Sticky Brains and Forgiveness

(Warning: this post is based on personal, entirely anecdotal observations of other humans.)

I interact, on a fairly regular basis, with people from a wide range of backgounds: folks who’ve spent decades living on the streets; emotionally disabled folks and folks who were emotionally traumatized but recovered; working, middle, and upper class folks.

“Functionality” may not be the easiest term to define, but you know it when you see it: people who manage to pick up the pieces when bad shit happens and continue on with their lives. Non-functionality does not automatically make you poor, (nor does functionality make you rich,) but it is often a major contributing factor.

I’m not going to claim that we all go through equal amounts of trauma; certainly some of us, like infants who were dropped on their heads, have truly shitty lives. Still, almost all of us endure at least some trauma, and there is great variation in our responses to the tragedies we endure.

Among the people I know personally, I’ve noticed that the less-functional tend to have “sticky brains.” When trauma happens, they gloom onto it and get stuck. Years, sometimes decades later, you hear these people still talking about things other people did to them.

For example: two people I know (we’ll call them Foxtrot and Golf, following my alias convention,) had rough childhoods.  Foxtrot is still quite bitter over things that happened over 50 years ago, committed by relatives who are long dead. He’s is also bitter about things that happened recently; I often hear about very minor conflicts that normal people would just be angry about for a day or two that Foxtrot is still losing sleep over a month later. Unsurprisingly, he is an unstable emotional wreck with no job, a string of divorces, and virtually no contact with his family.

Golf’s childhood was, by all objective measures, far worse than Foxtrot’s. But Golf doesn’t talk much about his childhood and is today a functional person. When bad things happen to Golf, he deals with them, he might get angry, and then he finishes with them and puts them aside. He has his bad spells–times when things are going badly and he gets really depressed. He also has his good times. But he has managed to keep himself together well enough, even through these bad times, to stay married and employed (to the same person and at the same job, for decades,) is in contact with most of his family, and enjoys a decent reputation in the community.

The homeless people I interact with also have “sticky brains.” When bad things happen to them (and, yes, being homeless is like a permanent bad thing happening to you,) they get really focused on that bad thing. For example, one homeless woman I know has worried for decades about a possible indiscretion she might have committed back in highschool–it is a very minor thing of less importance than copying a few answers on a math test, but she is still worried that she is a cheater and dishonest member of society. Another is fixated on a bad interaction with an aid worker that happened over a year ago. Most people would say, “yeah, that guy was a jerk,” and then stop worrying about it after a week or so; in this case, the hurt is reviewed and re-felt almost every day.

And, of course, I have many personal friends who’ve endured or dealt with traumas in their own more or less useful ways. (Not to mention the various ups and downs of my own life.)

Because trauma is common–some, like the death of a loved one, strike almost everyone who makes it to adulthood–societies tend to adopt guidelines for trauma response, such as a funeral for the dead followed by a six-month mourning period for widows, official days of mourning or remembrance for people who died in wars, therapy and anti-depressants, confession and forgiveness, head-hunting (among head-hunters), or sympathy cards among the less violently inclined. My own family has a tradition of visiting the graveyard where many of our older relatives are buried once a year and cleaning the gravestones. (The children have a tradition of pretending to be zombies.)

Anthropologists like to call these things “rituals” and “customs.” Different societies have different customs, but all of the ones listed exist for the purpose of helping people cope with trauma and grief. (Or at least, that’s what the head-hunters claimed.)

Watching people attempt to cope with life has made me appreciate (most of) these customs. “Six months of mourning,” may seem arbitrary, but it is also pretty useful: it dictates that yes, it is very normal to feel terrible for a while and everyone will be understanding of that, but now the time has passed and it is time to get on with life.

Christianity and Judaism (and probably other religions) command forgiveness:

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. — Leviticus 19: 18

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? “Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” — Matthew 18: 21-22

This is ostensibly for practical reasons:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. — Matthew 6:14-15

On Yom Kippur, Jews observe a tradition of forgiving others and asking forgiveness for themselves. (It is not surprising that forgiveness should be handled similarly in two religions that share much of their scriptures; Christianity seems to differ primarily in making the institution of forgiveness a more personal matter rather than an annual ritual.)

I’m pretty sure forgiveness is a big deal in Buddhism, as well, but I don’t know much about Hinduism and other belief systems, so I can’t comment on them.

But why should God require forgiveness? It seems rather unfair to say to someone who was raped as a child and has done nothing worse than tell a few lies in their life, “If you don’t forgive your rapist, God won’t forgive you for lying.”

But this assumes that forgiveness exists for the forgiven. In some cases, of course, it does. But forgiveness also serves a function for the forgiver. I shall leave the concept of spiritual purity to the spiritual; as a practical matter, forgiveness allows the hurt party to stop focusing on their pain and resume life. Most people do this fairly naturally, but some of us need a bit of encouragement–and perhaps ritual focus and faith–to heal.

3 Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. — Matthew 5: 3-12

I don’t think the point of this is that it is morally superior to be insulted or hurt or poor, but reassure and comfort those who have been.

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