A friend told me last night, “Everyone has flaws.” Of course, everyone does. It’s just that when it comes to my best friends, the people i love, i have a much harder time accepting flaws. Because i’m too much of an idealist.
I hold the people i love to a much higher standard. I want them to be perfect. I want them to be the kind of people everyone respects, adores, and emulates. I want them to be the shining ideal of a person, a representation of all the things i stand for. And when they fail to be that, i’m crushed and inconsolable. It hurts me deeply.
And that makes me afraid i’ll never be happy with anyone.
Do you forgive but never forget, or forget but never forgive? Remember that question from silly surveys we’d fill out in junior high when we didn’t feel like doing our homework? Well, this question just came up in an email exchange with a friend of mine, and it actually holds much relevance to an important ethical issue i’ve been grappling with.
But before i get to my personal story, let’s look at what Charles L. Griswold, author of Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration and recent contributor to The Stone, had to say about forgiveness.
First of all, Griswold introduces the idea of forgiveness as something that stems from religion, and coming from a non-religious background, i have difficulty understanding that perspective. For instance, what does forgiveness have to do with revenge? I was quite surprised to see revenge and vengeance included in the discussion, because those are completely separate issues for me when it comes to forgiveness. Maybe it’s just because i’m not a vengeful person (i honestly can’t think of a single instance when i got revenge on anyone), but when i think about forgiveness, i think only about what you might think about what someone did to you, not what you might do afterwards.
However, if giving up revenge and resentment were sufficient to yield forgiveness, then one could forgive simply by forgetting, or through counseling, or by taking the latest version of the nepenthe pill. But none of those really seems to qualify as forgiveness properly speaking, however valuable they may be in their own right as a means of getting over anger. The reason is that forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.
Nothing sinks more heavily in your stomach than the realization that someone who you thought liked you really hates you.
More and more, i’m inclined to think that making friends isn’t a matter of chance, or even of preference; it’s a matter of knowing what you want to learn, and recognizing who can help you learn those things. Does that make friendship utilitarian? I don’t know, but let’s take a look what Aristotle had to say on the matter:
It seems that not everything is loved, but only what is worthy of love, and this is what is good, pleasant, or useful. What is useful, however, would seem to be what is instrumental to some good or pleasure, so that what are worthy of love as ends are the good and the pleasant. —Nicomachean Ethics, VIII. ii. p.145
So even if you’re friends with someone because he or she is “instrumental to some good or pleasure,” the end you ultimately strive for is that good or pleasure. The bottom line is, there is some good or pleasure we desire, and we become friends with those who provide us with it.
Let’s start with the goods. What kinds of goods do we seek? Well, obviously they vary from individual to individual, but the one most commonly identified and discussed by philosophers is happiness. It seems that the “small” goods we seek add up to the “big,” self-sufficient good of happiness.
Then let’s assume that we make friends because they help us attain that good of happiness. How do my friends make me happy? Personally, i’m happy when my friends care for me and teach me new things. Some of my friends don’t do either of these things, and yet i call them “friends.”
My best friend Ju gave me two African Dwarf Frogs for my birthday.
I have to admit, i suffered a temporary crisis of conscience after whiling away my first hour with them in silent awe, because i hadn’t yet figured out for myself whether keeping pets is ethical. This same moral dilemma is what moved me to let my parakeets go sometime in middle school or junior high, in the full knowledge that they would die in the “wild,” and probably within the hour. I wanted them to be free, and i felt i had no right to own them.
So do i have a right to own these frogs? I don’t know. Should they be confined to my tank? I don’t know about that either, but according to breeders, they’d be much better off in my tank than in a local river. These frogs were raised to be kept as pets, so i’d essentially be committing murder if i released them.
I understand all that, but i’m still not comfortable owning them. I don’t even know if they’re happy with me or comfortable in their tank. And i’m not okay with pet breeding, period. I don’t think humans have a right to breed animals for their own pleasure.
So i had these frogs in my hands, and i didn’t know what to do with them. I liked them. They’re adorably quirky. For a while, i cursed Ju for having given them to me in the first place. But she had given me a thoughtful (and unique!) present, and i didn’t have the heart to return them. And, i liked them.
It’s funny how any extended conversation with my friend Yang gets me thinking about everything a little harder.
We got to talking about free will and birth. Our birth is not our choice. Or so it seems. This is an issue of great importance to me, because it problematizes human existence itself. It threatens to annul all notion of free will: If even our birth wasn’t our choice, do we have any choice at all? As you can see, it makes for a rather bleak human condition.
Her: What’s the point of thinking about it if that’s just the way it is and nothing can be done to change it?
Me: Well, for one, i enjoy thinking about it, and trying to understand this unsolvable problem can help to fuel other philosophical projects which could contribute something real and practical to society.
Even more importantly, the way in which we decide to accept or reject this truth could have great implications on our actions. In other words, this is a question of moral responsibility.
In my post on Peter Singer’s contribution to The Stone, i couldn’t decide whether having children is ethical, since i couldn’t reconcile birth with free will, while at the same time, my tendency to innately believe that nature is usually “right” restrained me from jumping to the conclusion that it is flat-out wrong to procreate.
But here’s another question to consider: Our birth aside, on what grounds do we accept or reject our unchosen existence, and if we accept it, how do we cope with it?
When i was leaving Pace Wildenstein on 57th yesterday, i saw a handful of women picketing on the corner of 57th and Park Ave in front of the Korean Consulate General. They were trying to get people to sign up for a petition to stop dog and cat meat consumption in Korea. A little research has shown me that demonstrators from the IDA (In Defense of Animals) congregate in front of Korean consulates and embassies across the country every year on the first of the Korean bok days (literally the “hot, dog days of summer”). Apparently, some Koreans consume more boshintang (dog stew) this time of year to help their bodies fight the summer heat.
I walked closer to the demonstrators to read what their posters said, but i was in a rush to find a bathroom, so all i caught were some images of dogs. Curiously, though, the lady whose poster i tried to read didn’t approach me or try to get me to sign the petition even though she had been pestering all other passersby. To tell you the truth, she avoided eye contact with me. On the way back from the bathroom, i saw a different protestor harassing two Korean (and non-English speaking, it seemed) tourists. These women didn’t have the guts to confront me (because they would’ve confronted, not asked) about the issue so instead harassed Korean tourists who couldn’t even argue back. How mature.
I have a couple issues with this protest: