By MARIA SERMERSHEIM
Forgetfulness can be very hurtful. Failure to consider the disposition and needs of another person is a fatal snare laid widely by selfishness.
There are many offenses in this world, and the label that most easily and accurately falls upon most of these injuries is “injustice.” Fittingly, then, the 20th-century German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote that of the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance), justice is the dominant one in human interactions. The other virtues have more to do with perfecting oneself; justice more directly governs relationships. Pieper writes beautifully, as usual, of the demands and nature of justice; of true restitution; and of the infinite debt we justly owe to God, who justly owes nothing to us. This significant disparity between debtor and creditor will always exist between us and God, and Pieper contends that a disparity also will always exist in flux between every individual and their neighbor.
Examining these disparities in my own life, I realized that somehow, forgetfulness contributed to my sense of justice in relationships. I have seen, time and time again – sometimes as an observer and sometimes as an involved party – that some of the most difficult injustices to remedy are those inadvertent insults that occur when one fails to consider any number of factors in the other person’s life. But is forgetfulness an injustice? It is a funny thing, especially in minor matters, to accusingly point fingers and demand, “You should have thought of this! It was unjust of you to forget.” How can we attribute malice to an absence, an ill intent to a lack of intent altogether? We are finite beings. We cannot consider every factor at once, and we are not omniscient; so we are most certainly ignorant of many (possibly very important) factors. Are we to fault ourselves and each other for every pertinent detail that one does not know or forgets?
To some degree, we must hold ourselves to account for a lack of charity. According to St. Augustine, the classic definition of evil is the absence of the good; so my lack of attentiveness is, truly, a lack of love. Even as our Lord spoke these words of those who crucified him, he speaks them of us, and we must in turn speak them of others: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). We are finite, feeble, forgetful and faulty. We need forgiveness for all of our sins – those committed knowingly and unknowingly.
Failure to consider the other to an appropriate extent is not a malicious injustice, but it is an injustice nonetheless. It is one that, unfortunately, we are all doomed to participate in until this earthly finitude passes away. But this inevitability does not condemn us to indifference. Rather, the perpetual imbalance invites us to think always of the other, to cultivate the selflessness modeled by Christ for us. We can always love more and better, and we must bear with one another, following Christ further as he commands, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). When we are hurt by accidental injustices, we must lead with mercy and compassion for others and for ourselves, recognizing meekly our human finitude.
We are inevitably unjust at times because we cannot consider every factor at play in another person’s life. But the more we consider the needs of others, the less our selfishness blinds us to the demands of love. Such attentiveness will reveal more opportunities to love; and by God’s grace, we will miss fewer opportunities and love more consistently.