Monday, November 6, 2017

On Forgiveness and Stoic Pity

We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad. So should we be angry with them, or should we pity them instead? --Epictetus
 The concepts of forgiveness and stoic pity have lately been on my mind, especially pity and how it is a somewhat different concept than I'm used to in a stoic context.  In the quote above, Epictetus seems to recommend pity instead of anger when it comes to how we think about those who have wronged us.  That contradicts, or seems to contradict, what I had previously thought about pity, and had let be my final word about pity, that pity was a base emotion that elevated the one who pities over the one pitied, and that it cheapened both parties.  If I'm not mistaken, that's how Nietzsche described pity, and I was comfortable with that description, and the matter was settled for me.  Don't pity people.

As I've delved into the writings of the stoics, I came across the view of pity as described by Epictetus, who again, seems to see it as a better emotion compared to anger.  And this view has resonated with me, especially when it comes to my ex-partner.  I've been looking for a means to feel better about her, not for her benefit, but for mine, that experiencing so many negative emotions about her was poisoning me, the anger and resentment and disgust she had inspired me to carry around with me like some rotting corpse slung across my shoulders, heavy and stinking.  She'd robbed me, mainly of time . . . of time with my children, of time I'd spent building something with her, of my family, and she embarrassed and humiliated me and I think herself, and she continues to live a life that is beneath her . . . et cetera.  And again, this was anger and resentment that was stinking up my life, to the point that I felt as though people around me, like when I was grocery shopping, could smell the aura of resentment around me.

In that sense, surely pity is the better emotion, though it probably isn't the best.  I'm not sure Epictetus is so much praising pity, but saying that it is preferable to anger when it comes to people who are lost, and indeed, don't even seem to recognize how lost they are.  People who aren't guided by philosophy, but by their own irrational impulses.  At my best, I try to let philosophy be my guide, and stoicism has been indispensable to me as I've made the attempt.  Pity being better than anger, I worked to make that trade.  It isn't easy.

Let me delve into this a bit differently.  In my previous ideas about pity, that it was base and ought to be avoided, I would think about someone who had it worse than me, like say a homeless man.  Pitying a homeless man was problematic because:

  1. I'm not better than a homeless man.
  2. I can imagine losing everything and becoming a homeless man.
  3. If I were homeless, I wouldn't want anyone's pity.   
  4. A homeless man, in some senses, has a lot more freedom than I do.  He isn't bound to his things, and doesn't have debts.
Or maybe a woman dying of cancer:
  1. I am not better than a woman dying of cancer.
  2. I, too, will one day die.
  3. I, too, have and will experience horrible pain.
  4. She is closer to ending all suffering than I am, at least that I am not today wasting away with sickness.  
But what about thieves and robbers?  Epictetus isn't talking about those who might more typically be thought about as the those who receive pity, but those who are healthy and active, those who act in ways that wrong and harm other people.  In other words, people who might more typically be the subjects hatred, not pity.  This seems to be a crucial turn.  These are people who are out of sync with the universe, or with God's will, as the stoics might say.  They would say that our highest aim ought to be aspiring to the nature of God(s), and that would be to live according to virtue, and that would be to serve others, as I understand it.  

I've found some relief in pity for she who wronged me and stole from me, so that I could take that hatred and anger and transmute it into something that wasn't so putrid and poisonous, not because I want to help her, but because I want to experience fewer negative emotions and find some tranquility.  To live as a stoic, as it were.  And I think that application of pity is a stone's throw from achieving forgiveness, and that is certainly a goal of mine with regard to she who stole, again, not for her benefit, but for mine; I want to find a way to let the past be the past.  

In application, once I started to embrace pity, I started saying these words aloud, quite to myself (talking to myself I'll treat another time, maybe, but suffice it to say that I have found much benefit from that practice):
I love you.  I am sorry.  I forgive you.
I said it even though it was counter-intuitive, and I didn't want to say it at all.  It felt wrong to say it, especially the I love you and the I forgive you.  It felt like I was giving her something she didn't deserve.  Aren't we supposed to punish thieves?  That seems to be the dominant sentiment in our culture.  But I have changed my mind; I think that sentiment is wrongheaded and misguided.  We ought to do what we can to protect ourselves from thieves (or is to protect our belongings?), but I'm no longer convinced the imprisoning of such people ought to be motivated by the desire to punish them.  This, again, seems a bit counter-intuitive to me; nevertheless, the impulse to punish is fueled by anger, perhaps the most negative of negative emotions, and therefore ought to be managed if not avoided.

And so, I keep saying it.  Still today, two years after she moved out, I feel anger every day at some point.  Not like two years ago in which I lived in almost perpetual anger, but at least once a day anger will invade, and I say the words:
I love you.  I am sorry.  I forgive you.  
And my anger is dismissed for another day. It is a practice, and it helps, and it started when I encountered Epictetus and revised my ideas about pity. 

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