Problems We Were Made For

Forgiveness, part 2

Life IS problems. Call them “challenges” if you like, but problems they are: one after another, and always about 83. Those problems will include how to get forgiveness, how to give forgiveness, to self, to others.

I can't fix any of those problems for you, but perhaps I can be of some service on the 84th problem. If you’re thinking there really shouldn’t be any problems with forgiveness – and you’re frustrated because the problems keep being there – let’s take a look at why those problems are there, and won’t go away.

We are made of the drives and impulses that most helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. We evolved into an extraordinarily social species. Surviving and reproducing depends simultaneously on being good cooperators AND effective competitors. This is a contradiction – a tension, a delicate balance. The ones that are too cooperative get taken advantage of; the ones that are too competitive get shunned. Getting that balance right is hard to do. In fact, it’s impossible to get it right all the time.

We have these huge brains. Our brains burn 20 percent of all the calories we use. For other primates, the brain uses only 10 percent of their calories, and a mouse brain uses only 2 percent of the mouse's calories. We need such big brains to deal with negotiating tremendously complex social situations. The wonder -- and the payoff for all those calories going to the brain -- is that we're as good at it as we are.

Let me illustrate. You might remember a few years ago, in 2011, Amy Chua published a book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Now, Chua was writing with a certain self-mocking irony that many people who only read about the book missed. Still, the book did make a case for the superiority of a strict Chinese-style of parenting in which children do not go on play dates or sleepovers, watch TV or play video games. Instead, they are drilled continuously in academic and musical skills. Many nonAsian overpressuring upper-middle-class parents in this country are doing about the same thing, but Chua was a bit more hard-core than most. Critics said this kind of parenting is too demanding, but I appreciated the point David Brooks made: it’s not demanding enough. “I believe she’s coddling her children,” he wrote.
“She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t. Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.” (Brooks, "Amy Chua Is a Wimp")
The school cafeteria is more intellectually demanding than the library. The classroom is a cognitive break from the truly arduous tests of childhood.

Negotiating cooperative strategies while also protecting ourselves from getting taken advantage of, in a context where everyone else is trying to do the same is a huge cognitive task – and we have brains that do this for fun. It’s a lot to learn. And it’s constantly shifting. There’s always something new to work out. So, yeah, 83 problems. Being cooperative means we open ourselves up to be taken advantage of sometimes. We are wronged. Watching out for ourselves to not get taken advantage of sometimes results in stepping on someone’s toes. We wrong others. That’s the basic and ongoing dynamic that creates needs to forgive and to be forgiven. We get wronged and we wrong others. It’s gonna happen. Forgiveness is sometimes hard for the same reason that it’s necessary: it's all a part of this life of problems that our calorie-gobbling brains were made for.

So take that problem of the grudge that you just can’t let go of. The 84th problem is that you think that shouldn’t be a problem. So the first step is to recognize that it is a problem, and it should be -- it's just the sort of problem humans were made to have. There’s a reason that we were built to carry grudges. That grudge energy is trying to keep you safe from getting hurt again. It's also a part of protecting your social circle against the kind of behavior that hurt you.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Forgiveness"
See also
Part 1: You've Got Problems
Part 3: Problems Are the Path
A four-part series on Forgiveness from 2014 begins HERE.

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