Forgiveness is Divine
For the final piece in my Valentine’s Day series on the greater meaning of romance novels, I actually read two books. They aren’t famous books or important in any way; they’re just a couple of cheap paperbacks by prolific, well-known romance authors. I read both ages ago when newly married and liked them well enough that I still have them 28 years later – The Endearment, by LaVyrle Spencer, and Once in Every Life, by Kristin Hannah.
I’m running this two-for-one special because even though these books are quite different, they have the same theme. The theme of The Endearment and Once in Every Life echoes through many romance novels because it’s something very important to women, and indeed to all of us.
Forgiveness doesn’t seem to be a particularly romantic concept. But I found that of all the books I read this month, these two – silly little throwaway pieces of fluff, both of them – resonated the most with me. I’ve certainly found that forgiveness is important in relationships and in long term relationships, it’s imperative.
A good many romance novels have the theme of women forgiving men, usually for sexual peccadilloes (see Fifty Shades of Grey). But The Endearment and Once in Every Life center around men forgiving women instead.
Trope twister! Seriously, that’s a story so rare it’s like man bites dog.
Rumor has it that men are less likely to forgive than women are. Before anyone gets their knickers into an elaborate French updo, I promise, it’s totally SCIENCE (™!) Exceedingly large-brained scientists have studied the issue of forgiveness, and found that the average man really is less forgiving than the average woman. And while some of the things men don’t easily forgive are serious and important, others are petty or downright weird. My husband once refused to eat at a restaurant I’d gone to with my first boyfriend 17 years earlier…and I didn’t even know the guy when I dated my first boyfriend. A lot of women have had the “number” talk – when you’re interrogated about the number of men you’ve slept with prior to being in your present relationship and judged harshly for it. Not forgiving a partner for things that happened before you even met – I think most of us would agree that’s pretty uncool.
So I found the men-forgiving-women switcheroo in these books very refreshing, and yes, even sexy. It’s why I kept these cheesy little books lo these many years.
I believe LaVyrle Spencer and Kristin Hannah tapped into a similar romantic vein as the author of Twilight. Women who haven’t experienced much forgiveness in their romantic relationship(s) want to believe it could happen – to somebody, even if somebody isn’t exactly us. We want to believe in that kind of love – the kind of love that could withstand us doing some crazy or even downright bad thing. The kind of love that would vault joyously over any obstacle, the kind of love that’s enough to heal our relationship’s wounds…even those that are self-inflicted. We want to believe we’re worthy of forgiveness. Even if it isn’t true, even if our sins are unforgivable, we want to believe that it could be true somewhere, for someone, and romances indulge us in that fantasy.
The Endearment tells the tale of a girl named Anna Reardon who answers an advertisement for a mail-order bride – dishonestly. She lies about her age, her ability to read and write, her housekeeping skills, her upbringing, her virginal status, and to top it all off, she shows up in rural 19th century Minnesota for her marriage with an unexpected kid brother in tow. Over the course of time her lies are revealed and the happily-ever-after she hoped to find through her deceit is put very much at risk. Her new husband, a Swedish immigrant named Karl Linstrom (played in my mind by Alexander Skarsgard) comes to find out that Anna’s life had been incredibly difficult. Anna was the unwanted child of a prostitute, and she and her brother were destitute and desperate to escape Boston, where Anna would have almost certainly met a similar fate as her mother. Any bad behavior on her part had to be viewed through that lens. Karl eventually came to realize he couldn’t judge Anna as harshly as he might a person who wasn’t in that terrible situation, who had never experienced the horrible things Anna had. He eventually forgives her deception, even though it doesn’t come easily to him.
Karl Linstrom learns a lesson most fictional characters never do – honesty is easy when people are good to you, lying is easy when people are bad to you.
Once in Every Life takes that same man-forgives-woman angle and just like Outlander, tosses a little time travel into the mix. The story starts off in the modern world, in which a woman named Tess Gregory – shy, isolated, a former foster child, no family and few friends – is hit by a car and dies. She goes to the afterlife where she’s allowed to choose a second life to experience, although she’s not given much information about her options. She makes her choice, and is dropped into the resurrected body of another woman who had just died in childbirth. Tess wakes up the 1870’s as Amarylis Rafferty, with a husband and three children – including a newborn baby.
The wrinkle is that Amarylis Rafferty is – or was – a terrible person. Cruel, vindictive, abusive. Unlike Anna, Amarylis had no good reason for being such a horrible person. She was just a selfish, shallow person who crumbled when life turned out to be way harder than she’d anticipated. Tess (who in true romance novel style, calls herself Lissa rather than the hefty “Amarylis”) ends up having to win over her husband, her children, and convince the world that she’s really changed, forever. She has to regain her family’s trust and earn their forgiveness for sins that she didn’t even commit. She does, of course, or Once in Every Life wouldn’t be much of a story.
I’ve thought a lot about the nature of forgiveness since I read these books. Not only in the boundaries of a romantic relationship, but forgiveness as a concept.
Forgiveness used to be seen as a virtue. I used to wonder why this was. I mean, if someone does a bad thing, don’t they deserve to be punished for it? Forgiveness was for milquetoasts who were too wussy to put up a fight, for people too willing to keep the peace when they should have been kicking ass and taking names. Worse, it seemed to be a way to let one’s own sins slide. If we’re all sinners and we all need to forgive each other, doesn’t that mean that we’re really just giving each other an open-ended hall pass on bad behavior? Isn’t forgiveness basically a license for hypocrisy, permission to refuse to call out others because you don’t want to be called out by them in return? Isn’t forgiveness little more than a mutual agreement to turn a blind eye with a wink and a shrug and a phony apology and an even more phony promise to do better the next time?
