Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Forgive and Forget

Is the motto of the Amish. Members of the Amish community affected by the horrendous shootings of two weeks ago have made a point to mention this again and again. They have already forgiven the perpetrator. They have set up a fund for his wife and children.

This concept of forgiveness is something that for me (and I suspect many others) just doesn't compute. Lip service is one thing. In practicality, how does one actually do it? Especially in the face of an incident so jarring and shocking?

It occurs to me that one of the reasons I have such trouble grasping this concept in practice is because of so many things I have read about human behavior and the architecture of the brain. While it can indeed be psychically advantageous to block out traumatic incidents, it is nearly impossible for them to be erased.

That is, there is a high likelihood that while the specific memory of the incident may itself be displaced or buried, it is likely that the person's behavior and mental state will reflect the trauma caused by the incident.

Indeed it is actually advantageous in many circumstances (or at the very least understandable) that one's behavior would be altered because it is a survival strategy. Our brains react very strongly to imprinting by negative stimuli for a reason: If we see Joe Caveman eat some berries and quickly die in agony, it's a good bet that we'll steer clear of that berry patch, if not all foreign berry patches.

So why do these two concepts of forgiveness and forgetting hang out together so much? And how do they really work together (or not)?

Social Beasts

One answer to at least the Amish portion of our inquiry can be elucidated by a recent NYT article from Daniel Goleman (of Emotional IQ fame). In it, he describes mirror neurons in the brain that are said to be responsible for our feelings of belonging with other human beings and within social frameworks.

In a nutshell, it seems that there are complex networks within our brains that allow us to synch up with one another in both our physical and emotional states. This is at least one explanation of the recent findings that people with established social networks of belonging (religious and otherwise) seem to live longer, healthier lives.

So at least within an Amish framework of not just shared values, beliefs and practices, but also shared physical labor and space, such forgiveness is not performed by the individual, but rather, through the collective. The strong ties that bind the Amish to one another allow them to carry out such herculean feats of forgiveness (not to mention physical labor!) which most people outside of their communities would find next to impossible.

In the same way, they are also able to draw their collective memories away from traumatic events. Indeed, for their society and social ties to remain intact, they must do so as a matter of survival for their way of life and their values.

Forgiveness for the Common Man

The question remains: are those who are not members of tight belief communities like the Amish able to achieve forgiveness? Is it even desireable to do so?

Given my understanding of the way this all works, complete forgiveness and forgetting probably doesn't work outside of such a framework. Nor perhaps should it. While many Amish values may seem to us as ideals or altruistic, it is important to view them in context. Amish communities are very small in scale, and exist within the larger framework of a society that by and large provides a system of justice and law enforcement that enables them to enjoy the ability to maintain their lifestyle and belief system.

Yet the compelling point of all of this is not necessarily how we can also forgive and forget as they do, but rather to look beyond that. It is fascinating to me that our brains are so wired as to require social and communal participation not only in matters of physical survival, but also in matters of emotional transcendence.

How many of us does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

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