It was Arisha’s first birthday and except for the few weeks she went to India, she’s seen me everyday of her life. I live next door and she knows me better than any other adult besides her parents. So it was natural that at her party she would go to me in a way she wouldn’t to others. For one thing I was familiar. Several there took me for her grandmother and when I corrected the perception, Matthew said, “It doesn’t matter, she’ll love you like one. She doesn’t know the difference.” I realized what he said had truth in it,but she already has such wonderful grandparents, I dismissed it. But a few days later she was playing in my living room feeling safe enough that when her parents feigned leaving, in a ploy to get her to come home since it was bedtime, she noticed their leaving and then went on playing. It was easy to recall Matthew’s words.
I’ve seen her change from infant into toddler and witnessed all the wonders that go along with this natural progression, and barring anything unforeseen will continue to marvel at how a toddler becomes a little girl. No matter how the term is defined, it’s accurate to say I love Arisha. I’ve taken such delight in all her little daily doings of learning new words, recognizing birds, smiling at dogs and endeavoring to say my name. But it’s one thing to love her and draw joy from it, and another to have her love me–or whatever sentiment is budding within her. While just loving her, even without expectations, could be rather self serving, if she is to love me back, then loving her comes with responsibility–that means with all the other-orientedness and self forgetfulness her trust in me beckons. Arisha deserves no less.
As I entered the drug store this afternoon, a man, obviously homeless, with long dirty disheveled hair and carrying a dirty blanket the way Charlie Brown from Peanuts would have, dragging it behind him, was just ahead of me. We weren’t even all the way inside when a man carrying his purchases–I couldn’t help notice a 6-pack of beer–stepped forward and shooed the man away telling him he was the manager and he was not allowed in. Without a word or even a moment’s hesitation, the homeless man turned around and left. I took a look at the man. Until then I hadn’t had a chance to notice that he was a customer just like me, and not at all the manager. So I spoke up telling him the homeless man had as much right to be there as he or I. He answered in a loud voice filled with anger that he “smelled 3 feet away” and that if I wanted to do something for him I should “give him $20 to go to a hotel to get cleaned up or else buy him what he needs”. I repeated that the homeless man had the same right to be there and walked on. The man ranted on to whomever was near him getting the ear of the cashier telling her that people like that should not be allowed in. I ought to have told him that I was closer to the homeless man than he and he did not smell, that his attitude was far more offensive than the sight of this man. But I realized it would have been as useful as punching holes in water. Instead I looked for the manager to tell him that I was not offended by the presence of that homeless man. He gave me a smile I would call one of relief. The cashier who had already listened to me, nodded and said, “oh yes we tend to everyone, whoever is here,” added referring to the customer, “we can only pray for him.” By the time I went out to look for the homeless man with the intent to escort him in, he was gone, I couldn’t find him.
Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, met a homeless man on Skid Row. He turned out to be a Julliard music student and Lopez wrote a book about him. Soloist is now a best seller already sold to the movies. Maybe soon our revulsion for the homeless will turn into curiosity for who really lies behind their off-putting appearance.
To my friends I’m known as a forgiving person. I don’t usually have to work at it the way many do, but forgiveness like any other worthwhile value requires thought and lots of love. That was particularly true of forgiving those who hurt two people I love–a paralyzed sister and a father with Alzheimer’s. Periodically, however, my forgiveness gets tested as it was when I read about Josef Fritzl, an Austrian electrician living in Amsetten, a little town not that far from Vienna. The American press hasn’t done much reporting about this story, but Der Spiegel, a German daily I read weekdays (in English) has been following it. Fritzl, it was accidentally discovered, kept his daughter, Elizabeth, prisoner in a basement dungeon for 24 years! If that’s not enough, he continually raped her, so much so he fathered seven children. Some he somehow decided to take above ground having her write letters that would sufficiently explain to the authorities what they needed to know so that he could adopt them. One died and he is said to have incinerated the body. The other 3 lived underground with their mother, and witnessed the ongoing rapes. While Elizabeth who was 18 when she was taken prisoner had seen daylight, the 3 children with her, the oldest being 19 years-old, never had.
As I read day after day–police and others are still in the process of discovering facts and piecing the story together–I realized it was the kind of event like the Holocaust testing the limit of my forgiveness. How could Josef Fritzl be forgiven? This wasn’t a wanton act, this was consistent,willful, premeditated, something that was not only one reprehensible act, but a series of them: kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, incest, mental and physical abuse, child endangerment, probably murder. The more facts emerge, the more it seems Fritzl is everything a human monster can be. How can someone like that be forgiven?
A few days later in the same Der Spiegel I read an interview with the Dalai Lama who has long been in a position of having to forgive the Chinese for the torture and the harm they have done to Tibetans. In addition, the Chinese government has recently called him a criminal and a beast, among other ugly names. When the interviewer asked if he was angry, the Dalai Lama explained how his faith kept him from anger and negative emotions, and then in an attempt to place the accusations into perspective, he suggested that blood samples be taken from him in order to determine if he was truly a beast.
It’ll still require time, thought and effort for me to forgive someone like Josef Fritzl, but if the Dalai Lama can forgive the Chinese’s atrocities in Tibet I am reminded that forgiveness is in order if I want to live a harmless life. It does not mean Mr. Fritzl can be absolved of his actions, it just means individuals like me ought to overcome their revulsion, anger and judgment and instead delve deeper into what creates a spirit of forgiveness.
I am entitled to change my mind. As far as I know anyone is. I would suppose it would also be so in a totalitarian regime. Unless one’s mind is controlled one can change one’s mind. In fact changing one’s mind is expected. How often each one of us has heard, wait ’til you get older inferring that age would teach us something and guide us to see whatever in a different light. Of course it’s not age per se, but the experience that automatically comes with it, and to be sure the learning that we may have had more time to engage in. It is clear then: for us, the factor of time and the learning and experience it implies, makes changing our minds a positive and seeing a given issue differently expected. Why doesn’t this seem to be so for politicians? As a rule we criticize those who change their minds. They flip flop, they bend with the wind, they adopt a stance for political reasons. Rarely do we seem to give them the benefit of the doubt or apply to them the same criteria: that time, its learning and experience may, and usually does, change one’s mind. When John Edwards ran for President a few months ago (seems so much longer doesn’t it?) it wasn’t enough for him to change his mind about having voted for the war, he had to apologize, then his change of mind could be taken seriously. It’s quite possible that while the change of mind was genuine, the apology was political–the opposite of how it was generally interpreted. But regardless of examples (and none that would be recent enough to illustrate this would come without an emotional charge that would negate the benefit of illustration) we seem to distrust a politician when he or she professes a different view on a given issue. We go back and look at their record and say, oops, he–or she–voted differently, he–or she–must be lying, or spinning their vote to appeal to this or that demographic group. Indeed there are times when a record is telling, when there is a consistency that tells us something, or some pattern that is revealing of something we ought to understand about them. But as we do, we ought to factor in the dimension of learning and experience, we ought to grant them the right we each have to change one’s mind. It may seem a small thing but it is an election year, soon we shall be deluged with political ads touting the record of so and so as an omen of whatever fear the other side wants us to feel. Hopefully we shall be wise to that, grant the candidate the same rights we have and come to our own conclusion.