Theodore Dalrymple

Second Opinion | 4 December 2004

The difficult business of forgiveness

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Occasionally I walk home from the prison. Usually I take a taxi. Very rarely indeed do I drive; I don’t much care for parking within a mile radius of an establishment from which car thieves are released daily.

I turned on the wireless and an unctuously sermonising Church of England voice emerged. ‘We pray for our world,’ it said, ‘especially those parts of it afflicted with violence.’ I thought for a moment that he was referring to the bed-sits and housing estates near my home, as well as the casualty department of my hospital. But he wasn’t, of course.

‘We pray for the Middle East. We pray for the hostages, and for the hostage-takers.’ I turned off the wireless with a gesture of disgust; you speak for yourself, I thought. Then I made up a little prayer of my own as I drove over the speed-bumps that make kerb-crawlers of us all.

‘We pray for the burgled and the burglars. We pray for the mugged and the muggers. We pray for the safe-deposit box holder and the safe-breakers. We pray for the blackmailed and the blackmailers. We pray for the beaten wife and the wife-beaters. We pray for the murdered and the murderers.’ In fact, we pray for just about everyone, the taxpayer and the tax-collector, the wall-cleaner and the graffiti-artist, the house seller and the estate agent, the debtor and the loan shark. ‘Blessed are the vandals, for they shall inherit the telephone booths.’

Of course, I try to take the larger, all-compassionate view, to be as forgiving as the man who murdered his girlfriend and said, ‘I’ve made amends, I don’t hate her no more,’ but try as I might, my prejudices keep breaking through .

I’m often surprised at, and moved by, the forgiving nature of the British population. They are willing to forgive themselves anything. For example, there was the prisoner who broke his wife’s cheekbone.

‘Because of her hare-brained ideas, doctor, she had me arrested. But I’ll still go back to her when this is all over, I mean what can I do, I still love the woman. I forgive her, doctor.’

I asked him why he’d broken his wife’s cheekbone.

‘It was all madness, really.’

‘What was all madness?’

‘Our relationship.’

‘In what sense?’

‘It was on-off, on-off all the time.’

‘You mean, like a Belisha beacon?’

Alas, he had not heard of Belisha beacons.

‘Like one of those orange lights that flashes at a zebra-crossing,’ I explained.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I never use them. I never go nowhere, doctor, so I haven’t noticed.’

‘You never go anywhere?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘I’m clausterphobic.’

‘What are you in prison for, then?’

‘A few burgs, nothing much.’

‘You don’t go far to burgle, then?’

‘No, mostly in my own street.’

In fact, he had just been found guilty of burgling his best friend’s house.

‘Why did you do it?’

‘I’d had too much to drink.’

‘And he caught you?’

‘Yes. I’d had a skinful.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He called the cops on me, but I’ve forgiven him, like. We’re still the best of mates.’