I woke up puzzling over Lord Longford--or at least Lord Longford as he was presented in the BBC television drama "Longford," which we had previously recorded and got around to watching last night. Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, who died in 2001, had clearly been a figure of considerable respect, as well as widespread contempt and ridicule during his life. He was a crusader, a modern-day Quixote. Mocked in Britain as "Lord Porn" for his anti-pornography activism, he also incurred the wrath of the British public for his three-decade long attempt to help the despised "Moors Murder" villainess Myra Hindley in her battle for parole.
Wild-haired, gawky, and with a perpetually bewildered gaze, he managed to look the goofy character his detractors so easily maligned.
On the one hand, it's tempting to see the good earl in the venerable, if slightly wacky tradition of upper class British eccentrics, who are rewarded with nothing but mockery and condescension from the ordinary folk for their untiring efforts to compensate for inherited privilege with their pure thoughts, words and deeds. Count Prince Charles as prominent amongst them, for his undeservedly unkind image as a daft tree-hugger and generally nutty greenman. It's as though these superannuated aristocrats are trying to shake off centuries of guilt with single-minded dedication to redemption. They cling obstinately to a sense of duty for which others only censure them, and shoulder more than their fair share of suffering.
On the other hand, the good they try to do is undoubtedly good. To historian observers in the future, I have no doubt that Prince Charles will look like a truly enlightened pioneer in his personal obsession with organic gardening and agriculture. More power to him. As for Longford, his devotion to the unpopular cause of visiting even the worst of incarcerated criminals and his belief in the possibility of their rehabilitation are surely as noble as his family titles. Still, at least in this televised dramatisation of his life, he also comes across as naive and a shade overly pious in his determination to forgive.
It may be that Longford's obsession with forgiveness was rooted in his own need to be forgiven, as I have suggested. It was certainly deeply rooted in his embrace of Roman Catholicism, to which he converted as a younger man--though this might well be a chicken and egg effect. Which comes first, the man's obsessive need to be forgiven or the church's dark appeal in its own obsession with sin, guilt, confession, and redemption? The model of Christ as the forgiver-in-chief (apologies to my former nemesis, Bush!) seems to be what drives this character and his actions beyond the pale of reason and into a place where he is easily betrayed and made to look like a patsy and a fool. (Among the best scenes are those where Longford encounters the satanic Ian Brady, Hindley's partner in the child sex-and-murder crimes, who acts as the Devil's foil to the self-doubting saint in Longford. The whole thing, be it added, is superbly acted.)
All of which had me mulling the differences between Christian and Buddhist attitudes toward forgiveness. I remembered that Than Geoff had spoken on the subject but had forgotten exactly what he had to say, so I checked on the Access to Insight website to remind myself. Amongst other things, he wrote that "the Pali word for forgiveness-khama-also means 'the earth.' A mind like the earth is non-reactive and unperturbed. When you forgive me for harming you, you decide not to retaliate, to seek no revenge. You don't have to like me. You simply unburden yourself of the weight of resentment and cut the cycle of retribution that would otherwise keep us ensnarled in an ugly samsaric wrestling match. This is a gift you can give us both, totally on your own, without my having to know or understand what you've done." This squares, I think, with Longford's generous ability to eschew vengeful thoughts or intentions, to his own benefit as well as to that of the one at the receiving end of his forgiveness: it's the basic Buddhist principle, to avoid harm to both oneself and others.
What has me wondering is whether Longford's (guilt-ridden?) forgiveness is not too readily given, and does not too easily pass over responsibility for actions that were criminally brutal. Than Geoff makes a clear distinction between forgiveness--a simple, one-sided, and compassionate act; and reconciliation, which must be earned by the re-establishment of trust, beginning with the transgressor's recognition and acknowledgment of the transgression. As this drama shows it, Longford's trust is given too easily: he fails to recognize the falsity of Hindley's "confession," and in this way becomes a partner in her deception. As Than Geoff has memorably noted, "Buddhism does not require you to be a doormat"--a word which rather aptly describes the way in which Longford, in his eagerness to forgive, allows himself to be treated by Hindley, at great cost to his personal reputation. One can exercise forgiving compassion without being duped.
Food for thought: as an epigraph to his essay on forgiveness, Than Geoff invokes the wisdom of the Buddha.
"These two are fools. Which two? The one who doesn't see his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who doesn't rightfully pardon another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are fools.
"These two are wise. Which two? The one who sees his/her transgression as a transgression, and the one who rightfully pardons another who has confessed his/her transgression. These two are wise."