can one forgive reality for its inherent brokenness?
If life were fair, I’d be out on a morning run right now, but life isn’t, so I’m not. The immediate unfairness getting in my way is a flaring up of my retrolisthesis; in short, there’s a vertebra in my lower back that isn’t inclined to stay in place, and my core muscles aren’t always successful in convincing it to. Things aren’t as bad today as they were a week ago, when my lower back was experiencing so much stiffness (and, to a lesser extent, pain) that I couldn’t even bend at the waist, but despite my improvement over the past seven days, I woke up stiff enough this morning that I knew going for a run would probably make things worse.
Of course, life is unfair in other ways, too: This flare up is probably because over the past three months, I’d gotten sloppy about doing all of my back exercises. It’s not that I didn’t want to do them! It’s just that there are only so many hours of the day, our 2023 has been particularly busy, and there’s so much that I haven’t had time to do because I’ve got a limited number of hours, my mental health suffers if I don’t get enough sleep each night, and some of my most helpful exercises mean asking my spouse for help even though she doesn’t have any more free time than I do. Life’s also unfair in that this same lack of time has me working my way slowly through a Couch to 5k program, even though in grad school (before I was a dad and had a job) I used to go on 15-mile runs on Saturday morning. For the past few years, I’ve at least been able to say that I was biking regularly instead, but our busy 2023 has made bike commuting impractical, so I’ve tried to get back into running. Life is unfair, so I’ve struggled to find the time to do so; when I have, life is still unfair, and my back isn’t up to it.
This morning, writing this blog post instead of going for a run, I’m angry about all of this. No surprises there. What is surprising to me, though, is a feeling that I need to forgive this reality that I’m so angry toward. I’m currently enrolled in a Peace and Justice (non credit-bearing) course through the Community of Christ Seminary at Graceland University, and our textbook for the course is Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving, which draws on the elder Tutu’s experience with the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (among other experiences) to make a case for the necessity of forgiveness and explain how to do it properly (spoiler alert: it involves holding wrongdoers accountable, not letting them off the hook). I’m learning a lot from the book, but as angry as I am toward reality for not being fair, it doesn’t seem intuitive to think in terms of forgiving reality.
After all, reality isn’t a person. It’s not an agent. As frustrated as I am about my retrolisthesis, no one intentionally caused me that harm and pain. As a nominal believer enrolled in this class through my church’s seminary, it might at least make more sense to talk about forgiving God, wouldn’t it? The truth is that my belief in God is a bit wobbly: I have a fairly non-literal view of scripture (in that I find the texts valuable even if I’m not sure those stories really happened), and sometimes that non-literal perspective goes as far as my conception of the divine. Even on the days where I am more confident in my belief in God, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a God who intervenes in reality regularly enough to be responsible for things like my retrolisthesis—this belief has brought comfort to me in the past, but these days it raises more questions than answers. So, even on my most believing days, I come back to a need to forgive an impersonal, non-agentic reality. And it still doesn’t seem to make any sense.
In the Tutus’ words, though, it still kind of does. Early in the book, Desmond Tutu writes the following to set the stage for the necessity of forgiveness:
There have been times when each and every one of us has needed to forgive. There have also been times when each and every one of us has needed to be forgiven. And there will be many times again. In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again.
Over the past few weeks of this course, I’ve been repeatedly impressed by the way this book makes forgiveness and brokenness two sides of the same coin. All people deserve forgiveness because all people are broken; if reality is broken, does it also deserve to be forgiven? Maybe a physicist or a philosopher would disagree, but from where I stand, reality certainly is broken, in that it just doesn’t work the way that I want it to. I could stand to forgive reality for the ants that keep creeping back into the kitchen, for the mold that keeps sneaking back into the shower, for all of the impredictabilities and nagging annoyances of life that keep making me angry. For the retrolisthesis. For the fixed amount of time in a day, and the too much to do within that fixed time. For everything else that makes me angry that reality doesn’t work in a nice, neat, predictable, way, kind of like a game of Minecraft instead of, well, reality.
Reality can’t accept my forgiveness or be hurt if I choose not to forgive, but the Tutus have anticipated this argument, too:
The one who offers forgiveness as a grace is imediately untehtered from the yoke that bound him or her to the person who casued the harm. When you forgive, you are free to move on in life, to grow, to no longer be a victim. When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past.
I think this is particularly applicable here because my anger at reality at being broken is also a deep anger at myself for own brokenness. Sure, I’m angry about not being able to go on a run today, but what I concealed earlier is that I’m also angry at myself for not being able to do my daughter’s hair correctly. I’m angry at myself for getting upset with her when my awkward combing causes her pain. I’m angry at myself for not being perfect as a dad—or as a spouse, an assistant professor, a citizen, a friend, a brother, a son, or in any other role that I play in life. I’m even angry at myself for feeling angry at myself about these seemingly petty things when I live a life of untold privilege; even though I know I struggle with anxiety and depression, when I try to give myself the space to be angry as a function of my mental health struggles, I go right back to being angry at myself for being imperfect and broken.
If I want to learn to forgive reality, what I really want here is to become okay with brokenness: both the inherent brokenness of the reality I live in and my own brokenness as a human being. If I can forgive reality for being broken, surely I can forgive myself and have a healthier relationship with my own brokenness. Last night in our Zoom class, one of my Peace and Justice classmates called attention to a Lily Tomlin quote that the Tutus quote in our book:
Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.
In some ways, I need to learn to give up hope for a better present. Of course, I don’t mean that I must accept a status quo of systemic racism or tolerate a contemporary political movement that is intent on marginalizing and harming queer communities. I do—and must—have hope that we can fix those aspects of our prersent. But if I am to have that hope (not to mention help realize that hope), I need to let myself (and reality) off the hook for being broken. There are going to be days that my back acts up, or that ants work their way back into the kitchen. There are going to be days that kiddo’s hair looks a little goofy when she gets to school or that I get a little impatient with her when we’re running behind. That kind of brokenness can be forgiven.
- Desmond Tutu
- Mpho Tutu
- The Book of Forgiving
- lower back
- physical therapy
- Community of Christ Seminary
- Graceland University
- Graceland CIMM
- grad school
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