I struggle to forgive the motorcyclists who loudly rev their bikes outside my window late at night.
I try to understand them. It baffles me, this urge to make the world around you bend to your aural whim. Surely they realize they disrupt the many asleep at midnight. Why do they do it? Are they heartless bastards? Curmudgeons with a grudge? Self-absorbed jerks?
Probably not. They’re likely moving through the world focused on their own joys and sorrows, just as I do. They could be kind to animals, protect small children, and love their moms. I suspect they are like me – flawed and inconsiderate at times, caring and kind at others.
My anger is my problem. I need to be a better person, more forgiving, less given to attributing sin where there is just living. I’ve never connected with the divine but the lessons of my Episcopalian childhood stick with me still. Let she who is without sin cast the first stone. Turn the other cheek. Save the world rather than condemn it. Love your enemies.
When I am upset, I repeat these words: “Peace. Love. Grace. Joy. Peace. Love. Grace. Joy.” This calms me and nudges me toward to the freedom of forgiveness. I make this my response when awakened by the roar of a four-stroke internal combustion engine long after I’ve gone to bed.
This is what compassion is – the ability to give others a second chance, the willingness to offer amnesty to those who have erred. It’s why I don’t believe in three strikes and you’re out, the death penalty, or punitive justice.
I try to apply this moral outlook to wrongs of all kinds, big and small (and I recognize that revving engines is a small wrong). In the vast majority of cases, I believe in rehabilitation for those who have transgressed. Pushing people to the far edges of society serves little good.
If those who are demonstrably guilty, in most cases, deserve another chance, those who have only been accused of wrongdoing deserve to be seen as presumed innocent.
I’ve been thinking about the Nate Parker case a lot lately. Seventeen years ago, Mr. Parker, when he was 18 and in college, was accused of sexual assault, specifically of having sex with an unconscious woman. Mr. Parker insists the sex was consensual. The case went to court and Mr. Parker was found not guilty. The young woman later committed suicide.
Mr. Parker has gone onto a successful film career. This year he’s released his debut film as a director, the critically lauded “Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.
Many say Mr. Parker must be held accountable now for the accusations against him, that the charges in his past have moral heft today, that his movie should be boycotted, and his apologies unheeded. And yet, Mr. Parker, as a young black man, was acquitted of raping a white woman in a system that is terrifyingly unforgiving of young black men. He is, like all of us, unable to be defined by a single narrative.
In college, I was lucky to twice escape date rape. Several of my close friends are survivors of violent sexual assault. I am a feminist. I have a daughter (and three sons). And I do not believe it is just to believe in the assumption of inherent guilt in cases of alleged sexual assault.
To do so goes against my commitment to forgiveness, my belief in second chances, and my sense that very few of us deserve permanent condemnation. How can we insist that those who are found not guilty must be forever defined as sinners? Why are we willing to toss out innocent until proven guilty and beyond a reasonable doubt? I understand the judicial system is flawed and that many who are guilty go free. I know we routinely don’t deliver justice to rape victims. But even given those truths, I can’t support a system where there is no way for the accused to ever be anything but that.
The men – and, yes, I’ve looked, they are almost always men – who casually flick their wrists to make their cycles rumble and roar aren’t rapists and the disruption of being awoken from a deep sleep isn’t anything like the horror of rape. It’s a hell of a lot easier to forgive an auditory incursion than sexual assault. And it’s hard to let go of anger and our fury at a brutal world. But without forgiveness, compassion, and second chances for wrongs big and small how can we live with and even love one another?
Dabney Grinnan has lived in Chapel Hill for 25 years. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DabneyGrinnan.