You may already know of my struggle with forgiveness as a weapon of justice. Well, the whole aftermath of the President’s inserting himself in the Gates affair reminds me of an experience from many years past.
As I have mentioned, I was a child care services administrator on an Army base in Germany. Child care was extremely hard to come by. Finding enough spaces in family homes, the child care center, or youth services after school care for children of various ages—and for the days and times needed by their active duty servicemember parents—was challenging on good days and an exercise in high futility on bad days.
The staff member who took the initial requests for care from parents was in a particularly frustration-inducing position. She heard demands from both me and other administrators (WE DON’T HAVE ANY MORE OPEN SLOTS) and parents and their unit commanders (WE NEED A SLOT FOR THIS SOLDIER’S KIDS NOW).
She also had a fair amount of power. Someone who, for example, ticked her off could, hypothetically, just for the sake of argument have their application accidentally…misplaced…misdirected…shuffled to the bottom of the stack. She knew all the rules, all the potential pathways to care, and—as a member of the community in touch with local gossip—all the rumors of possible openings, change of duty stations for existing child care children’s parents, age-outs of kids in care moving onto elementary school. Hypothetically, mind you, she could be forthcoming with this information or completely tight-lipped. No one else on base had done this job in recent memory. No one else knew the system the way that she did. No one else wanted this job. She was doing, alone, a job meant for at least two people. She was the lone gatekeeper through which all childcare transactions on base flowed (or not). She was virtually indispensable and just about un-fire-able.
This staff member, henceforth known as the Gatekeeper, could be extremely rude, offensive, brusque. She often seemed to delight in the knowledge of the power she held over so many people. I imagine it somewhat made up for her low pay and frustratingly never-ending duties. Even as an administrator who “outranked” her, I had to always approach the Gatekeeper with smile on face and figurative hat in hand. It did not do to get on her bad side. Not even for a day. But make the mistake of angering her, and the only thing you could do was ride it out until someone pissed her off even more to the point where she forgot about your own real or imagined transgression.
Into this setting there was once a parent, the wife of an officer, new to base, who made the fatal error of wandering into this staff person’s office to request child care. Having no knowledge, apparently, of what a rare jewel a child care spot was on base, the Officer’s Wife stated her childcare needs and preferences: two children—one preschool and one infant, and only part-time care at least until such a time as she began to work herself—should she decide to work. Oh—and she wished to take a little more time to get herself and her children adjusted to their new duty station, but would be ready to begin enrolling the children in about two, three weeks.
The Gatekeeper. Went. Off.
From the news that lit up the base grapevine within nanoseconds of the incident, there was cussing from the Gatekeeper, there was her raised voice, there were her allegations that the Officer’s Wife was being arrogant and presumptuous and disrespectful and wasteful of the Gatekeeper’s time. There was the question who-exactly-do-you-think-you-are? There was a demonstration by the Gatekeeper of the months-long backlog of childcare requests in the form of folders and folders of waiting applications. There was probably a lot more, but the years have taken those specifics from me.
I can’t remember if the Officer’s Wife did, after all this berating, fill out an application. Let’s say—for the sake of this retelling—that she did not. Let’s say that all she could manage to do is slink off, in shock, back down the hall and out of the building.
What I do remember clearly, and the point (finally) of my tale is what happened a couple hours later that same day.
The Officer’s Wife returned to the Gatekeeper’s office with a giant bouquet of flowers in hand. The Gatekeeper was confused.
“These are for you,” said the Officer’s Wife, smiling. “At first I was so hurt and shocked by your behavior towards me earlier.”
“But then,” she continued, to the Gatekeeper’s continued confusion, “I figured that for you to have been so rude and unkind to me, you must have been having a very bad day. So I thought I would try to make your day a little brighter by giving you these.”
The flowers remained on the Gatekeeper’s desk for the next several days, resplendent in their colorful blooms. Everyone who arrived at her desk was quick to ask (with some worry, thinking they’d forgotten) if it were her birthday. No, she would say, and then re-tell the story of how she came to receive them. When she told me the tale her head hung low, and she spoke in a tone softer than any I had ever heard her use.
Eventually the Officer’s Wife did get childcare—and part-time care at that–for her little ones. The Gatekeeper continued in her job, much as before. (As this is not an afterschool special, I cannot make the ending one of a Changed Attitude for All Time.)
I could never quite wrap my head around the olive branch mode of forgiveness. And I still quite cannot. What did it feel like walking away from that office after delivering the flowers? Did the Officer’s Wife feel victorious—as if she had given a sort of “backhanded” forgiveness that was really a knife in the back? Did she feel back in control, having regained had the last word in a situation that had so completely spiraled off kilter? Did she feel superior, as if she had managed to take the High Road, leaving the Gatekeeper wallowing in the gutter below? Did she feel some sort of spiritual peace that comes about through real forgiveness? Did she just feel foolish for having spent $20 at the PX for some flowers for a non-deserving witch who had humiliated her?
I don’t know. I do know that this story became somewhat legendary on base for the remaining years I was there (and probably long afterward). I, myself, still think of it often. I know that I would not have done the same thing. Actually, I know that I did not do anything similar on the more than one occasion when I was on the business end of the Gatekeeper’s wrath. Instead, I consoled myself with fantasies of revenge featuring her gruesome demise from rogue staplers, crazed paper clips, and poison permanent markers.
Apparently I am not yet evolved enough to attempt this kind of forgiveness on a massive scale.