The thick blue line

I wrote yesterday about losing my comfort zone. One of the areas of my disillusionment has been realizing that my supposedly “meritocratic” industry is actually pretty deeply sexist.

This was disturbing, but hey, at least I wasn’t part of the problem. Then I heard some people saying something really discomfiting: that if you’re tacitly accepting the boys-will-be-boys, death-by-a-thousand-cuts bias in the industry, you’re still part of the problem.

Me? Part of the problem? Preposterous! Rude! Insulting!

I thought back though. Back to my first programming job. Do I remember the guys making derogatory remarks about female coworkers when they were alone? Yep, I do. Did I say anything? Nope. I was an impressionable newbie, in my late teens or early twenties, getting my first taste of the industry, staying quiet around the more experienced engineers. Did it rub me wrong? Sure. But I didn’t say anything.

This got me wondering if there were other instances in my career where I had stood by and tacitly reinforced systemic bias. It was hard to come up with examples; but then, for many years, I wasn’t specifically looking for it. More recently, I’ve made an effort to call out sexist attitudes when I see them.

What are the worst possible consequences if I fail to call out sexist behavior in my industry? In most cases, it’s that a woman’s career might be held back and she’ll feel disillusioned and frustrated. Which is pretty bad.

But there’s another line of work where the consequences of inaction are far more serious. When police misbehave, people’s lives are often permanently impacted. They can face prosecution and jail time for crimes they didn’t commit. Their reputations may be tarnished or ruined. They experience emotional and physical trauma. In the worst cases, people suffer permanent injury or are killed when bad cops abuse their power, and good cops do nothing.

Police misconduct happens daily in this country. Usually, it only comes to light because a citizen was filming, not because another cop turned them in.

The loyalty and protectiveness of cops toward their fellow officers is no secret. Every anonymous interview I’ve ever read with a law enforcement officer includes stories of “bad cops” doing bad things… things the “good cop” disapproved of, but didn’t report. Any cop will tell you that one of the principal rules American police live by is: we protect our own.

Heck, this is so well known it’s a trope in movies and TV. Anyone who has ever watched a cop show knows that cops may have their disagreements, but everyone hates Internal Affairs.

And we’re silently complicit too. Because we watch the cop drama on TV, and we root for the cop bashing some hoodlum’s head into a door while his partner looks on, because they know he’s guilty and he knows where the drugs are stashed.

“But Avdi, the police are like a military unit, fiercely loyal to each other in the face of constant attack!”

First off, let’s dispense with the idea that cops should get a pass because they are in the most danger. On the list of dangerous jobs, “police officer” doesn’t even make the top ten. By that logic, the people who provide you with tuna fish sandwiches are more deserving of slack and respect than the cops.

Secondly, are you really saying you want our police to think of themselves as soldiers in occupied territory? In many countries, police regard themselves as community members, not as warriors. And it works. There are fewer shootings, and less distrust of police.

We know the line. It gets trotted out every time there is a major confrontation between police and citizenry. It goes like this: “there are always a few bad apples, but the vast majority of police are good, and deserve our respect”.

I think it’s more accurate to say that there are always a few bad apples, surrounded by a majority of police who may individually try to do the right thing, but who still live by the code: we protect our own. And by living by that code, they enable the bad cops. And they enable the good cops who just made one bad call, and then another one, and then another.

There are a few cops who can’t stand the system, and speak up. They are usually to be found as ex-cops, because they’ve been forced out.

It’s not enough to be individually good. It’s not enough in software engineering, let alone is it enough in a line of work that gives a person the power of life, death, and incarceration over other human beings. “Good cops” are complicit so long as they tolerate bad cops, and protect them through inaction.

So no, I cannot automatically give my support to the “thin blue line”. I can give my support to cops who see themselves as members of the community first, not as cops first. And while I’d love to see evidence otherwise, from what I’ve seen, those cops are the exception, not the rule.

Becoming uncomfortable with comfort

I’ve been on a personal journey for the past few years. I think it started because as I became more of a participant in the global community of my peers, I started to be more and more exposed to people with different backgrounds and perspectives. And some of those perspectives pissed me off. They were obviously wrongheaded and stupid. They were judgemental. They were threatening. Sometimes they were full of anger, profanity, and bile. They suggested that I, and people like me, were actually bad people. They went against ideals I held dear. They made assertions about society that seemed patently false, assertions that seemed so stupid and ignorant that they made me mad. They accused me and people like me of having biases I knew I didn’t have.

