Forgiveness and Perpetual Motion
When I was little, I loved playing with magnets. It was endlessly fascinating to find that exact spot where one magnet falls within the thrall of the other. I don't know what the technical name is, but you know what I mean: two magnets sit next to each other on the table, minding their own business, nothing going on . . . and then you nudge one just one tiny little millimeter closer, and they rush together. Or, if you reverse one of them, then that one tiny millimeter means they repulse each other, and jump away.
I had heard that the world was endlessly searching for a perpetual motion machine -- a wheel that would keep on turning without being turned. I thought, when I was little, that if you could find that magical spot where two magnets were just close enough, without being too close, then you'd have your machine. It couldn't fail! Magnets never run out, and they're so reliable. It would just be a matter of cutting the difference finely enough so that you'd have two magnets that want to be together very, very much, at the same time as the other ends of them really want to get away from each other. I felt like I had done the hard part, by figuring it out. Surely science could figure out the boring details, using a sciencey instrument of some kind. I thought perhaps if you hung the magnets on little axles, so they could swing back and forth, or something . . .
Well, engineers, there's a freebie for you! No charge. I, myself, went on to study poetry and have babies, and am no longer interested in designing a wheel that keeps on turning forever.
Not literally, anyway. Many decades later, I'm starting to realize that all of us, no matter what we're majoring in, are supposed to be doing research on making that wheel go 'round, by which I mean learning how to live in this world together, finding that exact right spot where we can show love and compassion and invest appropriate attention to each other, and at the same time not getting too bogged down or wrought up or enraged that we seize up, or fly apart, or burn up. Just close enough, without being too close.
Anne Kennedy talks about this precise spot in her essay Facebook and Forgiveness. But the answer isn't what you'd think. She says,
I don’t know about you, but when someone is being catastrophically foolish, flinging ideas and words around that are so–well–dumb, bad, wrong, misguided, harmful–I might have no intention of saying anything, but I nevertheless absorb the emotional sting of that other person’s being so so wrong. I feel like I careen around the Internet being poked and jabbed by cultural decay, outrage, alarm, bad news, inane and insipid memes, all of which fill my soul with rage. How can there be So Much Garbage! I cry out to the creator of the universe. And why am I looking at it?
It doesn't take an engineer to tell you that this kind of thrashing and careening around is not efficient motion. Lots of wasted energy there. Kennedy continues:
So there I was, and someone was wrong. And then, so unexpectedly and certainly by God’s grace, I just clicked away. I just let them be wrong and went and did something else. It was so strange. And what was strange is not that I clicked away, but that I walked away altogether, with my whole self. I didn’t carry on feeling troubled and angry for 47 minutes until the next outrage hit. It was as if I had been able to just let them be, and I went on with myself. I’m sure there’s a technical word for this, like Stopping the Inevitable Decline Into Internet Induced Mental Illness, or something.
There is a technical word, as Kennedy writes: forgiveness. (And she does on to explain that the way we deal with faceless, anonymous commenters online is somewhat different from how we deal with people we know and care about. Do read her whole post!)
But achieving this world-turning forgiveness is not really a matter of figuring out how to sit in that spot where you care just enough, but not too much. It's not a matter of finding a spot where you can be attracted and repulsed in equal measure. It's something else, something that would never work if you were dealing with physics (or even physics as I imagined it as a child). It depends on having an inexhaustible source of energy.
The laws of conservation and thermodynamics tell us that a real machine will only run as long as it's supplied with some source of energy to replace the energy it is constantly losing. Such a machine will not be a real perpetual motion machine, because it will eventually exhaust that source of energy, or it will wear itself out or tear itself apart. As Leonardo said, "Oh ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists."
But when we're talking about humanity, if we're talking about finding that perpetual motion machine that will keep on moving, keep on humming along, keep on revolving like the world itself, there is a source of energy that will never be exhausted. And rather than eroding or devolving as it acts, it strengthens and enlivens. The longer it runs, the more powerful it becomes.
[F]orgiveness is what makes the world go round. It’s what gets me out of bed every morning–knowing that God has forgiven me for an inestimable burden of offense that I can never solve or do away with myself. God forgives me. I have to forgive others. There’s no way around it.
Just so. The source of energy flows from the side of our Beloved. It is a spring that wells up forever and will not go dry. "[W]hosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life."
Is it easy to drink of this everlasting spring? Yes and no. It's simple: all you have to do is drink of the same cup that Jesus drank. Sometimes the cup is refreshing beyond all reason. Sometimes it is bitter beyond bearing. But there is no other cup. It is the only one that will never be exhausted. Extending forgiveness, accepting forgiveness: this gives us something unthinkably more valuable than perpetual motion. It gives us eternal life.