I'm on an email list with a group of university friends, and one of my friends recently sent an email to the list asking for everyone's forgiveness techniques. I was the first to respond, probably both because I spend all day in front of my computer, and because of my short answer: I don't forgive; I forget. I don't forgive and forget; I just forget. I have awful long-term memory.

I'm sure many people have done many mean things to me over my life, but I honestly can't think of one right now. I can think of people who I don't trust, and I'm sure there are reasons I don't trust those people, but I generally have no idea what the reasons are. So forgiveness is not an issue that really comes up for me.

While I don't remember events such as, say, 1990, I gather most people do. And when someone did something hurtful in 1990, that hurt still lingers until it is forgiven. But what does that mean, to forgive?

Dictionary.com says to forgive is to excuse for a fault or an offense; pardon. I'd like to suggest that this isn't possible, that we are only fooling ourselves when we claim to excuse someone else's offense, that we can't help but hold each other accountable for our errors.

In She loves me She loves me not, Shelley wrote of her cat Zoë:

I woke her up, but she forgave me.

Or did she? Can a cat ‘forgive’? Some people say that animals aren’t capable of sophisticated emotions, such as love or sorrow or, in this case, forgiveness.

I thought about this, and I think I am one of those people. And not just cats — I don't believe people are capable of forgiveness either. I believe people can and do love, and feel compassion, even for people who have done them wrong. But I just don't think this love can excuse the wrong.

I sometimes imagine life as a pool table. We make choices about our direction and speed. If we're smart, we can anticipate the outcome of our decisions. In life, of course, this anticipation is made more difficult because the other balls have minds of their own. But to understand why I doubt forgiveness, I think the metaphor is useful.

The notion of forgiveness here is analogous to a pool ball being struck by another, rolling along, and then suddenly stopping as if it hadn't been struck at all. Pool balls just can't do that, and I submit that neither can people.

I know the idea that forgiveness does not exist seems pessimistic at first, but it need not be. In place of forgiveness, I offer a substitute: reconciliation. To reconcile, dictionary.com says, is to reestablish a close relationship between, to settle or resolve, to bring (oneself) to accept. The reconciling pool ball says "okay, you struck me and now I'm rolling towards the bank, but I'm going to slow myself down now and stop before I bounce off and hit you." This I think people can do.

We can acknowledge the hurtful decisions of the past, and move on from there, but I don't think we can in good faith excuse them. Excusing them implies the decisions were not really made, that they weren't really choices, that there was some other cause. Forgiveness implies that we can do wrong and not be wrong, but I believe we are what we do. Our decisions form ourselves, even when we'd prefer they didn't.

In the comments to my post on endocrinology, Kyle wrote: If you haven't seen it already, you may find this story interesting: Temple Gradin NPR interview.

I just listened to it, and it was interesting. Temple is an autistic animal scientist. In the interview, she talks about the similarities she sees between the autistic and the animal mind. Throughout, when she talked about animals, I couldn't help but consider how everything she said relates to people as well.

When she talked about how dogs need to know the social hierarchy to get along, for example, I wondered about how the lack of social hierarchy online might be a cause of the superfluousness of flame wars. Perhaps, like the dogs Temple discusses, people online are too often just testing each other until someone comes out on top.

But one part in the interview made me think about forgiveness specifically, and I want to try to transcribe it here, replacing "horse" with "[person]":

Let's talk about fear memories...Let's say a person abused a [person] wearing a black hat, and the [person] was looking right at the black hat. Now the [person] is afraid of black hats...they make an association...

She goes on to talk about how she helps the horse get over its fears by introducing them slowly and demonstrating that the associations are wrong. This is not forgiveness. This is reconciliation. And I don't see any reason to believe that people are any different in this respect.

Like horses, we get hurt. Like horses, we associate that hurt with something (or more often someone). Like horses, we don't recognize when that association is no longer valid. Like horses, we don't just drop the association, because we can't. Our brains don't work like that. Instead, like horses, we form new associations. We reconcile.

 

I very rarely look at people. I've made efforts before to change this behavior, but they never last very long. Now I know why. Cognitive Daily (probably my favorite weblog of late) wrote about an experiment looking into what causes people to look away, which concluded: the reason for looking away is probably simply to reduce the overall cognitive demand and focus on the question.

"The question" in the experiment is one asked by a conversation partner, as it is for most people, who tend to look away mostly when considering an answer. I'm almost always looking away because I'm almost always thinking about something. I'm not saying I look away because I'm smarter than most people (though I am - and so are you most likely); I just think with more concentration, more constantly than most people (I think).

Sometimes this is a good thing, but it's not something I know how to control. I put as much thought into the answer to a rhetorical question as I do into a real problem, not because I don't realize it's rhetorical, but because I don't have an off switch for thinking. Sometimes less thinking would be better.

I think most of my music comes from answers to questions no one asked me. Which is good - I like my music. On the other hand, it makes it difficult for me to record music, especially with complicated recording tools. Bias Peak and Pro Tools are probably great recording software, but I can't play a song while looking at all those buttons. There's too much going on to keep my attention on recording. I want something simple, like Audicity, which doesn't tempt me to think when I should be playing. And even that has too much to think about. I'd like recording software that made the screen go black while recording.

And the same is true of looking at people. There's too much going on in a face to keep my attention on the question. I could look at a cartoon all day and think about something, but people are too interesting, and if I start looking at them, I'll start thinking about something, and then I have to stop looking at them or I'll lose my thoughts and never answer the questions.

I gather most people don't care so much about all these questions. And maybe they're right. Today at work I asked someone "if you hire a siamese twin, do you have to pay both of them?" (Yeah, I know, "conjoined twin," but that's not what I said.) That's not a question most people think to ask.

And that's just what made it past my filter. I spent a few minutes today thinking about how web browsers communicate a cancelled authentication attempt back to servers, and why Safari doesn't seem to do this, and whether anyone has submitted this as a bug report, or whether it is in a spec somewhere that this should happen. I didn't ask anyone else these questions because I know they are neither interesting nor amusing to most people. These aren't questions most people spend time thinking about. Instead, they spend time looking at people's faces.

Is looking at people more important than all these questions? That's a question I'll have to think about some more.