Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Lesson in Forgiveness

I have to work with someone who is unforgiving, literally. (I’ll call him Scarpia, after the evil police chief in Puccini’s opera Tosca.) If you make a mistake around Scarpia, and apologize, then he will snap at you: “What good does it do to apologize when you’re just going to do it again!” Of course, if you don’t apologize, then Scarpia will chastise you by saying, “I can’t believe you did that and then didn’t even apologize!” So — either way, you won’t be forgiven.

Now, forgiveness is just about the toughest vocation that Christians are called to and no one ever gets particularly good at it. I know I’m not. My parents were secular and, even though they were basically decent people, their attitude was that forgiving people was simply part of good manners, not a Christian duty, and so there was a limit to it. Christians know otherwise: forgiveness is a duty at all times.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about forgiveness:

• The best way to learn about forgiveness is to have a few kids. Having children almost instantly makes you a better person. You become more loving, more responsible, less self-centered and you learn that forgiveness is a part of everyday life. Each and every day your kids will do something wrong: spill a glass full of juice, leave every light on in the house, waste toilet paper, torment the dog, poke each other’s eyes out — all that kid stuff. And you know that they didn’t mean it. That they’re just kids who might know better but still don’t have the self-control to do better. So you have to forgive them. And guess what? It’s kind of easy. You just love them to death and you can’t bring yourself to think ill of them, so forgiving them becomes pretty natural. The trick is to learn to forgive everyone that way!

• Corollary to lesson one: God forgives you just like you forgive your kids. Once you have kids, and feel how easy it is to forgive them, you come to understand that God is our Father in Heaven and he forgives us just as freely. Once you feel this in your bones it is a profound spiritual comfort.

• You can’t forgive someone unless they are sorry. If they’re not sorry, then you are just pushing on a string. In fact, I would even say it is false piety to say that you have forgiven someone who isn’t sorry. The best you can do is to forget about it.

• “You hate me because you still love me!” Believe it or not, that brilliant insight comes from one other than Mussolini. (Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.) He’s really got the nut of the problem to: you can only hate someone you care about. So, if you find that you are beginning to hate someone that you love, you really should do something about it. Either tap into the love you still have for them and use that to forgive them, or resolve not to care. Don’t let this second option scare you, because this is exactly what Jesus meant when he told us to turn the other cheek. If you can’t love someone, then don’t let yourself be eaten up with hated for them, teach yourself not to care.

• A final lesson.

For the last seven years first my son and I, and now my little girl too, have been supernumeraries at the Lyric Opera. Supernumerary is just Italian for “extra” and that’s what we are. We don’t sing, we don’t speak, sometimes we dance, but usually we just do the mundane things on stage like carry the Pharaoh in on a sedan chair in Aïda, throw Falstaff out the window, and fill up the grand ball room in Eugene Onegin. My son is opera-crazy, I like opera fine, and my little girl just likes doing things with Daddy. And it’s a great experience. They pay us $15- a night, we get free tickets to the dress rehearsals, you get to be on stage with world class singers, and the back stage camaraderie is wonderful.

Everyone at Lyric is simply the best in the business, so there isn’t the usual tension and politics arising from having to put up with incompetents and, as a result, everyone is as friendly and helpful as can be — that is, everyone except for someone I’ll call Eugene (from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin). Eugene was an old hand when we started working at Lyric some seven years ago (he’s been in more than 500 performances) and he pretty much kept to the other veterans, snubbing newcomers dead. He wouldn’t talk to either my son, or me even after we’d been there for four seasons until, one day, he commented on my thermos full of tea, “Tea — how nice.” I thought this might be an opening so, starting with the next performance, I brought along an extra mug, poured a cup of tea, and left it at his station in the dressing room. At the end of the evening he would unfailingly bring me back the up, nicely cleaned, and thank me. But, just the same, he was still rather diffident and never engaged me in conversation. At this point, my son HATED Eugene and kept asking why I went out of my way to be nice to him. I told him it was the Christian thing to do.

Then, one day when we were getting into costume for a performance of Carmen, Eugene came over to me, stuck a finger into a hole in my very old T-shirt, and said, “Are you really so poor that you have to wear such shabby underwear?” Then he ripped his finger down and tore a huge gash in the shirt.

Well, I just lost it. I began to scream, at the top of my lungs something along these lines: “Eugene, you have treated me like shit and snubbed me dead for five f***ing years, but I always did the Christian thing and treated you nicely. I turned the other cheek and even made you tea for every damn performance this year! But now you have gone too far! You might just have reached into my pocket and taken my money! Yes — I am so poor that I have to wear T-shirts until they wear out and now you’ve gone and ruined one of them!” Then I turned around and got dressed. I was told later that EVERYONE in the room thought I was going to start hitting Eugene, and that four young guys were lined up around the corner to break it up if they had to.

I was as mad as I’ve ever been in my life and I started to think about what I would do if Eugene tried to apologize. And I worked it out perfectly! I decided that if he tried to apologize without replacing the shirt, then I could snub him because I was still out for the shirt. But if he did try to replace the shirt, I was going to reject him and say, “Eugene, you can’t buy back my friendship! It’s not for sale.” Did I have all the angles covered, or what? No matter what he did, I could go on hating him!

But when I got home and told my son about what had happened, he wanted to know what I was going to do about it. At that point I had to face up to the fact that I was a Christian, and had to state my terms for forgiveness up front, so that the poor schlub would have some kind of chance at being forgiven. “Okay —“ I said, “If he apologizes and replaces the T-shirt, then I’ll have to forgive him.”

“Wouldn’t it be more fun just to hate him? I mean — he really is a stuck-up jerk.”

Of course, my son was right, I really did just want to hate Eugene forever, but I had stated my terms and intended to stick to them. When I went back in three days for the next performance, there, at my space in the dressing room, was a very nicely wrapped package with an envelope on top. I walked over and spent two or three minutes just staring down at the envelope. I didn’t want to open it, but at last I did. Inside was a nice card with a simple hand-written apology, “It was all my fault.” The package contained not one, but three new T-shirts. At that point there was only one thing to do, so I went over to Eugene and said, “Thank you.”

“Really, it was all my fault and I’m sorry.”

I nodded, “It’s done, now let’s forget about it.”

Over the course of that evening’s performance, probably half-a-dozen guys came up to me and said that accepting Eugene’s apology was mighty big of me. Since then, Eugene has been a lot nicer, not just to me, but to everyone else around the opera house. But mostly, I felt a lot better not having to carry all of that hate around with me.

So the lesson is this: Forgive people because it will make YOU feel better.

1 comment:

John Jansen said...

An instructive lesson, indeed.

Having kids also teaches us how to be better forgivers in another way.

Inevitably, we as parents fly off the handle and get mad at our kids from time to time. Amazingly, though, kids—little kids especially—have an ability to forgive us almost instantly.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that this is one of one of ways in which we must, as Jesus said, "become like little children".