“Berlin seemed far away, but that was an illusion; for years I would pick fragments of it from my skin as though I had wallowed among shards of broken glass:” the historian Peter Gay writes about his boyhood growing up Jewish in Nazi Germany. (My German Question: Growing up in Nazi Berlin.)
Reviewing Gay’s memoir, the critic Frank Kermode writes “When his anger erupts, and he wishes some ancient enemy disgraced or dead, the effect is particularly surprising, as if such sentiments had no place in the story, though of course they have, and were the main reason for its being written.”
* * *
I have been looking through probably hundreds of pages of often reduplicated notes I’ve typed over the years, deciding what will make it into my memoir of my Indian Catholic childhood.
And sometimes, anger erupts, fierce and scalding, and I realize, “Ah-ha, an unhealed memory. Forgiveness work must be done.”
* * *
There are several dark characters in my story. There was Sister Hyacinth, who made us kneel on gravel for tiny infractions, and when she fell out with other nuns, in an abuse of power, would drag their favourites out of bed into the verandah, pull their pyjamas down and hit them with a brush on their bare bottoms (first-hand experience!). She was probably slightly crazy, I now think.
There was Sister Ancilla who hit me, with a ruler, each time I made the sign of the cross with my left hand (I couldn’t tell left from right). German Sister Mary Joseph who, when I inadvertently entered the confessional when she was there, thought I came to overhear her sins, and clobbered me with her huge black umbrella. The socially insecure wicked Miss Marie Fernandez who mocked my naughty boy shoes, and the pinafore my mother sewed for me. Oh stop, memory!!
Ah, abusing children–who probably will not tell, who will not be believed, who are powerless. It’s the easiest form of abuse.
* * *
Did the cruel nuns and teachers get away with it? (And there were many many more kind nuns and teachers, I am delighted to report).
Yes, of course, they did.
No, they did not, not really.
I don’t believe people really get away with things.
Who we are shapes our lives. It’s a law inexorable as gravity. Who we are affects the thoughts we think, the words we speak, the books we read, the work and leisure activities we choose, the friends we make, the way we parent, the life-choices we make. We reap what we sow. We reap what we are.
The universe is governed by a just judge. If we do not reap what we sow directly, we do so through the corruption of character which is destiny. Our mean actions shrink, and shrivel and warp character; they change it. We bear traces of the things we have done, the life we have lived, in our faces, our demeanour, our body language. And like attracts like. A noble person attracts lovely people, whereas the disaffected, perpetual grumblers, internet haters and trolls, and mean people attracts the like characters to them, the like behaviour, the like events, and that is punishment enough.
Also, actions become habit. One might get away with one mean thing, but one tends to repeat it until, one way or another, one is tripped up.
* * *
Macbeth is sorely tempted to kill King Duncan, and become King himself. As he hesitates, he muses, strangely, that if there were eternal punishment of this murder, but no temporal punishment, he could deal with it. But we pay in this life, directly or directly, for the evil we have done. And so do our enemies.
If it were done when ’tis done, then
Here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come. But in these cases
We still have judgment here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.
When I read English at Oxford, a frequent exam question was, “Is character destiny? Discuss with relation to Macbeth. Or Hamlet or Lear.” Would Macbeth’s ambition, unscrupulosity and weakness have destroyed him, even if events had turned out differently. Would Lear have been destroyed by his pride, his wilfulness, his childishness, his hastiness, his poor judgement, his bad temper, even if all the dreadful and heartbreaking things that happened to him did not happen? Most of us said “Yes.”
Character is destiny. No one gets away with anything.
* * *
Our universe is held together by paradoxes—day and night, summer and winter, sea and land, earth and sky.
In the internal logic of the narrative of the Scripture story set in motion in Genesis, Christ is the perfect and mysterious combination of perfect justice and perfect mercy. He paid the punishment for the sin of the world. There is justice; there is mercy; mercy triumphs.
So too in life, people don’t really get away with things. Their character tells the tale, and character is destiny, like inexorably attracting like.
But no one, neither me nor you nor our worst enemies, gets exactly what they deserve. Else who could stand? We reap what we sow, but mercy triumphs.
In John’s vision in Revelation, the redeemed sing
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the nations.”
* * *
God’s ways are just. No one gets away with anything. But mercy triumphs. For those who have sinned against us. For those we have sinned against. For us.
So peace be on you, dragons of my youth. I forgive you. I chuck into the healing waterfall of God’s grace, and leap in after you.
There is peace there. It feels good.