by George Clifford
On a recent trip, I visited a public library where I had previously used a convenient, free Wi-Fi hotspot. Unlike my prior visits, I could not connect to the Internet even though my computer received a strong signal from the network. After I rebooted my computer and still had no success, I spoke with one of the librarians. She was very pleasant, informed me that several people had complained about difficulties connecting to the internet that day, asked if I had tried rebooting my computer, and then apologetically told me that library policy does not authorize the staff to reboot the network.
Both the librarian and I were aware that rebooting can correct many computer glitches, sometimes so effectively bringing closure to problems and rectifying the situation that no trace of the prior difficulties remains.
Driving from the library to another Wi-Fi hotspot prompted me to reflect on rebooting. Most people probably have a few moments when they wish that humans came equipped with a reset button with which to reboot life or a relationship, moments for which we want (or need) forgiveness and/or closure.
Humans, however, differ from computers. Rebooting a life, or even a relationship, is impossible. Our brains record data from every experience. Some of that data may degrade over time, some may become inaccessible to one's conscious mind, but no data set is ever likely to be entirely deleted (apart from permanent brain injury or a debilitating neurological disorder).
Popular theological and spiritual descriptions of forgiveness as wiping the slate clean therefore rely on an unhelpful metaphor. We can more powerfully conceptualize forgiveness by picturing it as removing the barrier that an injury or wrong places between two people, or even between God and a person.
For example, in the fifth chapter of John's gospel, Jesus tells a paralytic, Walk! The paralytic, and probably most of those present, shared the worldview that paralysis resulted from sin, that is, a wrong done to God or neighbor prevented the person from walking. Jesus' injunction to walk shattered that perceived barrier, communicated forgiveness, and brought healing. The gospel is also clear: the paralytic, after his healing, remembered his paralysis and, by inference, the circumstances that had led to his paralysis.
Decades of ministry have taught me to recognize the paralysis that sin causes. One of my first parishioners refused to enter the church, insisting that a nameless, unforgivable sin would cause the roof would collapse. In retrospect, I now recognize that parishioner lived in the shackles of paralysis caused by sin. Other cases of paralysis caused by sin were perhaps less dramatic but no less real: individuals trapped in dead-end, destructive relationships convinced that s/he deserved nothing better; individuals unwilling to succeed, believing that they merited only failure; etc.
Most of us have moments that we wish a rebooting would delete. Those moments need not paralyze us; the reality of forgiveness can shatter the barrier or barriers that prevent us from living abundantly. Jesus incarnated God's forgiveness; his words to the paralytic echo across the years, words we can hear him speak freshly and directly and freshly to us: Take up your pallet and walk; live fully, as God intended.
One of my pet liturgical peeves is people pausing between two inseparable phrases of the Lord's Prayer: forgive us our trespasses PAUSE as we forgive those who trespass against us. The PAUSE insidiously implies that experiencing God's forgiveness is detached from our forgiving others when actually the two are indivisible. Resenting others blinds and deafens us to God's grace; spiritually, and perhaps otherwise, negativity immobilizes us.
Yet forgiveness is not rebooting. Living with moments that we would prefer to delete and the associated remorse can help us to learn from our mistakes and to avoid, at least some of the time, hurtful repetition.
If rebooting – starting fresh with no lingering memories of the past – is impossible for humans, is closure also impossible?
The phenomenon of people explicitly talking about closure is relatively new. Couples ending their relationship want closure. Bereaved persons seek closure. Families missing a loved one (a member of the armed services missing in action (MIA), a person presumed to have died in a natural disaster but whose body remains undiscovered, etc.) yearn for closure. Traumatized persons pursue closure, wanting to move ahead with life free of their injurious past.
Aiming for a type of closure that connotes erasing all memory of a relationship, no matter how desirable, is to tilt quixotically at windmills. The physiological reasons that prevent human rebooting also thwart any closure that entails erasing memories. Furthermore, the plasticity of the human brain records and then subsequently contributes to the unique interaction of the physical and experiential that shapes an individual. Erasing every residual memory trace of a relationship, regardless of how painful or damaging the relationship, would alter a person in presently unimaginable ways.
Instead, genuinely constructive closure adds a new layer or sequence of experiences to an existing relationship, as an author might add a new chapter to a book or a composer might append additional measures to an existing opus. The new complements or completes rather than replaces the old. A couple may rejoice for what they shared, jointly acknowledge what has changed, and together release the other from the vows that once expressed their mutual claims upon the other. Symbolically, the bereaved says goodbye to the deceased, admits to feeling abandoned (or other negative feelings), and takes the first tentative steps to a new life. Families tell stories to remember the missing and honor the life shared; through caring expressions for others, done in the name of their beloved, they can give the gift of hope and enable the missing to live again. Traumatized persons may metaphorically burn their memories, expressing their decision to not allow a painful, injurious past to monopolize the present, discovering in the release living springs from which spiritual gifts flow.
Forgiveness and closure, unlike rebooting, are inflection points in the spiritual life. The option for Reconciliation of a Penitent in the Book of Common Prayer's Pastoral Offices and the new liturgy for the Dissolution of a Marriage are helpful rites for marking and more fully experiencing God's grace in inflection points. We would do well to create more such liturgies, for in inflection points God acts, barriers fall, and we experience life a little more abundantly.
George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.