The look that forgives

Mathias Maurer

The nursery teacher is visibly angry about the aggressive behaviour of the six-year-old. Not a word passes his lips and he is sent to sit on the bench outside.

“I will tell your parents!” The indignant teacher sends the three class 9 pupils who appeared in class 15 minutes late to stand outside the door.

Can we demand an apology – while at the same time threatening or imposing punishment? Are exclusion and the refusal to engage with the other appropriate educational instruments for practising a culture of respectful interaction between people, of conciliation and  making amends? If we cannot even cope with everyday situations, what hope is there for major infringements?

How can we forgive when a person betrays us and we have to suffer the consequences for the rest of our life. What about the offender who abuses his daughter, the son who is fatally injured by an attacker, the people in power who wipe out a whole family? Can such deeds be forgiven by the one side and can forgiveness be asked by the other? Can the one express their regret at all without forgiveness from the other?

Real insight, remorse, the desire to apologise cannot be forced. The same applies to accepting an apology. It means totally letting go of all guilt that has accrued. And it means wanting once again to enter into direct contact with ourselves and our fellow human beings, wanting to open the door again. It is not a question of justice or injustice – if the world remains a cold place, inner and outer sclerosis forms which in turn leads to further sclerosis. A ticking time bomb which contains within itself considerable potential for conflict and escalation.

Human beings are in constant danger of shutting themselves off; indeed, this is systematically set up in the way our society is organised. We generate a fear of failure, guilt feelings and pangs of conscience the more we are required simply to function and the fault for “failing” is not just ascribed to us from outside but we ascribe it to ourselves: fitting in, performance and optimisation is demanded, we compare, calculate, judge and are found wanting.

Anyone who makes an error slides back, who fails is ejected. As “guilty subjects”, we deny others and ourselves the look that forgives (Hartmut Rosa), the return to a reciprocal relationship, to a relationship of acceptance, because we have fully internalised that we should morally, legally and economically place ourselves either above or below others and ourselves.

Indifference and alienation spread – a fresh start is not possible. Yet in the capacity to forgive, in the refusal to use our power to subjugate others, we rescue what makes us essentially human. Extending our hand is an act of freedom.

Quietly the mother picks Annie up, the nursery teacher sits down protectively between the children and the teacher does not let himself be unduly disturbed by the late arrivals.