But sometimes these things were said by really smart people. People I respected. So every now and then, I’d try and understand the mean, crazy, stupid stuff they were spouting.

And a funny thing happened: a lot of it started to seem a little less crazy and stupid. Sometimes it still seemed mean, but I could almost begin to understand why they were being so mean. I even started to get angry along with them, instead of at them.

I started learning things about other people’s experience of life. I started realizing things that, in retrospect, seem like they should have been obvious, about how differently life can be for folks in the same country, the same state, the same town, even the same job.

I learned that people with careers almost exactly like mine could have life experiences that were wildly different from mine. I learned that just being smart isn’t enough to extrapolate what someone else’s life must be like. That despite my outsider’s sensitivity to invisible systems, there were systems I was still blind to, because it’s hard to be consciously aware of systems that have supported and affirmed you your entire life. That even when you are aware, it’s easy to underestimate the power of those systems unless and until they work against you instead of for you.

I learned, over again, that hardship is relative, and that “things are tough all over” is a rude oversimplification.

I learned that there was a lot of history that I’d missed. And that not coincidentally, it was all history that would have made me less comfortable with who I am and where I live, not more so.

I learned that “bias” isn’t an epithet. That it’s simply something everyone has all the time whether they like it or not, whether they admit it or not. And that even knowing about it doesn’t neuter it.

I’ve learned that as individuals and in groups, we have powerful defensive mechanisms against uncomfortable conversations. And that there are a thousand ways we unconsciously derail those conversations and guide them back to safer ground, ground where we feel confident again.

I’ve started to recognize the incredible weight of comfort, especially if it’s the comfort of someone who happens to be sitting on your head without realizing it. In the end, I’ve started to be uncomfortable with comfort. To be suspicious of complacency in any form. And that’s, well, an uncomfortable place to be. Which kind of sucks. But I think it is slowly helping to make me a better person than I was. I think it is increasing my capacity for empathy.

I’d like to invite you along on this journey. Here’s a way to start:

If, in the course of your life, you hear something regarding current events which:

  • Confirms your suspicions;
  • Makes you want to nod along;
  • Gives you a sense of satisfaction, as if justice has been done;
  • Makes you feel like a good person, in good company;
  • Gives you a sense of schadenfreude, the feeling that bad people have gotten their just deserts;
  • Confirms your intelligence and good judgement;

If you hear something which gives you any of these feelings, question it. Resist it. Seek the piece you are missing. Look for the counter-argument, and try to understand it.

Conversely, if you hear something which:

  • Makes you uncomfortable
  • Makes you look bad
  • Suggests you are ignorant
  • Makes you angry or indignant
  • Makes you feel judged
  • Is obviously wrongheaded, even though it comes from a smart person
  • Lumps you in with terrible people

…if you hear something that gives you any of these feelings: dig in. Be present with those negative feelings, acknowledge them, and then dig deeper. Try to understand the words that piss you off, that make no sense, that deny everything you hold dear. Instead of arguing, say “what makes you say that?”. Be patient. And be prepared to absorb a lot of new information, in areas where you thought you already knew everything of note.

That’s my invitation. It’s not a pleasant path; I can tell you that even as someone who has only taken the first step. It’s a journey full of body blows to your pride; of depressing realizations; and of emotional pitfalls, like the temptation to lord it over people who aren’t as far along as you (guilty!).

But I think it’s a worthwhile journey to take.

Never change who you are, and other BS

Picture of a Weird Bird... Some Horseshit About Never Changing Who You Are

 

Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a meme about “never changing who you are” or something similar.

Bullshit. Change yourself. If you don’t, the world will.

You are not a special snowflake. You are not perfect just the way you are.

People will tell you that some people just aren’t made to... Those people are trying to make themselves feel better.

Life doesn’t care about what you “aren’t made to…”. Unexpectedly-single parents have to learn how to be business-savvy. Refugees have to become survivalists and shrewd traders. Citizens of repressive regimes learn to be consummate actors and conceal their feelings. Even in posh Western society, people still find themselves suddenly having to learn to be caregivers all the fucking time. Read stories of people caught in extraordinary circumstances, and you see the same thing repeated over and over again: they are amazed at what they found themselves capable of.

I’m just not creative. I’m just not technical. I’m just not cut out for business. I’m just not kid-friendly. I’m just not social. I’m just not organized. I’m just not romantic. I’m just not athletic. I’m just not competitive. I’m just not the sensitive type. I’m just not…

Bullshit. You will be whatever circumstances demand for you to be. If you are very, very lucky, you can also be what you choose to be for some portion of your life.

