Forgetting to Forgive

Forgetting to Forgive

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are.  Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources. Mythology, in its original sense, is at the heart of things. Vico was right and so was Joyce. And so too of course is that moral tradition from heroic society to its medieval heirs according to which the telling of stories has a key part in educating us into the virtues.
–Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 1981.


Longtime readers may recall that we are open and unabashed fans of the now-almost-twenty-year-old animated kids’ show, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

We love this show – which we are currently rewatching with our youngest son – for three reasons:

The first reason is a combination of the quote up top from Alasdair MacIntyre and this bit from C.S. Lewis: “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”

The little human animal must be taught proper virtues and behavior, and, to that end, the best way to capture the mind of that animal is through stories, tales, parables, myths, and fables.  Surprisingly – for an animated show made this century (and by Nickelodeon, of all networks) The Last Airbender recognizes this connection.

Moreover, it takes the connection seriously, which is the second thing we like about the show.  It takes virtues seriously and – again, surprisingly for an animated show, etc. – seeks, without being preachy or heavy-handed, to inculcate its viewers with lessons that reinforce important virtues.  Or, as we put it nearly three years ago:

The show is nearly perfect.  But it’s nearly perfect in the lessons it teaches.  It teaches strength, compassion, redemption, the importance of family, mercy, peace, self-reflection, self-awareness, true friendship, courage, perseverance, the truth that actions have consequences, and most importantly, the existence of and differences between right and wrong and good and evil.  The show is not preachy.  Aang, for example, is a vegetarian, because that’s how the monks raised him.  But his friend Sokka is obsessed with eating meat.  Aang never questions Sokka’s beliefs, and Sokka is never condemned for believing differently from the most “enlightened” human on earth.  There are no lectures about environmentalism.  There’s no beating anyone over the head about the failures of contemporary American society.  It’s a solid, decent show about solid, decent people who are trying to make their way in this world, who make mistakes, and who get the chance to redeem those mistakes, even if they have to create those chances themselves.

The third reason we like the show is that it’s good – by which we mean it’s entertaining.  It’s funny, clever, dramatic (but not too dramatic), interesting, and occasionally inspiring.

Over the weekend, we happened to watch “The Southern Raiders,” (Season 3, Episode 16), in which Katara (the female lead) finally gets the chance to take out her anger and frustration on the man who killed her mother.  While she plans her payback trip, Aang (the male lead and the Avatar, i.e. Dalai Llama-esque character) tries to convince her to choose forgiveness over revenge.

As we watched, we browsed through our Twitter timeline and thought to ourselves, “Yikes.  The whole political world seems like it could use that speech from Aang.  There’s so much anger, so much rancor, so much bitterness, but there’s no mercy, no compassion, no forgiveness whatsoever in American politics or American society.  It’s all fury, rage, and prospective revenge.”

As we watched the episode, however, our perspective shifted a little.

When she finally confronts the man who killed her mother, Katara takes pity on him and does not exact her revenge.  But she doesn’t forgive him either.  He grovels and pleads, bargains and bleats.  But do you know the one thing he never does?  He never asks for forgiveness.  He never repents or apologizes.  He never expresses regret or concedes wrongdoing.  He never does anything that would merit mercy or compassion.  And while Katara leaves him alive, she does so for her own benefit, not for his.

Slowly and subtly, our thoughts on the episode’s relevance changed.  The problem in American politics and society more broadly isn’t that no one is capable of mercy or forgiveness, or, at least, it’s not just that.  It’s also that no one ever asks for forgiveness.

For decades, conservatives have paraphrased the line from Erich Segal’s novel Love Story, insisting that “to be a liberal means never having to say you’re sorry.”  This has been inarguably true for years, and it’s still true today.  Covid-related school shutdowns caused permanent learning loss, especially among lower-income populations?  Too bad!  The evidence for wearing masks is inconclusive at best and, more likely, shows they do nothing?  Who cares?  Out-of-control spending exacerbated inflation, just like you said it would?  Tough sh*t.

Some of this, of course, is that “the Left” is built on a fantasy that can never be true but whose devotees can never concede as much.  Leftist rhetoric is, more or less, the non-stop repetition of endless variations on the No True Scotsman fallacy.  “You only say socialism doesn’t work because TRUE socialism has never been tried!”

Another part of it, however, is the ongoing polarization/bifurcation/tribalizaton of American politics and society.  Refusal ever to acknowledge error or admit mistakes is not characteristic of the Left alone.  Today, it is characteristic of almost all major political and social figures and factions.  NO ONE can ever say they were wrong and, by extension, no one can ever ask for forgiveness.

The ability and willingness to forgive (and its corollary, to show mercy) is, of course, the virtue that most distinguishes the Judeo-Christian West from the rest of human civilization.  It is the virtue that, in great part, built what we enjoy in society today.  It is the virtue that distinguishes the region formerly known as “Christendom” from, for example, Islam, in which the key and unambiguous chief virtue is justice.

We, as a civilization are losing this virtue, largely because we are losing the opportunity to practice it, because we have lost the ability and the willingness to ask for it.

In the end, Katara spares the life of her mother’s killer because she finds the ability to forgive – not the killer who never asked, mind you, but Zuko, crown prince of the fire nation, whose story arc is one of self-evolution, spiritual and emotional growth, and developing the humility to seek absolution for his past wrongs.

Virtues aren’t all about strength and power and exercising them wisely.  They’re also about the frailty of man’s fallen nature and the ability to recognize that frailty in ourselves and others and to overcome it.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.