Justin Caouette On Rational And Emotional Forgiveness

Over at The Philosopher’s Take Justin Caouette wonders if there is a distinction between two kinds of forgiveness, ‘cognitive’ and ‘rational’:

Cognitive forgiveness deals with understanding the act that was done to you. So, let’s say your good friend punched you in the face when you walked into his house. After the incident and after talking about it with him you realized that he thought you were the thief that tried to break into his house the week before. You now “understand” why he did what he did and you may forgive him for it after he has apologized and told you why he decided to throw the punch….you…cognitively forgave him by understanding why he did what he did…Emotional forgiveness seems to be a more difficult form of forgiveness that is much less attainable….Following the punch in the face you get angry. Even after you’ve come to a rational understanding of why he did it you may still carry the anger or disappointment in his inability to see the difference between you and the thief….it does seem possible to rationally forgive but still be emotionally hurt, in turn, not forgiving.

And then goes on to ask some questions among which are the following:

Can you forgive in one sense and not the other? Or, are these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other? Is one form of forgiving more important [than] the other? What does it mean to fully forgive someone? Does it mean that the relationship goes back to the way things were? And, if so, do any of us really forgive anyone?

Caouette is right to surmise that “these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other.” To ‘understand’ and make comprehensible the rationale behind an insult–physical or otherwise–directed at one self is to undergo an emotional experience as well. The phenomenology of forgiveness involves a kind of ‘lifting’ of a burden of sorts which is colored with an emotional response.  To consider Caouette’s example again, he assumes too quickly that the subject in question has attained a ‘rational understanding’ of why he suffered the punch. Rather, I would suggest that if he is still carrying the anger and disappointment of the injury around as a kind of emotional baggage, then he has not come to the supposed rational understanding either. That rational understanding, that fitting of your assailant’s actions into cognitive space of reasons so that it is made comprehensible, less malevolent, will only proceed if facilitated by the right kind of emotional scaffolding. Or, the space of reasons is not purely cognitive; it is emotional too. When we tell our friend that we ‘understand,’ that it’s ‘OK,’ we are not merely signaling a cognitive response, we are indicating we have felt emotional relief too and that we are now, unburdened, ready to move on.

In an older post on a related topic, I had made note of Doris McIlwain‘s remark that ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises‘ as follows:

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

From these considerations it follows that one form of forgiving cannot be prioritized over the other; the two are inseparable and proceed together.  To ‘fully’  forgive someone does not entail the relationship ‘goes back to the way things were’–that isn’t possible or desirable. Rather it suggests that we are able to now perceive the act calling for forgiveness in a broader context that eliminates the earlier shadings and construals we placed on it. Sometimes we may never forget or forgive fully but we can still hope for a diminution of the visceral emotions associated with it, in part because our continued growth as a person may result in alternative rational responses to the event in question. (There are some colorful metaphors here to play with: a drop of ink in a glass of water can never be removed, but adding more water can render the glass clear again; that is, positive history can act to cover up an old emotional wound.)

This intertwining of the rational and the emotional has been noted before, and indeed, we may read the Buddha as suggesting that we need to bring the two in harmony in our actions and thoughts. The separation of the two is useful for analytical purposes, but it should not lead us to imagine that such separation is present in the moral subject.

The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

Doris McIlwain On The Rationality Of ‘Irrational’ Love And Hate

In Living Palely: On the rationality of a certain fullness of feeling (Artlink, Vol 29 No. 3, 2009), Doris McIlwain writes: 

Friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises. They become strangely symptomatic when we approach them as if they are….To me the sign that you really like someone is when you cannot quite offer a full answer when asked why. You could offer reasons, but they would not be the full story….the hot, less thoughtful bits of emotion can contribute intuitive information that we couldn’t get in any other way, as when we experience an inexplicable discomfort at what someone has just said and realise we are being lied to.

McIlwain would have agreed, I think, that if ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises’ then neither are enmity and hatred. We cannot quite explain why we do not like someone; why they make us uneasy, why they ‘just rub me the wrong way.’ We are asked to explain why; we find we fail; our explanations ‘run out somewhere.’ We are helpless in the face of an ‘intuitive’ feeling that something is amiss, something we ‘cannot put a finger on,’ something that pushes us away, that repels us. (We might find, in the course of an analytic session, on the therapist’s couch, that these wellsprings of emotion stream forth from an unresolved, unintegrated childhood experience; perhaps there are encounters we need to have with the past before we can confront the present and the future. The unconscious holds on tightly to emotions and memories alike.)

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

A desirable one, of course, one that speaks to the irreducibility of this mixed up creature we know ourselves to be, this blend of cold and hot, calm and turbulent, this always elusive subject–to the merely reasoned or affective. Reason and emotion working together ensure we always break the mold; they make this world richer and more variegated; we are grateful we see this world through the stereoscopic vision these two lenses afford us.