You did not come out of the womb stamped with a template of the fully-formed person you were meant to be. You are a bundle of potentials. You are not painting a human by numbers. You are building the edifice of your life. The blueprints are your choices. The timbers are your actions.

The grain of the wood you are building with might be unique to you, but the materials you and others have to work with are more alike than they are different.

Likewise, stop looking for meme-approved friends who will just “accept you for who you are”.

I expect a lot of friends. I expect them to kick ass and be awesome. I expect them to exceed themselves. I expect them to expose hidden depths and surprise everyone. I expect them to constantly enlarge their perspectives. I expect them to put their own psyches under the knife and excise the cancers they find there. I expect them to grow. And I expect them to hold me to the same standard.

If you aren’t growing, you are rotting. Friends don’t let friends rot.

You are not a weird bird. Nature created you because she was tired of running the world on instinct and genetic templates. She made you to be adaptable and self-modifying instead. Don’t let her down.

A Personal Epistemology

I am, as far as I can tell, a sentient human being.

I am somewhere in the middle of my total lifespan. A lifespan that will be over in a blink of an eye.

During that brief life, I have to somehow cram in learning, making friends, building community, caring for family, creating new artifacts, pursuing hobbies, passing on knowledge, seeking enlightenment, having fun, and a thousand other time-consuming occupations.

Along the way, I have to make decisions. Lots of them. Some decisions have no effect. Some effect only myself. Some effect my children and family. And some decisions, pooled together with the decisions of millions of other people, will contribute to long-term effects on society at large.

Making decisions means relying on knowledge. But how do I know that the things I “know” are true?

I do not have time to personally recreate the entirety of human experience up till this point on my own. I don’t even have time to learn more than an infinitesimal fraction of the entire corpus of things we think we know as a species.

And even if I could, how much of that knowledge could I rely on?

Consider an individual healthy human being. They are blissfully unaware of much of the data streaming past them at every moment. Even their most fundamental senses, senses that they rely on implicitly, are constantly lying to them. And as for what they do with what little information they are able to take in: their brain is a disastrous mess of biases, innumeracy, and outright defects.

Even if we assume that, as a group, we can correct for some of these systemic flaws, our entire species is still peering at the universe from one single, insignificant speck.

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And then there is the small complication that apparently, when we look hard enough at the most basic building blocks of existence, the slippery little bastards change just because we are looking at them.

When I put all this together, I am left with the conclusion that there may be no such thing as objective truth, and even if there is, I will never, ever know even a fraction of it.

So how to make decisions, given this total lack of foundation?

The short answer is that I lean heavily on heuristics. And that I don’t even bother looking for objective truth. Instead, I try to rely on ideas that are viable.

What is a viable idea? It’s an idea that, when employed, bears good fruit.

The best technique that humanity has yet come up with for evolving viable ideas is the scientific method. Which means my best bet for making solid decisions is to base them, whenever possible, on the existing scientific consensus, if one exists.

Of course, science is far from perfect. It is flawed and messy and political, like all human endeavors. What sets science apart is not what it “knows”, but the process. The process of science is uniquely set up to be self-correcting, and self-improving.

This property of science is often far from obvious at any given moment. All human institutions evolve to be self-serving, and scientific research is no exception. Young scientists find it easiest and most rewarding to do research that supports the assumptions of the professors and experts who presently dominate the field. Then, after decades, newcomers with ambition decide to make to question the conventional wisdom. As a result science improves, but the improvement moves at a generational pace.

Sources of funding also bias what research is done, and what is ignored. Phillip Morris dumped millions of dollars into trying to get science that would downplay the harm of cigarette smoking. Some of it undoubtedly worked in the short term. But the truth eventually emerged. Here again, the only salvation is in the slow self-correction of science over decades.

At any given time, for any branch of science, there is a consensus about what is known, as well as a fragile penumbra of research that disagrees or questions the consensus. A tiny fraction of scientists in that fringe may eventually turn out to have been more correct than their peers. As the slow wheel of scientific opinion turns, these few may be heralded as early visionaries. Meanwhile, the majority of other scientists on the fringe, who turn out to be mistaken, will be forgotten.

Periodically a scientist on the outskirts of the present consensus, or a fan of such a scientist, will become convinced that their minority opinion is not only correct, but vitally important. They will begin spending a great deal of energy, not on further research, but on popularizing the minority opinion.

