Is forgiveness for some forgiveness at all?
Convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in prison after being convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse. Sympathy for the victims of his violent acts comes automatically, but how about Jerry Sandusky? Is he deserving of your sympathy?
“Monster” and “animal” are terms frequently hung on those whose violent actions push the limits of our understanding, terms meant to repudiate their human status.
These offenders appear in the news wearing orange jumpsuits, handcuffs and dull expressions we hope are concealing remorse for their unspeakable actions.
How could someone do those things, we wonder, comfortable in the knowledge that imperfect though we may be, we would never choose to behave with such depravity.
But is this true?
Of all the unquestioned assumptions swimming around in our minds, none is as unassailable as the notion of choice. It’s simply a fact, we conclude, just as surely as the earth spins on its axis. Whether picking a college major, a spouse, or toppings for a bowl of ice cream, we believe we are in complete control of our actions. That we can stick out our tongue on command is all the proof we need.
Nonsense, say a long line of spiritual leaders, who for centuries have taught that life is an indivisible whole and that independent action is merely an illusion. Buddha observed that “events happen, deeds are done, but there is no doer of any deed.” In other words, life happens through us, not because of us. Mother Teresa subscribed to the same view, observing that she was God’s paintbrush, a tool through which life manifests.
And nonsense, say a host of philosophical heavyweights including Schopenhauer and Spinoza. Schopenhauer postulated that we can will what we do, but we can’t will what we will. The tendency toward what we perceive as good or evil is the result of inborn character. And Spinoza scoffed at the notion of choice when he said, “…the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has also been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity."
One need not resort to faith or philosophy, however, to probe the feasibility of the free will concept. Today, a growing number of neuroscientists including David Eagleman are making hash of this theory, concluding from their studies of the brain that there is no meaningful distinction between biology and decision-making. They are inseparable. There is no “you” apart from your brain. Eagleman is quick to point out that such biological explanations will not lead to criminals being freed because nothing is their fault. Punishment would not be abandoned, but we could refine the way we punish.
Back to Jerry Sandusky. If we believe he was capable of acting otherwise, that he overrode the dictates of an internal monitoring mechanism known as a conscience or a soul, we will judge him mercilessly and without remorse. We will stand aghast at his actions, fumble for the worst adjectives in our vocabulary, and declare that whatever punishment he receives will not be bad enough. And chances are we will say it loud enough so that all within earshot will be witness to our virtuous outrage.
But if, for whatever reason, we believe that Jerry Sandusky’s actions were determined by factors beyond his control, that immaterial souls and consciences are merely the fruit of a free will illusion, a whole new dynamic comes into play. The facade of self-righteousness separating us from Jerry Sandusky comes crashing down and we are left to observe that he is no less human than we are. We allow for the possibility that had we been Jerry Sandusky, had we been born with his brain and lived in his world, we would have done exactly as he did. There would have been no magic moral compass to navigate our way out of this tragedy.
Jerry Sandusky couldn’t care less if we forgive him. He’ll never know of our existence. Forgiveness won’t help him; it will only help us. Forgiveness replaces righteousness with humility, flawlessness with fallibility. It stretches us out, creating room for doubt when we judge others to be beyond the limits of our compassion.
If Jerry Sandusky has committed crimes too grievous to earn our sympathy, then perhaps it is we, and not just he, who should be questioning the validity of our behavior.