October 25, 2017

LIEBERMAN | It’s Not Okay, But I Forgive You

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Forgiveness is taught to us from a young age as a virtue. Just as we are instructed to say, “I’m sorry,” we learn to follow with, “It’s okay.” It’s an instinct. Forgive and forget — not just for politeness but for self-care too. I so much want to forget the things in my life that have made me feel the worst, but not all of them appear worthy of forgiveness. In a way, it feels as if “moving on” would require invalidating my feelings, knowing that some sort of sadness or betrayal occurred and letting it be anyhow. I believed forgiveness was good on a fundamental level, but I felt more fickle about it when it came to my everyday life. Michelle Jones challenged everything I thought about forgiveness.

A PhD candidate at New York University, Jones was recently released from prison for the murder of her four-year-old son. When Jones was given a second chance, she built a second world — a world in which she was an accomplished academic, a playwright and a success story. She had been successfully rehabilitated while processed through the prison system. This is what we all want, right? Not mere punishment but some important personal change, too. But the reality of justice in America is illuminated in Jones’ story; her sentence has not ended just because she is not behind bars.

There are a few things I have to say because her story won’t be complete without it. Firstly, Michelle Jones is a woman of color. It’s necessary to include this detail because we don’t live in a color-blind society, so this fact inevitably contributed to the politicization of her career and her education. Secondly, Jones suffered severe childhood abuse, and her son was the product of being raped a teenager. It’s not as simple as we might want to make it. It’s not always about good guys and bad guys. And even if it were, we’d probably instantly throw someone who murdered her own child into the category of “irreconcilably bad.”

But, don’t we as a society believe in forgiveness? So where do we draw the line between the blessed and the unforgivable? Harvard University drew it right across Jones’s graduate school application.

After being accepted into Harvard’s elite history program, Jones’s acceptance was rescinded by some higher-ups with serious concerns. Among them was, inexplicably, “What will Fox News think?” I have to say, when it comes to the complexities of Jones’s eligibility, I don’t understand how Fox News could be a legitimate factor. Regardless, Jones was turned away from the Ivy League. Given her circumstances, it’s no surprise that she didn’t let this stop her and is now studying at NYU.

So, the question becomes, are people forgiven because they have repented, served their time and proven themselves forgivable? Or are people forgiven because their offenses are small enough to be overlooked? In practice, I think it’s a combination of the two, but I believe that ideologically, we should base our forgiveness on reformation of character, following action and objectivity.

In any situation, given that forgiveness is being asked for, it can be assumed that something “bad” was done. Instead of getting caught up in the subjectivity of relative badnesses, we can focus on what happened after the bad act, what the person did to reform their behavior or, if possible, repair the consequences of their actions.

I think that we are all able to forgive Michelle Jones. I think we are all wise and empathetic and morally/psychologically complicated enough to do this. When we tell ourselves otherwise, we are not just short-changing ourselves — restricting the absolute breadth of the human ability to forgive — but in this specific case, we are also holding back the knowledge available in the world, making it straight and narrow minded by neglecting perspectives and experience that we will never be able to personally understand.  We can forgive without being able to say, “it’s okay” — without it ever being okay. Humans can grow, and move on, and learn and change, and they can do this without everything in their past being “okay.”

One last disclaimer: what Jones did was horrific and unimaginable. But so was her life before the incident. Show me a Harvard administrator who suffered the misery that Jones experienced in her pregnancy, and I will deem them as amply appropriate to judge her. Just like everyone else that we have ever met, we will never understand what she has gone through, so we rightfully will never be able to understand what she did. We have no right to say her life is unredeemable.

Jones did something that almost any of us would immediately deem unforgivable, but she spent 20 long years proving that she is worthy of the life she has nobly built out of terror and tragedy. She is not a saint, but I don’t believe sainthood should be required for admittance into higher education. I believe the doors should be open to those who have seen the worst and felt the worst but pressed on to pursue education anyhow.

 

Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at slieberman@cornellsun.com. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.