I finally sat down with some friends last night to watch some award-winning downers. We settled in for a double feature of "12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club." I had wanted to see both in theaters, but against the field of amazing choices this year, they ended up in the "I'll catch it on DVD" category. Don't get me wrong, both films were excellent. I was moved by both stories, and could easily write on the major themes and cultural significance of both; I probably will at some point. But what stuck with me on the ride home, the scene I kept turning over in my mind until I fell asleep, is what I'd like to get into here. Some people might feel the need to warn of exposed plot points, but "12 Years a Slave" has been out for seven months and its source material has been out for 161 years, so, you know…deal with it.
When Solomon Northup returns to his family after having been kidnapped and sold into slavery despite his freed status, what unravels is one of the best and most complicated scenes I've ever watched. Standing before his wife, hair graying as his own, and his children, standing tall and grown, his daughter now married and her husband standing with their new child in his arms, Solomon apologizes. He apologizes. "I apologize," he stammers, "for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years." As his family embraces him, he weeps and whispers to his wife "Forgive me." Anne comforts him, holds him, tells him "There's nothing to forgive." And, from an outsider's view, she's right. He was a victim of an evil system, of a great injustice to him personally and to an entire race of people. The law did not serve him, humanity failed him, and he was forced into circumstances and actions which rendered impotent his morals and choices. He did the best he could in an effort to survive in hopes that he might live. He says as much in the film. So there really is nothing to forgive, right?
Unfortunately, that's not how guilt and forgiveness work. Guilt is messy and irrational. While we may wish to comfort Solomon with those same words, "there's nothing to forgive," that's just not the case. Solomon has a lot of forgiving to do when the scene fades to black and the credits roll. Solomon has to forgive himself. I had an interesting conversation with Logan recently about cycles of guilt, how guilt perpetuates guilt based on nothing even if the original guilt was based on something. Solomon will have a lot of guilt, and while his family and friends may never believe he needs forgiving, he'll crave an unspeakable amount of grace. He'll feel guilt for surviving when so many others did not, he'll feel guilt for missing the growth of his family, for being an absent (however unwilling) husband and father, for the moral callouses he had to develop in order to survive, for not doing more when those moral callouses were not enough. He will feel guilt. He's human. The film goes to great length to show us that Solomon is a good person, and good people do not take their failings lightly. Solomon will need to be forgiven, but not by anyone else. Solomon will have to learn the painful process of extending grace to himself and accepting it often.
In one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the movie, Solomon is forced by his cruel master, Edwin Epps, to whip Patsey, a fellow slave and, until this scene where she visited a neighbor to borrow a lump of soap, Epps' chosen mistress. Epps believes Patsey has visited the neighboring plantation to sleep with the master there, yet he is too cowardly to whip Patsey himself. Because Solomon is nearby, and because he has defended Patsey and himself from the master's rage in the past, Epps delegates the task. Solomon begins by whipping as half-heartedly as he can, trying to save the stripped-and-tied Patsey as much pain and anguish as possible. But Mrs. Epps, driven by her jealousy for her husband's favor for Patsey, demands the brutality increase. Mr. Epps forces Solomon to whip harder by threatening him with his gun, promising his death and the deaths of any other slave in sight. Solomon whips. He rends flesh and sprays blood. He refuses to continue after a few moments, then curses Epps as Epps continues to whip, harder and harder. As Patsey lies on a table afterward, her ragged back being gingerly cleaned by other slaves, her eyes meet Solomon's. What lies in his is guilt. Guilt for what he had done, and for what he had not done. We know that his mind is traveling back to the dark and hushed night months before when Patsey came to him and tried to pay him with a stolen ring for the courtesy of her death. Solomon rejected her request that he drown her and bury her to save her from her life. Solomon refused, and this was the result. This is added to the bedrock of guilt and shame, undeserved but festering and growing nonetheless.
We destroy ourselves with guilt. When Solomon is first sold along with a young mother named Eliza, her family is divided and she spends her time weeping and crying out for her lost children. Eventually, Solomon barks at her to "Stop! Stop your wailing!" and she chides him for his own lack of mourning, for his kowtowing to their master who, while benevolent, is still a slaver unwilling to correct the injustice done to Solomon. He rages toward her, grabbing her and spitting "My back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom. Do not accuse me." She replies through tears, "I accuse you of nothing. I cannot accuse. I have done dishonorable things to survive and for all of them I have ended up here; no better than if I had stood up for myself. God forgive me." This is the guilt that haunts Eliza, and it seems certain that Solomon will feel its sting, too. Solomon will need to grant himself grace if he truly wants to find the path beyond survival to living. We will not understand that grace, and he might never understand it or experience it fully. But it will have to apply, it will have to be freely given and freely taken from self to self every day. As the epilogue informs us, Solomon went on to fight his personal injustice in the courts, and the systemic injustice of slavery by aiding abolitionist efforts such as the Underground Railroad. These are markers on his path to self-healing. When we push to understand our sorrow, our sources of pain, we are working toward our atonement. The fact that no one of us would ever think of Solomon as needing atonement doesn't matter. He needed it for himself, and we need it for ourselves. Seeking to resolve our brokenness through self-forgiveness, daily acceptance of grace, and the physical rejection of our despair through acts of love make up the long road, countless years long, to getting it.