Reconciliation. Compassion.

Here’s the dilemma — as a writer, I feel some responsibility to write about what’s bugging me. It is, after all, in the job description. On the other hand, I’m a novelist, not a journalist, not a damn pundit, and my readers have granted me, through their support, the privilege of spending my days, as Annie Dillard once said, with the “ludicrous notion that a reasonable option for occupying yourself on the planet until your life span plays itself out is sitting in a small room for the duration, in the company of pieces of paper.”

In short, I suspect no one is out there waiting for a mid-list novelist’s opinion on the state of the nation. Still, I am rather obsessed, as we all are, right now, with things electoral. Or rather, I’m obsessed by what this election represents, and what sort of invitation it offers us.

Annoying as it may be, I tend to see the world as a series of invitations from Something Greater Than Myself to step closer into relationship with, well, … the Ineffable, for want of a better word. So this morning I was reading from a wonderful wee book entitled THE ENLIGHTENED HEART, a collection of sacred poetry edited by Stephen Mitchell. In the section on Lao-Tzu, I came upon these two passages:

What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?

What is a bad man but a good man’s job?

If you don’t understand this, you will get lost,

however intelligent you are.

It is the great secret.


I have just three things to teach:

simplicity, patience, compassion.

These three are your greatest treasures.

Simple in actions and in thoughts,

you return to the source of being.

Patient with both friends and enemies,

you accord with the way things are.

Compassionate toward yourself,

you reconcile all beings in the world.

Hmmm. My various dictionaries define reconciliation like this:

  1. reconciling of people – the ending of conflict or renewing of a friendly relationship between disputing people or groups, make friendly again after an estrangement
  2. Achievement of consistence of compatibility – the making of two or more apparently conflicting things consistent or compatible
  3. Sacrament of penance – Christianity, the sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church whereby a person’s sins are absolved through confession and penance.
  4. Make friendly again after an estrangement
  5. Harmonize, make compatible, show the compatibility of by argument or in practice

I can’t help but think about the idea of reconciliation, in the midst of such an increasingly rancorous election campaign. I can’t help thinking, “thank God it’s almost over!”

I don’t pretend not to have a bias in these matters. I can’t help it. Still, I do wish my friends-and-relations would tone it down just a tad. I am tired to the bone of getting emails such as the one a well-meaning (I’m sure) friend from the Midwest sent me, with a photo of a long line of cars at the Canadian border crossing, over which hangs a sign – “Obama Won. Welcome to Canada. In this mass mailing he asked, “What do you make of this?” I’m sorry, but I don’t think the question was anything more than rhetorical. He doesn’t really want to know what I think, since he’s already quite convinced I’m a political moron.

And that’s one of the milder emails I’ve received.

On the other hand, I have a number of friends whose political views similar to mine, who send the same sort of stuff, but slanted, of course, in the opposite direction. The level of near-hysteria and vitriol on both sides scares the bejeebers out of me because, one way or the other, we’re going to have to share this planet together on November 5th, and it seems a good number of us are going to be miserable.

I did, however, come across one interesting video recently. And so, here it is:

Now why, you may ask, would I suggest you watch another anti-something video after what I’ve just said? Well, because I think this particular spot shows something we need to remember. Yes, some people out there are sowing all sorts of errant, possibly malicious, seeds. But what’s most intriguing to me is that in this clip Muslims and a self-proclaimed “Evangelical Christian” stand together and take a stand for the truth, and indeed, perhaps, for justice.

This moment brought hope to me. Perhaps, when all is said in done, when the ballots are counted and the oaths sworn, we might still sit down together and break bread. It is important, I think, to remember though, that forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things.

Forgiveness, to my way of thinking, is a personal act, performed so that one is freed from the sticky, stinging barbs of resentment, rage, and grief that come from being harmed by another. Without forgiveness whoever has harmed me lives, as someone once said, rent-free in my head. It’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, as the saying goes. So, I have the great gift of being able to forgive someone all by myself (well, maybe with the help of the Ineffable…)

But reconciliation takes two people: one to admit they have caused harm, and show remorse for it. The other to forgive and take the extended hand. Sometimes both people must make admissions and show remorse. Perhaps that’s why it’s more difficult to reco
ncile than to forgive, and why nations and communities and neighbors and family members find it such a thorny path.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think we will, or should, all live happily ever after, in and out of each others houses all day long. There are some people we can forgive, and reconcile with, but with whom it’s best not to pal around. You give ’em a hug, release ’em in love, wish them the best, but don’t hang out together. I get that. I gave up the Pollyanna outfit some decades ago. The point is not to harbor animosity. The point is to make sure my side of the street is clean and not worry about the other person’s weedy patch of lawn. Hanging onto dirt, my own or other people’s, doesn’t make for a comfortable place on which to lay my head.

So how, in the aftermath of these past two years, will we reconcile ourselves to each other? When we look down at our post-ballot patch of sidewalk, what do we see that needs sweeping? What apologies might we need to make, what comfort are we ready to offer, what amends are due?

I admit that, even writing this, I get a twinge of something not entirely charitable when I think of the smug faces I imagine I might encounter should things not go “my way.” I worry about what might happen to my community, to my world. I fear we might be, yet again, missing a chance to throw water on the fires of violence and prejudice. I worry about things we will do and things we will leave undone.

However, no matter who ‘wins’ in a little while, I suspect most of us will have some forgiving, and some apologizing to do. I wonder if we’ll be up to it?

I wonder if we’ll be able to lead compassionate lives, rather than passionate ones?

Leave a Comment