Forgiveness has to end somewhere, right?
But I’m not sure I really understood the nature of forgiveness back in my younger days. Because over time I’ve learned that you really can’t think about forgiveness without thinking about the opposite of forgiveness – revenge.
An unchecked desire for revenge is a hugely destructive force. Exacting revenge is oftentimes like spanking your kid when you’re angry – yeah, they may be an irritating little sh – but you my friend, are totally out of control. What starts as a reasoned, measured punishment (assuming that you even have the right to punish another adult as if they’re your child, which is a whole ‘nother subject entirely) snowballs into a brutal decades-long campaign. At some point the tactics of revenge – humiliating, belittling, berating, demeaning, demanding penance – become a far greater offense than the whatever-it-was-to-begin-with. This is made apparent in The Endearment, where Karl’s stubborn refusal to forgive Anna’s very understandable lies becomes an offense unto itself. He punishes her and goes on punishing her. By the end of the book, Anna really ought to be the one forgiving Karl. His sins are just as bad if not worse than hers. Yet they’re both made miserable by his refusal to forgive. By allowing vengeance to consume his entire life, Karl misses out not only on salvaging his relationship with Anna, but on the everyday pleasures of life that he could be focusing on instead.
That’s the way it goes. Revenge-seeking is like living in a perpetual state of war. Every resource you gather – your time, your energy, your hope, your joy, your future – you expend towards waging that war instead of towards other, better, more productive things. Revenge devours relationships, friendships, families; it’s destroyed the functionality of countless groups and organizations. Revenge causes countries that could otherwise peacefully coexist to war against each other. Revenge set the Capulets and the Montagues at each other’s fictional throats and the Hatfields and McCoys at each other’s real ones.
We realize the pointlessness of revenge when we encounter it in the pages of a book or in a history text, but rarely when we experience it firsthand.
Quests for vengeance consume everyone in the vicinity – even those outside of the relationship. In Once in Every Life, if Tess/Lissa’s husband had hung on forever to his anger even when it became apparent that his wife had become a new woman (literally) it would have served no point other than to be a slow poison within the family. His innocent son and daughters would have suffered right alongside their parents, serving a life sentence for a crime they didn’t commit. He would have stolen his family’s happiness and serenity forever so he could savor his revenge indefinitely.
Revenge, as they say, is sweet. It’s mighty tempting to hang onto.
Forgiveness is the counterpoint to vengeance. Forgiveness swoops in and cuts vengeance off at its knees. If you’re wronged and you forgive, it’s over, it’s behind you. The campaign of revenge doesn’t have to burn its way to the sea. You put the wicked deed(s) behind you and you move on. But if you refuse to forgive, it never ends. You’ll carry that pain, that sense of violation and betrayal forever.
Say what you will about Christianity* but they were onto something there. Turn vengeance over to a higher power and forgive, and in that, you are set free. Time will kill ’em all and God will sort them out. We don’t have to worry about it. It’s not our responsibility. Because it’s about not wrecking your own life chasing the dragon of vengeance. Forgiving another person actually sets you free from a lifetime spent plotting and scheming and obsessing and staring icily across the dinner table consumed with rage. Bestowing forgiveness is not a favor you do for someone else, not at all. It’s something you do for yourself. In a very real way, forgiving another is an entirely selfish act.
Forgiveness does not come naturally. It has to be chosen and then worked at. If it comes easily, it’s not forgiveness, it’s just letting go of something you weren’t particularly pissed off about to start with. If it means anything at all, it’s gonna hurt. The idea of forgiving those who have wronged you may make your teeth ache and your eyeballs throb and your guts do things that are indescribable. But if it was easy everyone would do it.
I look around our world, brimming over with anger and division, hatred and distrust seeping from every possible fault line. It seems to me like a little forgiveness might be a welcome thing. Maybe forgiveness doesn’t need to be thrown out with the tattered remnants of Christianity like a baby with the bathwater. If what SCIENCE (™!) says is true and men really are less forgiving than women, embracing forgiveness as a political strategy may even be an act of feminist subversion, a tangible way to smash the patriarchy, a shot across the bow of those who love to see us at each other’s throats and calling for our neighbors’ heads. Turning our collective cheek may just be a way to strike a blow against the many mini-Machiavellis who capitalize on fanning the flames of our divisions.
If you can’t forgive your enemy, at the least, maybe you can forgive your lover. In love and war, or love AND war, forgiveness is a quality to nurture, a virtue to cultivate. Not for anyone else’s sake but for our own. The last thing the world needs is more bitter and furious people roaming cyberspace looking for a flashpoint, a trigger, a justification for their ongoing vendetta. The last thing we need is to continue being those miserable people.
It’s probably a silly and naive position for me to take, to wonder if forgiveness might be enough to change our troubled world. But maybe it’s a good place to start.
I suppose it’s just the romantic in me.
*Of course the concept of forgiveness is present in other cultures and religions as well, but Christianty and forgiveness – particularly when considered alongside hypocrisy – are strongly linked in most people’s minds.
Photo by pasa47