In most cases these popularizers are not opportunists; they are true believers. They believe they have come upon “hidden” knowledge that the scientific community is either intentionally or ignorantly ignoring or suppressing. They believe that the world needs to know what they know.

People like this often have very compelling stories to tell. And it’s tempting to ascribe extra weight to what they say simply because why would someone embark on such a quixotic campaign, and risk ridicule, unless they had hit upon essential knowledge?

A quick survey of the whole field of “hidden truth” dissemination serves to dispel this notion, however. The fact is, at any given time their are people vigorously promoting every conceivable variety of hidden truth. From fad diets to alien abductions, there are earnest true believers everywhere. They aren’t all on to something. In fact, only a tiny fraction will ever see their ideas vindicated.

In order to understand the proliferation of these fringe voices, we don’t have to insist that they must either be cynical frauds, insane, or on to something important. The truth is, being in a “hidden knowledge” niche is rewarding and self-reinforcing in its own way.

Here’s a concrete example. For years I’ve followed the work of Mark Sisson. Sisson is a relatively benign, mainstream example of the hidden knowledge guru. He promotes something he calls the “primal blueprint“.

I like a lot of what he has to say, and find him both engaging and convincing. He quotes a lot of current science to promote his worldview, and he has lots of success stories to tout.

But let’s be real here. The success stories are a classic case of confirmation bias. The vast majority of people who read Mark’s books and see no results are just going to fade away and move on to other things. They are never going to take the trouble to write in and say “it didn’t work for me!”.

Meanwhile, like most diets/lifestyle plans, it does work for some people. Does it work because it’s “right”? Or because they happened to be genetically predisposed? Or simply because picking up Mark’s book was the moment they finally decided to stick to a diet and fitness plan for real? Who knows! What is certain is that these are the people who are going to write in, excitedly sharing their success. And Mark will be rewarded and confirmed, not just by their money, but by their stories.

And what of the science? Well, Mark happens to be riding a scientific wave that has been steadily building behind low-processed-carb, high-fat diets for years. He was lucky to have seized on certain ideas early that have since been born out. I can guarantee you that there were thousands of other lifestyle gurus who seized on other ideas and weren’t so lucky. And as a result, you’re less likely to have heard of them or seen their books at Barnes & Nobel.

Even for people much further out on the “fringe”, promoting hidden knowledge has its rewards. For someone with the right personality, you can build a very comfortable, meaningful life selling and promoting healing-through-magnets, or the truth about lizard people in government, all while sincerely believing in it. People are drawn to hidden knowledge. If you persist, you will find others who want to believe. They will seek you out and cluster around you. They will support you and tell you to carry on fighting the good fight.

How can I know who is right? How do I know if a fringe knowledge promoter is actually on to something real?

The short answer is: I can’t. If I want to determine whether to follow a particular diet based on an obscure study, I can’t dedicate decades of my life to going back to school, getting a PHd in nutrition, catching up on thousands of books’ worth of the state of the art, then planning, funding, and executing studies to reproduce the results in the study.

In fact, I don’t even have the time or scientific training to read all of the relevant research and evaluate its quality. The best I can do is to follow the reports from science journalists who have the appropriate skills to both a) evaluate the worth of studies and their findings; and b) explain those results in layman’s terms. I’m stuck with getting my information from two removes away. But that’s still the best chance I have of getting at viable ideas. It’s still far more likely to give me a robust foundation for making decisions than if I were to pretend that I’m actually capable of independently evaluating fringe results and determining that they are more plausible than the broad scientific consensus as reported in the mainstream science press.

It is also worth noting that even when they turn out to have been right (for certain values of “right”) people who promote fringe interpretations are rarely if ever the ones who actually bring about an improved scientific consensus. Dr. Atkins might have at least been partially onto something, but when the New York Times writes about the evolving scientific attitudes towards fat, he isn’t the scientist they quote as having paved the way. The scientists who are actually moving understanding forward are, pretty much by definition, not the ones talking about it in the popular press. After decades of successful research they may write a pop-science book to explain their findings to the average person. What they don’t do is drop out of the research establishment early and start selling self-published books and going on radio shows the moment they stumble across a surprising result. This kind of single-minded devotion to promoting a minority idea, even if it started out with a scientific finding, should not be viewed as giving weight to the idea. If anything, it should render the idea suspect.

Does this mean that I “do whatever mainstream science tells me”? Not quite. There are two major caveats, and one minor caveat, that I observe when dealing with scientific consensus.

