After the brilliant writer and thinker David Foster Wallace hung himself, his wife, Karen Green, tried to make sense of the loss by turning to her art. What she created became what she called “The Forgiveness Machine,” a seven-foot-long twist of yellow plastic and tubes whereby you’d insert a piece of paper with your forgiveness wish into one end and it would come out the other shredded – forgiveness granted.
The machine eventually broke at the number of people who came to it desiring forgiveness.
Most interestingly, Karen never actually used the machine herself. Perhaps loss is just too complicated; perhaps part of the irony of a forgiveness machine is just that. Karen has said that David used to lie in bed next to her at night and say, “Don’t die.” Perhaps this was someone for whom the idea of loss was so paralyzing that he needed her to lose him.
Loss is a knotty, difficult experience. I imagine the death of a spouse is a pain unlike any other – and the suicide of a spouse even more throwing – but the people who we grow to love who die in our phones can bring about a pain that is no less real. No matter the nature of loss, the grieving process seems to be the same. There’s anger, frustration, hurt, waves of gratitude, crying in the shower, new hobbies, new art, new recipes, new shoes, self-loathing, self-blaming, crying in the car, an attempt at getting rid of all the reminders of them, an attempt at holding on to all the reminders of them, shame, crying at work, deciding to seem fine, deciding to be honest about not being fine, a whole slew of emotions and ideas and hours on hours that we exhaustingly try to sludge our way through.
Romantic loss is especially interesting, because forgiveness when it comes to an ex is especially challenging. Those who come to define love for us and then become distant strangers can turn us vengeful and angry – or at the very least helpless and confused.
And so we have a variety of coping mechanisms for when we or someone we care about has been hurt and experienced this kind of loss. And one of them it seems we turn to – unhealthily – more often than we should. It looks a little something like this:
“Fuck him, he’s a total piece of shit who doesn’t even deserve your time. He’s such a child. How could someone actually be that big of a jerk? What a raging dick.” – your best friend, about the person who hurt you.
“Fuck you, you’re a total piece of shit who doesn’t even deserve my time. You’re such a child. How could you actually be that big of a jerk? You’re a raging dick.” – you, to the person who hurt you.
What’s worse might be how we talk about the people they now seem to be with, as if it’ll actually make us feel better to put someone entirely innocent down:
“She’s not pretty. She sort of has a pig nose. And she’s kind of fat. Like, just shaped really weird. She has no waist. Yeah. Not cute at all.”
Maybe I exaggerate slightly, but maybe I don’t. I’ve had friends show their support for me by doing a not-so-toned-down version of this, and when it’s happened, a part of me has felt frozen, blinking, unsure of who to defend, while another part of me has become swept up in the rallied and unified energy built around the animosity. There’s something thrilling about it, falsely consoling. There’s something about it that lets us scream out all that we’re feeling in a defunct mix of empowerment and rage. There’s something about it that temporarily relieves us of the burden of our pain.
The thing though, of course, is that it’s just that: temporary.
We tend to like to make external attributions. It’s easier than holding the mirror up to ourselves, and something about blaming another seems as if it will fix us. External attributions protect us and our insular worlds because they take culpability off of us and slide it onto another. They try to trick us into believing that this is how we’ll move on.
But this isn’t how we want to handle anything. This isn’t how we want to feel about the people we once loved, or maybe still love. Hearing a friend call our ex a piece of shit isn’t going to make us feel any better; shaming the person an ex is now with, someone who’s likely kind and wonderful, won’t either.
Because what we really want is forgiveness. What we really want is to feel that we’re able to forgive those who have hurt us, entirely and with love, and to then move forward, entirely and with grace.
What we really want is to see our forgiveness wish shredded and granted.
But forgiveness is complicated. It’s such a complex and confusing thing that it’s taken me six weeks to try to write this; each time I sat down and tried to understand it further, stacking lines of disjointed thoughts that didn’t quite feel right, I’d get stuck and frustrated and X back out again – Maybe I don’t know how to forgive, I’d be left thinking, blaming myself further for all my shortcomings.
It’s such a complex and confusing thing that, though we might like to, it’s not what we naturally turn to when we’re hurt, because we simply don’t know what forgiveness entails, because there just does not exist a concrete and calculated set of steps we can follow, and because the payoff is so intangible. How do we know when we’ve “achieved” forgiveness?
Most of all, forgiveness is a challenge because it requires that our kindness be louder than our anger, and often in the wake of getting hurt, our anger is just too loud.
But maybe there’s something immensely important to learning to make our kindness louder than our anger. Maybe there isn’t such thing as good or bad, just hurt creating more hurt. Maybe the person we most need to work to forgive we first need to work to understand. And maybe when we approach our pain with empathy, we allow ourselves to start the process of forgiveness.
It seems that forgiveness comes down to empathy, compassion and love. How difficult it can be to want to give empathy, compassion and love to those who have hurt us. But it’s important. Because while revenge and putting others down might make us feel better in the smallness of a moment, it’s unalloyed love that’ll heal us in the long run. It’s looking at the ways someone hurt us and being able to say, unequivocally and sincerely – even if it’s just in our own head or out loud to an empty room – “I forgive you,” that’ll fix us. It’s looking at ourselves in those times after our anger drives us to think or say something hateful and being able to say, “I forgive myself,” that’ll fix us.
Many who used Karen Green’s Forgiveness Machine reportedly cried. Perhaps this was because they had held their secrets and rage and desire for empathy inside of them for so long; perhaps seeing their wish granted was a release.
Perhaps this was because they’d so wanted forgiveness but hadn’t known how to have it; maybe seeing it broken down into such a simple process, one that could be touched and seen, was all they’d needed after all.
Or perhaps this was because they felt supported, cared for and loved, in the wake of having felt left and lost. Finally, finally, they didn’t have to use their hurt to create more hurt.
Maybe that’s the big thing about forgiveness. After we’ve been left and lost, all we really want is to feel supported. All we really want is to feel that it’s okay and good and safe to support everyone else.
And so in the wake of loss, it’s up to us to find our footing again, lovingly, kindly, compassionately. It’s up to us to reduce our external attributions, to give ourselves and to ask from our friends support that’s sympathetic and understanding. It’s up to us to have a forgiveness wish and to practice acting on that wish every day until the anger inside us rolls back, until there’s nothing left but agendaless love and kindness, so loud there’s no room for anything else. In the wake of loss, it’s up to us to harbor our own forgiveness machines.