During the holidays I read Julian Barnes’ Booker prize winning novel The sense of an ending. It’s a good read.
The novel is short and offers the first-person reflections of an English guy, Tony, in his 60s: in a sense, all very ordinary. The focus of the story is on the relationships formed at school and university, then work— none of which have ‘survived’; a marriage that ended, but he still has continuous contact with his ex and their daughter; and the regrets relating to one specific friendship, a guy who married the girl Tony really wanted, but the guy suicided early in their married life.
There are many twists and turns to the story, but one constant theme is remorse.
Tony does regret many things in his life, and the way he treated the people he most loved. And yet he does not see how things might have been otherwise. He is more or less content. Nothing worries him very much; and yet he is somehow deeply unsure of the moral worth and meaning of his life.
One theme in his reflections is the question of whether remorse can ever really turn to repentance and forgiveness. What really does that mean?
Barnes’ title is interesting: ‘the sense of an ending’. Can matters of regret or remorse even finally come to a conclusion, and be dealt with, resolved, ended?
My sense is that for many of us, remorse and regret is about as far as it goes.
Sometimes remorse turns to self-blame, and that can quickly lead to resentment, either directed towards oneself (and depression follows, often) or resentment, frustration and bitterness towards others. I think this is a huge and growing issue in Western societies, as evidenced in riots, gratuitous violence and property crime such as graffiti. All too often, these regrets and resentments are difficult to name. Maybe the initial matters are even lost to us, but we still feel these emotions. Sometimes these are not individual matters, they are a kind of collective concern, even though we may not know what it is about.
I think this is surely a major issue in Australia, in our relations with indigenous people, with the land, and with asylum seekers.
The Christian Gospel speaks of a God who forgives and invites us also to forgive: to forgive ourselves and each other. It’s about the transformation of regret and remorse, into new beginnings.
The way to forgiveness is not easy, however. For God to come to forgiveness involved and involves a continuous journey: meeting with us, relating to us, and suffering for us. In Jesus Christ, God suffers our rejection, denial and abuse. But God transforms all that we do in our denial, frustration and regret into new opportunities: there is indeed an ‘ending’, but that ending is also a new beginning.
For God, this is continuously how things are: and we are invited into this dynamic of ‘ending’ and beginning again.
Remorse is never completely removed. There are hurts and there are wounds. But even they can be transformed into new ways of valuing life and love. That is the wonder of forgiveness. It gives more and more, into the mystery of life. It begins with facing the truth. It is called ‘confession’. And from that comes both the sense of an ending and a beginning.