Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

 

06 September 2008

Forgiveness

It’s no secret to anyone who has ever served time as a human being that true forgiveness is among the trickiest of virtues — difficult to produce and deliver, but a heart-lifting comfort to receive.

Mind you, I’m not speaking of that robotic “sure, no problem” ritual we perform when somebody unintentionally steps on our fresh shoeshine in a crowded elevator or spills hot coffee on our prize petunia patch. I mean the gut-level forgiveness that requires an amalgamation of empathy — wherein the offended puts himself in the offender’s shoes — and sympathy, that quality which evokes genuine sorrow over another’s guilt, pain, or misfortune.

Within a turbulent lifetime marked by many transgressions, both unintended and calculated, I can point to the two offenses that brought me a clear and lasting understanding of forgiveness. Each was seemingly so trivial, so lugubrious, so workaday I’m still mystified. How, I ask myself, could I derive from these silly instances a simple, lasting comprehension of something so ephemeral, so full of abstractions, contradictions, confusions, and, yes, heartbreak? Especially when there are so many other, more significant iniquities I’ve committed?

The first was when I was a raggedy-ass nine-year-old in Depression-frozen Kenmore, New York.

I was in the street, shagging baseballs batted toward me by one of my buddies. When one hit took a soaring curve, I gave it my all, running wildly, full-out, to prove what a great outfielder I’d make for the Yankees, only to careen into a belly-flop in the wet and clinging nightmare of Mr. Raleigh’s freshly laid concrete driveway. Rising on my elbows, numb with awareness of the dreadful punishment to come, I looked into Mr. Raleigh’s astonishment.

Mr. Raleigh was a newly naturalized arrival from Italy, and its was said that he’d changed his name to get along better in his adopted land. But his strange ways and heavily accented English had served to keep him apart from the neighborhood’s general life flow. He was a mystery to us kids, and we usually gave him wide berth because of the unspecific uneasiness he generated by his hermitic ways. At this terrible moment, belabored by my guilt and fear of the unknown, I expected him to beat me soundly with his rake handle and to turn me over to the cops as a juvenile delinquent.

He did neither. His face pale with cement dust and heavy from bone-tiring labor, he stooped, lifted me out of the mess, stood me on my feet, and listened somberly as I sputtered out how sorry I was. And after a time he nodded, his liquid brown eyes distant in thought. Patting my shoulder, he murmured, “Eetsa okay. You a boy, playing with ball. Eetsa okay. I can fix. You go. Change-a da clothes.” Then he went to his knees again, preparing to smooth the roiled concrete.

I’ve never forgotten Mr. Raleigh and the gentle way he taught a roughhouse kid the great art of forgiveness.

The other event was equally instructive and equally suggestive of those old Mack Sennett one-reel slapstick comedies.

My wife and kids and I were living in Delaware at the time. I had this ’49 Chevy I’d acquired from my father-in-law, a prudent Vermonter. He had bought it new and then turned it over to me in 1958 or so when we needed something to supplement our Ford, which was simply not up to simultaneous duty as school bus, shopping cart, and commutation wheels.

I’d been especially happy to get this particular car because my father-in-law was extremely capable in the mechanical department and always treated his vehicles as if they were the crown jewels of the Gismonian Empire. This wasn’t just a used Chevy; this was A Monument to Meticulous Maintenance.

So it was with no particular sense of the ominous that I drove the Vermont Chevy to the inspection lanes for its Delaware sanctions. A graying gentleman wearing a kind of uniform leaned into my window, and there was some small-talk and fussing with papers.

Once I’d entered the blue shadows of the inspection building itself, my lights were winked and my horn was honked and my wipers were waggled. Then the graying gentleman told me to speed up and, at his signal, slam on the brakes. This I did, but it was at that precise moment when the Monument to Meticulous Maintenance gave way to termites. Something went zoop and suddenly there were no brakes.

My foot went all the way to the floor-board, with the brake pedal offering as much resistance as a wet noodle. The car, moving at what seemed to be 300 mph, rumbled straight down the lane, and through the windshield I had glimpses of chalky faces and wildly waving hands and uniformed citizens climbing steam pipes and diving through doorways and windows.

The headlight-checking machine was directly ahead, and the Chevy sent it aloft in a huge crashing, and in all the clatter I was aware of shouts and the blatting of police whistles and other manifestations of general dismay.

Eventually the car drifted to a halt, and I was conscious of the graying man’s face at my window again. There was no expression there — only a kind of empty weariness — and this was oddly more threatening than rage could have been.

Shocked, expecting jail time, I sputtered some garbled apologies and managed to share the big secret: “My brakes failed.”

The man regarded me wordlessly for a time. Then he sighed a deep sigh and said softly, “I’m glad that didn’t happen to you on a hill in traffic. You could have been killed.”

I don’t know who the man was, but I do know that no one — even an archbishop — could have said a kinder, more forgiving, and decent thing at that moment.

No lectures. No threats. No suggestions of dire punishment. Simply a genuine concern for a shaken citizen who had escaped serious injury. He helped me from the car, led me to a phone from which I could call a tow truck and my insurance man, and then disappeared into the building’s teeming officialdom. I never saw him again in all the subsequent years and all the subsequent inspections.

I doubt that Mr. Raleigh and the car inspector ever met. But I know that, if they had, they’d probably have become great friends. And today, in these terrible times dominated by hatefulness and invective and selfish determination to win out, to prevail no matter who gets hurt, those two gentlemen, if still living, would most certainly recognize each other across the madness and form a little island of forgiving sanity.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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