Forgiveness as a secular value: What can we learn from the debate about student loans?

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Resentment and anger fuel much of our public discourse. There is not much room for values like compassion and forgiveness. So, President Biden’s loan forgiveness plan comes as a surprise.

To some, it is even an insult. Senator Mitch McConnel said “Democrats’ student loan socialism is a slap in the face to working Americans who sacrificed to pay their debt or made different career choices to avoid debt.”

Senator Ted Cruz called it a “gut punch” to hard-working Americans.

These metaphors indicate a visceral reaction to the idea of forgiving a loan. The very idea is an outrage. And politicians are clever at cultivating outrage.

Choosing vicarious gladness

But do we have to feel resentment? I don’t think so.

I felt outraged at the idea of loan forgiveness myself, for a moment. I paid for my kids’ college without taking out loans. I wish I had a $10,000 bailout coming my way. But then I took a breath and asked myself why I should be angry that other people are going to benefit. It doesn’t seem fair. But so what? Life is not fair. And that’s why we need compassion, even toward ourselves.

Indeed, it’s better to feel glad for other people’s good luck, than to resent them for it. We do have a choice, after all, in how we respond to insults and slaps in the face. Resentment is natural. But it doesn’t increase happiness. Brooding over injustice only breeds discontent.  It’s much better to cultivate what we might call “vicarious gladness.”

If you resent other people’s good fortune, you’ll have lots to be angry about. But if you find a way to enjoy other people’s gladness, you can find a lot to be happy about.

Unfortunately, we are often conditioned to resent other people’s good fortune. This is the grumpy mean-spiritedness of cut-throat competition. In the world of zero-sum games, the other guy’s good luck comes at my expense.

But life is not a zero-sum game. Other people’s happiness can spread to me—if I let it in.

The wisdom of turning the cheek

This kind of thing is taught by the world’s wisdom traditions. Jesus encouraged his followers to overcome resentment. When slapped in the face, Jesus recommended turning the other cheek. He encouraged his followers to cultivate tolerance and acceptance. This is good advice, even for secular folks like myself, who don’t think that Jesus was a miracle worker.

And the advice is common. Socrates advocated something similar. He said it’s wrong to return evil for evil. Other ancient Greek and Roman philosophers generally warned that anger undermines good judgment and leads us astray. Seneca described anger as misery that enslaves. He compared resentment to what happens when an animal gets its neck caught in a trap. In thrashing about in rage, the animal only tightens the noose.

It would be much better to learn to absorb life’s blows and overcome anger. As Marcus Aurelius warned, anger and vexation about an injury often cause more harm than the injury itself. There is wisdom in learning to accept and forgive. And you don’t need to be a Christian to think so.

The problem and the possibility of secular forgiveness

Jesus also taught his followers to forgive so that they might be forgiven. In the background of Christian forgiveness, there is a complicated story about original sin and the need for atonement.

But we can embrace the wisdom of forgiveness without all of that metaphysical baggage.

Secular philosophers have often neglected the idea of forgiveness. Some even argue that it is unjust to forgive because justice seems to require punishment and retribution.

Secular systems of justice typically rely upon a calculation of harm, punishment, and reparation. You may want to forgive someone who harms you. But the cops, the courts, the banks, and the insurance companies are not in the business of forgiveness. Nonetheless, forgiveness could be a useful value in the secular world. It allows us to acknowledge harm and wrongdoing while helping us move forward.

Biden’s loan forgiveness plan may seem like a slap in the face because, in our secular world, we have not made room for forgiveness. The worker bees in our society are supposed to follow the rules. We’ve been trained in the discipline of accountability, liability, and debt repayment. God may forgive your sins. But Uncle Sam and the bankers will get their pound of flesh. And the bees that don’t conform are driven out of the hive.

And yet, what if the world were different? It turns out that loans can be forgiven. Who knew this was even possible? This proposal opens the door to larger questions about our notions of liability and accountability. Maybe the world would be better off if there were more forgiveness and less resentment, more compassion, and less cut-throat competition.

The value of forgiveness, and the cost of resentment

That’s a dream, of course. This world still involves lots of anger and resentment, and politicians who stir the pot.

And nothing comes for free. Ted Cruz estimates that Biden’s loan forgiveness plan “will cost every taxpayer an average of $2,100.” He makes this point in an effort to incite more outrage. But we spend taxpayer dollars on lots of stuff that not everyone agrees with. According to one recent estimate, the U.S. military costs the average taxpayer about $2,000 per year.

With these nearly equivalent numbers on the table, it’s worth reflecting on what we value. Would you rather bail out people trying to get an education or support the military? Or both? Or neither?

It may seem odd to think that we have any choice in the matter. But if loans can be forgiven, maybe we could think differently about a lot of stuff.

This is a good time to think about the kind of society we want to live in—and the kind of people we want to be. How important is forgiveness in the secular world? What is the cost of resentment? And is it possible to imagine a world that is more compassionate and less angry?

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