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Forgive and Learn | Psychology Today

Forgive and forget? Forget it! That’s not what you want. You want to forgive and learn, the ability to forgive yourself and others but to remember, to learn from errors.  

Tell me, which moral universe do you live in really?

1. Absolutist: You’re at a control panel covered with toggle switches. Toggle up to be good and down to be evil. Simple. You’re told over and over, NEVER TOGGLE DOWN TO EVIL! But do you listen? No. You keep making the same dumb mistake, flipping the switch toward evil. WHAT THE HECK IS WRONG WITH YOU!!!

With this one, to apologize you have to say things like “I’m sorry. I was aggressive. I should never ever be aggressive.”

Which is hard, so you don’t end up apologizing.

2. Adaptive: You’re at a control panel covered with balance controls. You’re supposed to adjust them to fit your circumstances. Sometimes it’s better to be more to one side or the other. Leaning either way could be good or bad depending. So you tweak the dials carefully, though of course, sometimes you miss. That’s OK. It happens. Live and learn, forgive and learn.

With this one, to apologize you have to say things like “Sorry, I was too aggressive for the situation called for. I’ll adjust.

That’s an easier sorry so you apologize quickly and smoothly without feeling like you’ve sinned, violating some absolute law.

Maybe growing up you were told that you live in the absolutist moral universe. You were told to always toggle one way, for example, always be nice, kind, generous, accepting, loyal, etc. and never to toggle the other way, never be mean, unkind, ungenerous, aggressive, disloyal, etc.

Simple absolutes. Except now you feel like there’s something deeply wrong with you when you do the thing you were told never to do.

And like everyone you don’t like to think there’s something deeply wrong with you. So you don’t apologize if you can help it. And you can help it because actually those absolutes are ill-defined. So you can always wiggle out. “No really, I wasn’t being mean. I was being nice…” and then some rationalization. Better that than having to admit that, like a sinner, you toggled toward the absolute evil.

Many of us get fed absolutism in our early years, but let’s go back earlier. About 2,400 years ago, Aristotle made a case for the adaptive approach. He argued that virtue wasn’t toggling one way or another but striking the right balance, the middle way. For example, between total selfishness and total selflessness. He said neither absolute does any good, So adjust that dial. Somewhere in between absolute selfishness and selflessness.

And further back still, way back to the origins of life.

There was no morality back then, but there was good and bad for an organism. We know it by the fruits of the simplest organism’s labor, its effort to survive and reproduce. Unconsciously and unfelt, effort in the earliest organism is evidence of what’s good for the organism: Successful survival and reproduction.

Survival isn’t the same as existing. A stone doesn’t try to survive. A stone just is until it isn’t. In contrast, we organisms struggle to persist. We hustle to prevent ourselves from degenerating. We try to do good, not bad for ourselves and our lineage. Our effort is the origin of those balance controls.

To keep going, we organisms need energy and materials we can use to improve their chances. But energy and materials can also degenerate us. Organisms have to be open but not to everything, closed, but not to everything. The origin of life is the origin of good and bad, of a balance control on one’s drawbridges, letting in good stuff, not bad stuff.

3.8 billion years after the origin, you’re still dealing with that challenge. You’re a gatekeeper on your own behalf, letting in nutrients, not toxins, friends, not predators, useful ideas, not deadly ideas. You’ve got your hands on various drawbridge balance controls. You’re guessing how much of what to let in when given what’s out there and what you need and want.

An adaptation is an internal adjustment of your balance controls to let in and out the right stuff, not the wrong stuff given you circumstances. An adaptation is a guess about what will help or harm. An adaptation is the wisdom to know the difference between what you can and can’t change to your benefit.

Yes, the serenity prayer is that old. Since life’s origins creatures have sought the wisdom (adaptations) to know the differences that make a difference to their survival.

So which moral realm do you really live in? The absolute or the adaptive? Despite what you may have learned young, or even all your life, you really live in the adaptive realm. When you get “mean” it means your resisting something you bet you will harm you. When you get “nice” it means you’re interacting with something you bet you can use to good effect.

You want to keep an open mind but you don’t want your brains to spill out. And heart, and ears, and all sorts of other gates that if you opened all the way in selfless oneness to everything would leave you dead. You want to be selfless where it helps and selfish where it helps. You and everyone else. The origin of life is the origin of selves. All organisms are self-ish, open and closed where they hope it helps them survive.

There’s forgiveness in that. Not forgive and forget, but forgive and learn, forever getting better at adjusting those dials for different circumstances. The adaptive life is the serenity prayer life. You’re trying to minimize mistakes, for example, accepting what you could improve or trying to improve what you can’t.

The absolutist realm is imaginary. It’s a human invention, a product of language by which people can imagine that the choices are simple: Always do X. Never do Y.

The people who buy into that myth instead of settling into nature become unforgiving of themselves and others. They become rationalizers and hypocrites trying to impose an oversimplified perspective on a world of tweaked balance controls. They may feel lofty for pretending that they know to always toggle one way, but that’s just talk. They can scold mercilessly for your failures to do the obvious thing. They tangle themselves up in hypocritical nonsense. “Never be judgmental” (which is a judgment), Be closed-minded to closed-mindedness (which is closedminded).  Their walk is like everyone else’s since the origin of life, adjusting, tweaking, tuning trying different things in different situations. But they beat themselves up for sinning, which makes it very hard for them to apologize forgive and learn.

Now double all this back on itself. Is toggling always evil? Never toggle? Nope, not even. There’s even a place for absolutism. Just not all day because someone in your childhood told you that you live in an absolutist moral realm.


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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !

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