Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My tattoos: St. George

I have a couple of tattoos. Each one has a very short explanation of what it is, but they have much longer explanations of what they are and what they mean to me.

The first one I got was on my upper right arm, of St. George killing the dragon.

St. George killing the dragon

If you are not familiar with it, the story goes that there was a village in Libya where a dragon lived nearby, and to appease the dragon, the people would feed it two sheep. If the sheep did not work, then they would feed it one of their children, chosen by lottery. One day, it happened that the king's daughter was chosen. As she was going out to meet the dragon, St. George came along and wounded the dragon enough to subdue it. He then killed the dragon in front of the whole village, and in exchange, they converted to Christianity and were all baptized. 

The image I used comes from a book of Coptic pilgrimage tattoos, and when people ask me why I got it, I often explain that I studied Coptic for a year while I was in college, and wanted to get a tattoo of something from that book. I sometimes mention something about standing up for the oppressed, wherever they may be, because the Coptic Christians have been persecuted since the 7th century, when the Muslims invaded Egypt.

On a deeper level, though, it is something of a moral allegory to me about the nature of evil, and a theological statement. I want to call it an "interpretive schema," but can't bring myself to do that without feeling like I am talking out of my ass.

Our competing desires between good and evil actions are usually conceived of as being an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other shoulder. They each advise us, and we weigh out the advice. The way I see it, it is a little more combative than that: we each have both St. George and the dragon inside of us, doing battle with each other. The dragon is our desire to do only what interests ourselves, without regard for how it affects those around us. St. George is our impulse to do what we know is right, regardless of how difficult it is. (And believe me, doing the right thing can be a giant pain in the ass.) Our selfish desires can only win out if we are unwilling to confront them and fight against them. Sometimes that is as simple as suddenly remembering what the right thing to do is. Sometimes… it can seem as difficult as fighting a dragon. If it were a literal dragon, maybe we could think to ourselves that someone else might come along to kill it, but we are the only line of defense against the dragon within ourselves. You can either be your own greatest adversary, or you can be your own savior.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Forgive us our trespasses

A few months ago, I got dumped by a girl I had been dating for a while. Epically dumped, I would say—the complete story is something for another time. At any rate, within a week, I was pretty much over it. I wasn't angry anymore, and pretty much had already forgiven her for what she did to me. Some of my friends started asking me, "Why are you doing that, after all she did to you?"

But I'm all about forgiving people. And my gold standard for that is John Paul II.

In 1981, while in St. Peter's Square, he was shot four times by a Turkish sniper named Mehmet Ali Ağca. The Pope lost three quarters of his blood, and was in surgery for five hours afterward. Not only did he forgive his attacker, but he met with Agca in prison, and later met with his family. In June 2000, he got Italy's president to release Agca from prison, where we was extradited to his native Turkey to serve out a previous prison sentence.

This idea of forgiveness, of course, has deep roots in Christianity. In the gospels, Peter (the apostle I consider to have gotten his name because he is dumb as a rock) approaches Jesus and asks, "How many times should I forgive my brother? Seven times?" And Jesus replies, "I say to you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." Which may have been to say, forgive him until you have lost count, and then keep on forgiving him.

He then goes on to tell a parable to illustrate this point (which you can read at that link—it's difficult to summarize). His point at the end is that, since all of us do something wrong from time to time, we do not deserve God's forgiveness unless we are willing to show forgiveness to the people in our lives. This is the source of the line in the Lord's Prayer that goes, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

You may respond here, "But I don't believe in God, and I am pretty sure that you don't either. Why would I need the forgiveness of someone I don't believe in?" To which I say, "You're missing the fucking point."

The benefit of forgiving people is not in what you do for the person who is forgiven, nor does it have anything to do with the extrinsic benefit you might gain in the Kingdom of Heaven or what have you. The benefit is that it makes you a better person. When you hold a grudge against someone, the emotions are all negative. You give yourself a justification for being angry and hateful. On the other hand, forgiveness is an act of empathy and understanding, to try to consider why a person would make the kind of mistake that they did. Above all, though it is an act of love, the basic kind of love that one extends to everyone just by virtue of being human. You know, the kind of love that makes us concerned about people in poverty- and disaster-stricken areas, even though we have never met these people.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we should let people walk all over us, and treat us like doormats. Generally speaking, a lot of the ways that people hurt us come about only because of a certain amount of trust we put in them. That trust can be taken away if they misuse it and violate it. If they continue to do you wrong, you can completely cut them out of your life, but I don't think there ever comes a point where you should stop forgiving them.

To relate this back to my personal life, I forgave my ex only days after she dumped me. I was still hurt and upset, of course, and I was still processing the experience in my head. And forgiving her didn't mean I would immediately take her back if she wanted to start dating again some months down the road. I sort of consider her a friend, but right now she is just "a girl I know on the internet," which is the very bottom of the friend hierarchy. But on some level, I still think of her as a friend.

"So, Tim, why you gotta forgive?" "That's just how I roll."