When I sat down to write a column about the “Amish Bernie Madoff” and his religious community’s willingness to forgive him, I knew I must start with the following disclaimer:
I am not the forgiving sort.
If you’re unfamiliar with the case of Monroe Beachy, you may want to read the N.Y. Times piece on how he allegedly bilked his neighbors and friends in a $16 million Ponzi scheme. But pay attention, as the Times reporter did, to what makes this case different from Madoff’s. In Beachy’s case the Amish are emphasizing forgiveness over the recovery of their funds, expressing a wish that whatever money that can be recovered “be given to those in greater need,” and refusing to shun Beachy’s family.
Such a generous, beautiful, loving response moves me greatly. It also embarrasses me to no end. It holds a mirror before me. And my reflection is not flattering.
Hitting close to home
Because I choose to live in lower Manhattan, I tend not to run into a lot of forgiving people. In my neighborhood it’s not uncommon to see people sneer, hear them curse, watch them lash out at each other over the slightest of provocations. And because I live in lower Manhattan, I’m also surrounded by the people who are, perhaps, most in need of the exact sort of forgiveness the Amish have given to Beachy — the extraordinarily wealthy denizens of Wall Street who have wreaked havoc on our financial lives.
More to the point, some of those extraordinarily wealthy people are at the center of my life. They are my neighbors. Many of them are my friends. Their children play with my child. They eat where I eat, shop where I shop. I ride elevators with them, exercise with them, chat and joke and small talk with them.
Yet I struggle to forgive them.
It is extraordinarily easy to look at the wealthy and see them as “other.” I do that. Perhaps you do it too. It’s also, if you spend any time around them, easy to see Wall Streeters as “just like everybody else.” I do that. Perhaps you do too.
But it is extraordinarily hard — at least for me — to see that the most repulsive things about them are also the most repulsive things about me.
Greed, entitlement, ego — these are the themes of Beachy’s Ponzi scheme and of Wall Street’s excesses. They are also the themes of lobbyists and government, of credit-card debt, of every sub-prime mortgage sold by a predator and signed by by someone who couldn’t afford it. These themes are common and familiar, a part of life. For greed, entitlement and ego are simply the dark sides of things we cherish: ambition, justice and pride.
It’s surprisingly easy to see the dark themes in others, and hard to see them in ourselves. I can, and sometimes do, look at a super-rich man and see evil. But it can be hard for me to accept that such a man sees his millions of dollars as the logical and just consequence of ambition and a steadfast refusal to lose.
The reverse is also true. I’m capable of shopping for organic produce at Whole Foods and feeling quite good about my eating habits. But it borders on the impossible for me to recognize that in one of this planet’s many hellholes there’s a mother who would see me as a greed-driven monster who consumes the food her starving baby cries for in vain.
As we forgive those …
Which brings us back to the Amish of Sugarcreek, Ohio. They, it seems, are able to see that Beachy’s flaws are theirs as well.
It’s easy to write off this ability to forgive as an Amish quirk, like buggies and bonnets. It’s simple to dismiss the Amish as either naive or holy. But that cheapens their accomplishment. The capacity to forgive is not born of the ability to see. Rather, by forgiving, we are made to see. The Amish know that by doing the extraordinarily hard work of forgiveness, they are rewarded with insight.
I know, too, that the same reward is offered to me, if I could find it in myself to forgive. But nothing is harder. Nothing.
Because I don’t want to know what I already sense: I’m the same as the most offensive and hideous man on Wall Street — not because we live in the same neighborhood and go to the same parks with our children — but because we are both loathsome at the core.