin. However, in the areas that do overlap, I would like to hear the priest say to the person in the confessional “I’m glad to hear that you’ve recognized your behaviour as substandard, that you’re sorry for how you behaved, and that you came to me and told me about it. Now, tell me what you did to remedy the situation. What did you do to repair the damage and make things right again?”.
The other component of confession that I think could be overhauled is the administration of the penance. The traditional penances are prayers, rosary prayers, and reading Scripture. If you haven’t done enough (or anything) to repair the damage caused by your transgression, then I believe that your penance should be something that will help the transgressee and/or ameliorate the situation. Saying prayers, reading Scripture and other reflective penances should be saved for sins that don’t involve others.
The final area in which my views on forgiveness differ with those of my church is fifth condition: the promise to change one’s behaviour in the future, which unfortunately isn’t part of the Sacrament of Penance. This fifth condition is arguably the most important, because it is the only one that initiates a positive change. Nothing substantial will be accomplished if one’s poor behaviour is repeated over and over. The promise to end the behaviour and to behave more admirably in the future is essential. Only when we make changes in our behaviour can real progress be made. Once again, I would like to hear the priest tell each person in the confessional “Your behaviour has broken the rules of this church and of society, and your presence here in this confessional means that you obviously know this. If you expect forgiveness, then I want you to promise not to behave this way again. Let me hear you make that promise now”.
In my opinion, withholding forgiveness until it is earned doesn’t mean harbouring a grudge or refusing to put the incident behind you. In fact, I encourage everyone not to dwell on the incident, for your own peace of mind. You can still view your transgressor in a charitable and even sympathetic light, but s/he just won’t receive your forgiveness until it is earned. This approach is similar to being a teacher or professor – each student must do the coursework to your satisfaction and achieve a passing grade on the exam in order to receive a credit for the course. If they don’t meet the course requirements, then you withhold the credit. A professor wouldn’t feel badly for or hold a grudge against any of these students, because they knew that was required, and ultimately, the failure was their own.
Nothing worthwhile is achieved without effort. If you behave in a way that is beneath you – whether it’s classified as a sin by your religion, or if it’s something relatively minor, such as blocking the grocery aisle with your cart – then this is an opportunity for you to become a better person, and it’s why you shouldn’t be given a clean slate without earning it. Only then will you understand and appreciate the tremendous value of forgiveness.