Redemption by redescription

There was an unusual number of youths marching to their own Calvaries this Good Friday, hypnotically whipping themselves or perversely being beaten up by their companions — perhaps in payment for past sins, or in fulfillment of a vow, or to mark the start of a new life.

Scanning their resigned faces, I tried to imagine the life that might have set them off at this early stage on such a path of public atonement.  Is it their own sins they are redeeming, or those of their elders?  A one-time effort to wipe the slate clean and begin anew, or an annual all-embracing penance for the misdeeds of the past year? Thus I began to reflect on the psychological meaning of redemption.

To redeem oneself is to get back one’s life by coming to terms with the past.  This does not mean simply accepting the past as it has shaped us; rather, it means being able to review the past and to rearrange its elements in the light of what we are and hope to become.  All that we did or happened to us in the past cannot of course be altered.  But their meaning and significance can.  The past, in this sense, is something we can continuously rewrite.  In his fascinating account of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Alexander Nehamas (Nietzsche – Life as Literature) puts it thus: “It is not easy to say exactly what the past is in the first place.  The events of the past are necessarily located through and within a narrative, and different narratives can generate quite different events.”

To come to terms with the past therefore is to weave its various events into a story that is our own, identifying those aspects that constitute the character we are and choose to be, and relegating to irrelevance those not crucial to the self we want to build.  “This reconciliation,” says Nehamas, “cannot be accomplished without realizing that the significance of the past depends on its importance for the future.”

In an ironic way, even as the past has placed its indelible mark on us, we can and do indeed rewrite it.  We do so by retracing and highlighting those past events and actions that have implications for the kind of self we are and aspire to be.  Thus, no action or event in one’s life is in itself harmful or beneficial.  It depends, says Nehamas, “on its eventual implications for the whole of one’s constantly changing self.”

Happy may be those who do not think of the future because they also do not have a past to regret.  They have, in the words of Nietzsche, “the cheerfulness of the slave who has nothing of consequence to be responsible for, nothing great to strive for, and who does not value anything in the past or future higher than the present.”  But such a life is not better than that of animals that have no capacity for remembering.  The past is accessible only to those who have a future to pursue.

On the other hand, there are people who are unable to recover from the past.  They perpetually brood and bleed from single instances of misfortune or misdeed, allowing these to define life’s essence.  They become resentful of others, of themselves, and of life itself.  To them, Nietzsche says: “It is possible to live almost without memory, and to live happily moreover, as the animal demonstrates; but it is altogether impossible to live at all without forgetting.” (Untimely Meditations)

Paraphrasing Nietzsche, and arguing his thesis of self-creation as redescription, Nehamas writes: “We can take a past event seriously and try to incorporate it into a complex, harmonious, and unified pattern of which it can become an essential part.  Or we can refuse to take it seriously and, through further action, turn it into an exception, into an event of no significance and of no lasting consequence for our life and character.  If the event is insignificant, resentment is out of place.  If it is not, and if we succeed in assimilating it into our personality,…resentment is again out of place; for no place remains for thinking that the consequences of the past on the self, and this self as well, need remain unchanged.”

The possibility of endless self-renewal is what alone justifies a life. Such renewal, says Nehamas, is anchored on our ability to re-interpret the past, “to know the self that is already there and to live according to that knowledge.” To know oneself, and to live according to that knowledge, entails acting in new ways which result, says Nehamas, “in the creation or discovery of a self that could not have been there already.”  It is the paradox in Nietzsche’s idea of the self.  We change ourselves by aspiring to become who we are.

We had a bit of this self-examination in our family this Good Friday.

While explaining to his nephews and nieces the meaning of the Seven Last Words, my brother Ambo, the priest, chose to dwell on the nature of forgiveness.  There is a little “virus” in our family software, he began, that many of us may have inherited, that is responsible for the wild tempers that, at the smallest provocation, flare up now and then. We must learn to recognize it, he went on, and forgive ourselves for what it is — a surge of energy which may often overwhelm us, but which also fuels the outrage we feel in the face of injustice or oppression.  We must tame it, he said, for such a virus may often transform anger into resentment, and make forgiving difficult.

In a flash of collective recognition of a shared blind impress, cousins looked at one another, and instantly launched themselves on a lively discussion of how to control the virus.  The metaphor had hit home.  It made redemption possible without excessive guilt, and self-renewal attainable without recourse to self-flagellation.


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