I’ve always thought it neat that so many things in the world revolve around a system of either one, two, or three, depending. Many things have three parts to them – the three states of matter, the three laws of motion, the basic three units that comprise an ordinary family (parental influence 1, parental influence 2, child), the three of Christian theology, the three primary colors, et cetera.
Many things also operate on a system of two. Many of these are opposites, or continuums I suppose, with two extremes. Black and white, old and young, male and female, tall and short, good and evil. The human body has two of a lot of things, as do most other creatures. Symmetry, opposites. Et cetera.
And a lot of things operate on a system of ones, but they’re kind of self-sufficient, so I’m not going to get into that. But more and more as I read Madeleine L’Engle (which is happening entirely too often and yet not often enough) I am understanding, better than ever, that although good and evil are in fact kind of on a continuum, there are still two ends to this continuum, as there are two sides to every story. Two ways to attack every situation.
Hannah and I have been talking a lot lately about the similarities between our breakups with a certain pair of musically talented, emotionally tortured boys. Not that the breakups are identical. We are not. Neither are the guys. Nor were the circumstances. Nor have the aftermaths been, but that is a whole other can of worms. But we talk more about hers, because it is recent. And she continually says to me that she is not angry with her ex-boyfriend.
And this hits me like a ton of bricks and I do not understand it, for several reasons. I was angry after my breakup. Deeply, violently angry, for longer perhaps than was reasonable. I still am if I think about it long enough on the right (or should I say wrong?) day. She is not. And yet her breakup and her ex-boyfriend’s behavior cobbled together create a much shittier set of circumstances than mine, and she is not angry. She’s not angry! I told her she should be. But that is probably because I am vindictive and defensive and she is calmer than I am.
And that made me realize, though not immediately, that Hannah is, as I love to quote Certain Women saying, a woman who has come to terms with her own humanness and that of those she loves. She is not immune to being hurt. But she understands it better when she is.
Like I said, I didn’t realize that right away, but it fits better in the context of my train of thought where it is written than where it happened.
Today, as you may have guessed from the below post, I was reading A Circle of Quiet. If anyone would like to insure my eternal love for them, that person may buy me every Madeleine L’Engle book they can get their hands on and give them to me. I’ll probably never ask anything else of you. But to continue.
As I was reading A Circle of Quiet, and finding all kinds of beautiful things, I came across this passage, which is part Madeleine L’Engle and part Madeleine L’Engle quoting George MacDonald, who wrote At the Back of the North Wind and deeply inspired Tolkien and C. S. Lewis as well as L’Engle. She begins by talking about a teacher who accused her of copying a poem she turned in for a poetry contest.
When she decided that I was neither bright nor attractive nor worth her attention, she excluded me, and this is the most terrible thing one human being can do to another. She ended up annihilating herself.
To annihilate. That is murder.
We kill each other in small ways all the time…
I worry about this. I worry about it in myself. When I am angry or hurt, do I tend to try to exclude the person who has hurt me?
I said that a photograph could not be an icon. In one strange, austere way there are photographs of two people in my prayer book which are icons for me. I keep them there for that precise reason. They are people I would rather forget. They have brought into my life such bitterness and pain that my instinct is to wipe them out of my memory and my life.
And that is murder.
I had, through some miracle, already managed to understand this, when I came across these words of George MacDonald’s:
“It may be infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling that excludes, that, in our microcosm, kills the image, the idea of the hated.”
Thank you, Grandfather George.
He has come to my rescue many times, has said to me just what I needed to have said in a moment of doubt or confusion…Like all great fantasists, he has taught me about life, life in eternity rather than chronology, life in that time in which we are real.
And he has finally made me understand what lack of forgiveness means. I cannot stay angry; this is not a virtue in me; I am physically incapable of going to bed out of sorts with anybody. But, although I have not stayed mad, have I excluded? put from my mind the person who has upset me? It is this which is the act of unforgiving.
I will remember this, I hope, each day when I come upon those two photographs of two very separate and different people. So, yes: those images have moved from image to icon. They have within them more than they are in themselves; in them I glimpse, for at least a fragment of a second, the forgiveness of God.
The Greeks, as usual, had a word for the forgiving kind of love which never excludes. They call it agapé. There are many definitions of agapé, but the best I know is in one of Edward Nason West’s books: agapé means “a profound concern for the welfare of another without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.”
…It teaches me not only about forgiveness but about how to hope to give guidance without manipulation.
Now I realize that that was a Great Wall of Text to go through, but here is my point. You see in this passage traces of the same ideas that inspired Madeleine L’Engle to write the phrase “Love with open hands” in The Other Side of the Sun.
And this, I think, is what Hannah is doing. She is loving her ex-boyfriend with open hands, letting him go, to destroy himself if he sees fit (and I think he does but I’m hopelessly biased), to live without her. She is not murdering him. She is not annihilating him. She is simply forgiving him and letting him go. It may be metaphorical, but she has his picture in her prayer book. She refuses to exclude him (and you also see traces of the idea behind A Wind in the Door where to stop loving someone is to X them, to exclude them, to annihilate them from all creation for all eternity because you cannot forgive and love). She has come to terms with his humanness as well as her own. She is forgiving. She is exhibiting the greatest kind of selfless love – no matter how much it pains her to not annihilate him spiritually, she is letting him exist.
I have much to learn from this. I have tried to annihilate Matt spiritually, to block any thought of his existence from my consciousness. I’ve kind of succeeded, although I cannot forget anything completely and especially not while consciously trying. Despite having forgotten him (as far as daily remembering goes), I have not forgiven him. I am still angry. I am annihilating him by my lack of forgiveness. I have wondered if he will ever learn to let himself love and be loved while he is on this planet; I have not stopped to consider that if I withhold forgiveness he will not even try to learn. Like how if the salesman doesn’t believe the product he is selling, neither will the non-customer (thank you, Vector Marketing, for teaching me that). Like how if the teacher doesn’t believe what she is teaching, neither will the student. I struggle with knowing how much of the blame to take, but in this case I see what I have done and don’t need to bother about how much. I don’t know if I need to openly tell him I’ve forgiven him or not, or if I simply need to find a way, any old way, to get rid of the bitterness and that’s just among the possibilities.
Nevertheless, I cannot not forgive him; not when Hannah can forgive someone who treated her much worse than Matt did me; not when the God of the universe can forgive every slimy human being on the planet for everything slimy they’ve ever done, even if not to Him. It is true, as Grandpa Bowman says in Certain Women (what? it’s a good book), that to be righteously angry is healthy, but righteous anger also burns out. Bitterness is not healthy. I have to let go of that. And I think Hannah, among many other people, God certainly not least of them, have much to teach me about forgiveness. It is unforgivable not to forgive. Funny how that works.