Monday, 28 April 2014

Forgiveness

The end of the fasting month and with it the Idul Fitri celebrations is the time for Moslems to ask for forgiveness from the family, friends, relatives, colleagues, bosses and even complete strangers.  Meeting and greeting each other, they say  ‘Mohon maaf lahir dan batin’ (I beg forgiveness from the depths of my heart and soul, or something like that).

These days those words of asking for forgiveness are also conveyed via technology, through broadcast messages and electronic spams, including from people you barely know but you receive nevertheless, merely because your contact happens to be in somebody’s smart phone or mailing list.

Some of the more elaborate versions of the greetings are often accompanied by Arabic words and poetic verses designed to tug at the heart strings and move you to tears, as they wax lyrical about how after a month of struggle, restraining one’s hunger, thirst, passions and emotions, one emerges triumphant and victorious, and back to a state of grace, purity and a new beginning.  With all sins wiped clean and forgiven. And with it, a sense of righteousness and virtuousness.

I personally feel uncomfortable with these messages, greetings and wishes.  I think there is a hazard in this use and abuse of the idea of forgiveness.  It is easy to forgive those whose wrongs we can’t really think of, but to those whom we harbour genuine ill-feeling and grievances, a few lines of copy pasted text messages sent en masse or as an email attachment, would hardly mend matters.  

Perhaps these words have become mere platitudes through over use, as meaningless as saying ‘good morning’ when there’s a torrential downpour, or ‘have a nice day,‘ when you don’t care a jot about the person.  This is a pity, as to ask and give forgiveness is something not to be trifled with.  If to err is human, as they say, to forgive is our attempt to be divine, and this cannot be achieved by reducing the significance of the word to the level of the trite, the banal and the cliche on some greeting cards.

Also hazardous is the sense of righteousness and virtuousness that being forgiven and cleansed of one’s sins affords, as it makes one morally lax and irresponsible of the long term consequence of one’s actions.  One needs only go through the annual ritual of the fasting month, pay the obligatory alms, shake hands with a bunch of people at family gatherings, the bosses’ and at high government officials’ obligatory ‘open houses’ to feel that one’s sins are thoroughly cleansed and one’s slate wiped clean, ready for more humanly errs.

How easy life is, and how convenient.  Here is a formula to indulge in one’s human deficiencies and still have instant access to that most comforting of all human condition - the feeling of self-righteousness and being on the right path.  Is it any wonder that we cannot get rid of the corruption and moral ineptitude in this country?  When forgiveness becomes a passport to moral licentiousness.

In jail for corruption? Start reading the Koran, don a head scarf, be more diligent in your prayers.  Soon you will feel absolved from all shame and guilt, because forgiveness is always there for you at the asking to make you feel better and to relieve you of your responsibility.  And when you ask for, take or buy favours, it’s understandable. Because we’re only human and humans are weak and half the time they don’t know what they’re doing.


However, I am always chary of anything that smacks of freebies and hyperbolical promises.  Giving somebody my forgiveness and having somebody asks one in return just because the season calls for it, is ridiculous.  As for exchanging messages of congratulations for having triumphed over evil and regained a state of childlike purity and innocence, sounds a lot like wishful thinking. I don’t think you can become a better person just by reciting more prayers and watching religious TV programs for a month.  At least, not if it only leads to self-righteousness and not self-knowledge.

Because the knowledge of our weaknesses and imperfections should in practice make us stronger.  Stronger in our resolve to be good, kind and honest people and stronger in our capability to restrain our greed, ego and selfishness.  While we are still human beings living with other human beings on this planet.

It should not be an annual ritual for a limited amount of time, after which life as we know it continues as usual, except this time with increased complacency, greater unscrupulousness and more unfettered greed, as we are freed from our sense of guilt, shame and wrongdoing, having been so expressibly forgiven and thoroughly purified.

But God should not be a means to excuse all our imperfections nor become the repository of all our iniquities.  After all, humans create the idea of Divinity as a role model to which we should all aspire in all its qualities: the Love, the Just and the Benevolence.  Then there is no need to mouth forgiveness or play at being holy.  Instead, we will strive to ensure that each and every one of our action is beyond reproach to begin with.

(Desi Anwar:  First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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