29 October 2020

Excuse, pardon, or forgive others ?


What does it take for me to excuse, pardon, or forgive others?
 
Well, it depends!
 
Beer Spills
 
If someone is pushing past me in a pub on their way to the bar or to the toilet, that person may say to me as they bump into me, "excuse me" or "pardon me."

S/he, the bumper, is asking to be excused or pardoned for a minor infraction, namely endangering or even manifesting a beer spill. 
 
While it is technically a question (will you excuse/pardon me?), it is typically offered more as a declarative statement in which the bumper expects me to excuse or pardon him or her. 
 
In fact, I might even be considered rather rude if I did not excuse or pardon someone who made me spill my beer, especially after s/he asked to be excused/pardoned.
 
Sometimes, if I'm minding my own business drinking a beer, and someone bumps into me without saying anything and spills my beer, I might get irritated enough to bump back by saying "excuse me?" or "pardon me?". In this context, my words are offered as a gentle, ironic rebuff. The double irony is that my words mark some disinclination to excuse or pardon the bumper.

In this beer-spilling sense, excusing and pardoning and even forgiving someone are synonymous. To excuse or pardon someone who causes a beer spill is little more than a politesse. And a rebuke by the bumpee with an "excuse me?" or "pardon me?" is a reminder to the perhaps thoughtless bumper of the need for this politesse.
 
Big Spills
 
But how about the situations in life where the bump is something rather more substantial than a beer spill? Maybe an oil spill with economic, financial and ecological consequences. Or a physical assault perhaps resulting in a literal blood spill. Or maybe something more emotional as in matters of the heart in which tears are spilled.

The key distinction here is that the bumper is considered to have created a BIG spill that has affected the bumpee in a BIG way. 
 
In this context, the bumpee is extremely disinclined to excuse, pardon or forgive the bumper.
 
(With BIG spills, it is quite common to label the "bumper" the perpetrator, and the "bumpee" the victim. But these labels carry a lot of extra weight - so I'll stick with bumper and bumpee.)
 
The bumper's offence is substantial, and the question is can this moral wrong can be righted?

In the small beer-spill situation, it is enough for the bumper to simply ask to be excused, pardoned or forgiven. But this appears insufficient in the BIG spill situation. 

Indeed, what action by the bumper would be sufficient for him/her to be excused, pardoned, forgiven: admission of guilt, an apology, remorse, compensation, etc?

Perhaps being excused, pardoned, forgiven may be impossible for some sins. Would you ever forgive a murderer? A pedophile? An adulterer?

In the BIG spill situation, whether to excuse or pardon or forgive the bumper rests ultimately with the bumpee. And this can be a particularly heavy burden, so let's unpack it. 

First, there seems to be a difference between what it means for us to excuse versus pardon versus forgive someone for creating a BIG spill. 

To excuse the bumper for causing a small beer spill is to understand that the bumper faced difficulties, that it was not easy to make progress, and that accidents happen. 

For BIG spills, excusing someone is probably difficult to achieve because the bumpee is feeling seriously hurt by the BIG spill. Bumpees seem less likely to excuse the bumper for what happened, even if it was an accident. 

However, maybe excusing the bumper is not even necessary. I may struggle to excuse the BIG spill you have caused, but I might nonetheless pardon you or even forgive you. 

Eventually. Maybe. 

So when and why do I pardon someone? 

To pardon someone seems more immersive than excusing them, but it does not seem to get to forgiveness.

If I pardon someone, I perhaps accept what happened. I might show forgiveness, even say I have forgiven them, but it sounds kind of formalistic. Have I really forgiven them? Is it more a display than genuine forgiveness? Am I just saying the words, but not really feeling it? 

Maybe there's a greater step beyond pardoning someone, and that is to actually forgive them.  

Forgiving someone for a BIG bump or a spill is tough. What does it look like, what does it feel like? 

It seems to be more than acceptance, it requires some degree of commitment. To get to forgiveness, I need to feel into how the other felt, to walk some distance in their shoes. To forgive, I need to humanize rather than demonize the bumper. Understanding the bumper as a human being, not all good, not all bad, putting one foot in front of another, sometimes making mis-steps. I need to find some compassion for bumper, but also for myself. 

Forgiveness is essentially a form of love - which can of course be tough if the bump was seen as a betrayal of love. 

So to understand how forgiveness might be thought of as an act of love, it might be useful to reflect on love for a moment.  

The path of love is never easy - even with loved ones. And part of that struggle may be because so many of us have a view of love as some kind of reciprocal arrangement: if I shout (buy) a round of beers for you and me, it is expected you'll offer to shout a round of beers next! 

But love isn't necessarily a two-way street like that. We don't get to dictate or control or drive the love of another, only our own. Love is essentially a gift that we offer to someone. It may be reciprocated, it may not. But our love is rather less genuine and rather less splendid if it is withheld because it is not being returned by another. 

Love is not only a gift to someone else, but a gift to myself. Yes, I love for selfish reasons -- it makes me feel good!

So back to forgiveness as a form of love, and in particular, as a form of non-contingent love.

The bumpee holds the power to offer forgiveness, but it is unhelpful for them to insist that the bumper must earn the bumpee's forgiveness. This is like the churlish lover who is waiting for another to earn their love.

Excusing and pardoning are gifts to the bumper, but they are mere bagatelles. 

The BIG gift I can offer to someone who caused a BIG spill is forgiveness. The greatest version of this gift is when I give it away unconditionally.  

Forgiveness, like all love, is in essence a human product, and is much more valuable than beer or oil or blood or even tears. 

In forgiving, I am of course being kind to another. But I'm also being kind to myself. 

Forgiveness, offered unconditionally from the heart, is a form of love.  

Forgiveness (and love) are not earned. It is an unconditional gift we give to another. It is a beer I give away to the bumpee with no return shout required. 

The pleasure is in the giving - regardless of what happens beyond.

 
 
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To err is human,
to forgive, divine.
 
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711) 

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This post is the first product of my work as a pro bono sub-co-philo (sub-contracting philosopher) created in response to the following question posed by an interlocuter: "What is the difference between pardoning vs excusing someone?"

Got a question? Ask the sub-co-philo, I'll see what I can come up with!

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