First, science is only as good as the questions that are asked. If I have direct personal experience in an area where I’m able to identify a blind spot in the questions that scientists are asking, I may put less weight than usual in their results. For instance, there are lots of scientists asking questions like “do students retain more knowledge if they have math class before or after lunch”. There are far fewer scientists asking questions like “do children who have near-total autonomy over their learning experience go on to have more overall life satisfaction”. Here, assumptions that most people, including most scientists, take for granted about education are constraining the set of questions that are being asked.

Second, contrary to what some believe, I don’t think science has anything to tell us about what what is best in life. It may be able to tell us what makes people happy, statistically speaking. It cannot, however, tell us if it is important to pursue personal happiness.

I mentioned that there is also a minor caveat, and it is this: some decisions have higher stakes than others. When choosing a personal diet or exercise program, the worst thing that is likely to happen is that I feel like crap for a while. On the other hand, the stakes are higher when voting for political representatives. And even higher, from my personal perspective, when making medical decisions for my children.

When the stakes are low, I feel free to play around with fringe ideas, even while recognizing that I have no special insight into why they should be right. When the stakes are high, it behooves me to defer to the current scientific consensus as best I understand it. That consensus may turn out to be wrong  or flawed in a generation. But if it has to do with something outside my sphere of expertise, it is literally the best chance I have of making a good decision.

Clinging to the edge of the abyss

(Trigger warning: depression and suicide.)

People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.

These are the words of  Leelah Alcorn, who killed herself a few days ago.

I remember feeling this way, and I didn’t have a tenth of the cause that Leelah did. I don’t think it ever even occurred to me at 16 to wonder what it would be like to also feel alien in my own skin on top of all the other trials of adolescence.

Could it have gotten better for her? Sure. I know enough successful transgender programmers to know that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel. Although it’s a hell of a long, steep, uphill tunnel.

We are failing transgender kids. We are failing gay kids. But I feel like in a larger sense we’re just failing kids, period.

If you’re on the fringes of society for any reason, the years between 13 and 21 are the worst, as Liz Lemon would say. You’re coming to terms with who you are and how you are different, and you feel everything 10x as keenly as you ever will again. And you have zero personal power to change anything about your life. And even if you do have a modicum of power, you don’t yet have the emotional tools to exert it in any kind of directed, constructive way.

Also, people are probably more horrible to you than they ever will be again.

In my mind I see adolescence as rope bridge over a deep chasm. For every generation that crosses it, a fraction of them step on a broken slat and find themselves clinging for their lives to a few strands of fraying rope. It can happen for any number of reasons. They watch, helpless, as the rest of their cohort walk on and disappear over the horizon.

If you’re one of those kids, you might know that “it gets better”. You might have heard that help is on the way… eventually. One of these minutes, one of these hours, people in orange jackets are going to appear and extend a lifeline to you, and you’ll be saved. Carried away, finally, to the land of relative stability and empowerment that is adulthood.

But it’s not enough to know that “it gets better”. Because the question is, will it get better soon enough? Your hands are numb; muscles are in agony, and your grip is slipping. What does it matter that it gets better, if you can’t hang on that long?

It felt endless and excruciating to me, and relatively speaking my emotional wounds were shallow. My legs were dangling through the rungs of the bridge. I wasn’t hanging on by a thread.

I made it; and it got better. And for a lot of other kids it got better. But my one of my best friends didn’t make it; he plummeted into the abyss before help could arrive.

It gets better. But they shouldn’t have to hang on so long.

It needs to get better faster.

 

Yes and No

Other factors being equal, an astonishing amount of success in life boils down to the words “yes” and “no”.

Woody Allen said:

I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.

Showing up is, in my mind, a form of saying “yes”. When you’re trying to change your circumstances, saying “yes” plays an amazingly big role.

Yes to the open-mic night. Yes to the call for proposals. Yes to the meetup invite. Yes to the last-minute speaker slot that opens up, no matter how much of a hassle it is to change your plans. Yes to the audition. Yes to the local community organizer who is looking for some help. Yes to the OSS project that needs a new maintainer.

This isn’t some airheaded yes-to-the-universe new age woo-woo. All of these “yeses” involve doing some legwork first. You have to be in the right place to hear the question. You have to do a little research, be on the right mailing lists, follow the right people. Fortunately, the Internet makes this part relatively easy, assuming you have access.

But it’s not all about saying “yes”. Some of the biggest turning points in my career so far have stemmed from saying “no”. For instance, the time I had a new consulting job all lined up, waiting for me to say “yes”. Instead I said “no”, because I wanted to work on my own projects full time for once. I spent six months or so scrambling to get by on two-hour consultations while bootstrapping my screencasting business. Now screencasting is my full-time job.

Saying “no” is just as much a super-power as saying “yes”. The first big “no” is scary, but it’s also a profoundly empowering moment. Saying “no” is a statement about what opportunity is more important to you in the long run. It’s a declaration of independence. Saying no to 11 things can be the key to kicking ass at a 12th thing. Saying “no” can clear the path to new opportunities. And somewhat counter-intuitively, saying “no” can bring more requests to your doorstep. A confident “no” is an announcement that you are a person with a goal; not just an opportunist or a person with boundary issues.

Of course, this leads naturally to a big question: when do you say no, and when do you say yes?

This isn’t a simple question. An ill-chosen “no” can throw away a big opportunity. And the world is filled with people who are more than willing to take advantage of your willingness to say “yes”.

I can’t claim to have mastered this decision. But here are a few thoughts:

Start with “yes”.

Say “yes” to things that scare you.

Say “no” to things that bore you.

Say “yes” if you are bored or feeling uninspired.

Don’t say “no” to generic opportunities. Wait until people are asking you, specifically, to do things before you start saying “no”.

Say “yes” to to requests from people you respect.

Never say “yes” to anyone who promises you’ll get rich quick.

Don’t say “yes” to “opportunities” that cost money. Unless someone you respect, who is not broke, and who does not benefit also vouches for it.

Say “yes” to children, as often as possible.

Say “yes” when people less successful than you ask for help or advice. Karma works.

Say “no” to people who always seem to have a new project every six months, and none of the projects ever seem to go anywhere.

Say “yes” to that thing you don’t feel qualified for.

Say “no” to a “once-in-a-lifetime deal”.

Say “yes” to a chance to meet people.

That’s all I can think of right now. Feel free to suggest your own in the comments.

Forgiveness

Some unexpected depth on Reddit today:

Something a lot of people don’t understand. Forgiving isn’t about the other person, it’s not saying what they did is right or okay.

Forgiving is for you. You forgive someone so that you can move on. Your anger towards them doesn’t hurt them, it hurts you. It doesn’t prevent them from being happy, but it does keep you from being happy.

Followed later by this:

Reminds of on of my favorite quotes from Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

One asks, “Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?” “I will never forgive them,” replies the other. His mate says: “Then it seems they still have you in prison, don’t they?”

I know all this intellectually. I’ve heard it in any number of forms. It’s a prominent teaching both in psychotherapy and in various religions.

It’s still one of the harder lessons to wrap my mind around. I can nod my head sagely, but still fail to grok it in fullness, especially when I’m considering the forgiveness particularly heinous transgressions.

It occurs to me that part of the problem here is how we learn about forgiveness in childhood. When another kid hits us we’re supposed to forgive them, and say “that’s OK”. We learn to equate forgiveness with saying “that’s OK”.

But often, it’s not OK. It’ll never be OK. It’s not OK to hurt me. The memory of that hurt will never be OK. And depending on the severity of it, the consequences of the hurt will stay with me forever.

I think even when we’re kids and we learn to say “that’s OK”, it’s not really what we mean. We mean “we’re OK”. You and I, we’re OK now. What you did was still wrong and hurtful, but we can play together again.

And that’s what we most want to hear after hurting someone else, isn’t it? We’re OK.

We want it; but we don’t necessarily deserve it. And we might never get it.

But getting back to “forgiveness”, and this idea of forgiveness as a release from our own mental attachment to a hurt…

It’s hard to think of it that way because we grow up thinking “I forgive you” is a synonym for “that’s OK”. Which is code for “we’re OK”. And we might not be OK. We—aggressor and victim—might never be OK again. Parents push us to use it in this fashion. Not to give up our attachments to the pain, but simply to say the magic words making it OK to play again.

I don’t know… maybe saying the words “I forgive you” can be an emotional stepping stone to also inwardly letting go of the pain. But if even a even a trace of “that’s OK” lingers inside the words “I forgive you”, then there are some crimes for which no forgiveness is called for.

I wonder if it’s even possible to disentangle “I forgive you” from “that’s OK” at this point. Maybe we need to stop talking so much about forgiveness, and talk more about letting go. Because it is surely true that hurt can hold us captive long after the event. And the key to freedom shouldn’t involve having to say something that sounds a lot like “that’s OK” to the person who hurt us.