Þórdís Elva premieres Forgiveness Inc.
In a TV ad that did the rounds on the usual social networking sites in early January, Forgiveness Inc. promised its would-be clients a clean conscience and a bright future. The ad sparked heated debates about the company’s authenticity and the services it provided, but perhaps more to the liking of playwright and author Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir—one of the people behind said ad—it initiated interesting conversations about forgiveness and the morality of selling it.
“It’s got a perilous yet interesting moral angle, but the truth is we started mass-producing and selling emotions such as remorse, forgiveness and sincerity a long time ago,” she says. “Public relations gurus are hired to handle the pleas of forgiveness for people in the public eye. The client is advised on what to wear, what to say and what tone of voice to take and so on. Just look at examples such as Tiger Woods publicly asking his wife to forgive him for his string of affairs. It was public! It created work for thousands of people all over the world.”
I Call Hoax!
Perhaps close to reality, but apparently not there yet. Forgiveness Inc’s terribly cheesy American-cable-TV-in-the-‘90s- inspired ad did in fact turn out to be a PR stunt for a play Þórdís wrote and directs. which is premiering at Tjarnarbíó on the 14th of February.
Since the cat came out of the bag, the “company’s” Facebook page has been regularly updated with tongue-in-cheek news about their work. For instance, they have posted about providing private therapy for musician Mugison, who felt snubbed by the State-run ‘Listamannalaun’ (“artist pay”) committee. They have also offered politicians a discount on their services, as Forgiveness Inc. considers them high-risk individuals in constant need of reconciliation.
“We wanted to keep the conversation going, partly for fun but also to try and start a debate about whether or not forgiveness can be bought and sold, and if so, how?” Þórdís says. “I’ve never been interested in writing anything, be it books or plays, without trying to start some sort of a conversation with my contemporaries and that obviously doesn’t take place solely within the walls of the theatre. We therefore built a play around the play to get people to explore the concept of forgiveness and what value it has in their lives. Besides, it’s so easy to poke fun at human interaction when it goes wrong. We’re clumsy when we’re vulnerable and we’re certainly vulnerable when asking for forgiveness.”
Þórdís says the goal is also to provide some social criticism, as Icelanders have never been a particularly placable nation. The Sagas, she points out, have taught us that the Icelandic settlers frequently chose to go on killing each other rather than turning the other cheek, and despite vengeful murder rampages having mostly disappeared from our shores, she thinks Icelanders still struggle with forgiveness.
“In fact, I think it’s a characteristic of ours, particularly when it comes to people in positions of power. Politicians and other people of prominence repeatedly try to avoid taking responsibility for their mistakes and blunders,” she says. “The discourse is fascinating. It’s full of uncertainty and indecisive words such as ‘if.’ ‘If’ I have done something wrong… ‘If’ I have let anyone down… then I apologise. It’s very rare to hear anybody actually admit to any wrongdoing. This doesn’t seem to be the case in the countries around us, where it’s not uncommon that when someone makes even the most miniscule of blunders, his or her three closest superiors resign.”
How, What, Who, When?
Þórdís got the idea for the play after the financial crash in 2008. “The society was wrought with anger and nobody seemed to be able to take responsibility or apologise,” she says. “I was also writing my book “Á Mannamáli” (“In Layman’s Terms”) at the time, and in my interviews with victims of sexual violence and the professionals that work with them, forgiveness was often mentioned as the only way out. Therefore, it felt to me that forgiveness, or the lack of it, was all around. I couldn’t help exploring the concept a bit further.”
Besides, it’s so easy to poke fun at human interaction when it goes wrong. We’re clumsy when we’re vulnerable and we’re certainly vulnerable when asking for forgiveness.
The research that Þórdís and actors Víðir Guðmundsson, Árni Pétur Guðjónsson, Ragnheiður Steindórsdóttir and Aðalbjörg Árnadóttir (later replaced by Þóra Karítas Árnadóttir) conducted, which would eventually became Forgiveness Inc., mostly took place over a month in the winter of 2011.
“I had done a lot of groundwork as the idea had been brewing for a couple of years, but when it came to working on the material with the group we did so in a very structured and methodological manner,” she explains. “We divided our time into exploring four different aspects of forgiveness we had identified. We explored how people forgive, what they forgive, who they forgive, and lastly when they forgive. We conducted over 70 interviews with people from all walks of life, grandparents and parents, children and teenagers, priests and addicts and so on.”
Self-gratification Or Self-Sacrifice?
One of the major eye-openers the group encountered came from an interview with an 84-year-old woman who told them that people only forgive if they absolutely have to. “The comment struck us, as it was so far removed from our rose-tinted ideas about the Good Samaritan. We all had some very romantic ideas about forgiveness when we started the process, but as we delved further into the research we started to realise that forgiveness is actually a very practical process and we often forgive in self-interest,” she elaborates.
“It’s like Mandela famously said, ‘Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies’. I’m not saying this is the universal truth but forgiveness seems to be less about self-sacrifice and more about self-interests. It´s basically the opposite of what we had led ourselves to believe.”
This new theory was given further weight by a 4-year-old interviewee. “When we asked her if she knew what forgiveness was she said ‘yes, it’s here’ and pointed at her chest. When asked to elaborate she said ‘your heart gets so warm when you forgive.’”
Whether interviewees agreed on the self-gratification of forgiveness or not, there was another matter that proved even more contentious. Exploring the possibility of something being unforgivable or not caused all sorts of problems for interviewees. “Basically, most people were certain that some actions are unforgivable, but when asked to elaborate on their answers they became considerably vaguer,” she says.
“My understanding is that people are more willing to consider actions unforgivable when they’re not direct victims. Let’s say your friend got sexually assaulted. It can be absolutely unforgivable to you, but if you’re the victim, your view totally changes, as you’re the one who ultimately loses. If you think of something as absolutely unforgivable it denies you the possibility of ever letting go. Essentially, the right to forgive or not lies with the person who’s been betrayed or violated.”
Þórdís leaves me with a direct quote from what I had assumed was a completely satirical ad campaign. “Forgiveness is the glue in human relations,” she says. “Without it we must become stagnant and isolated.” It turns out that despite the people behind the ad campaign having their tongue firmly stuck to the inside of their cheek, there is actually a lot of believable aspects to their otherwise ridiculous ad.
“I find the idea of Catholic indulgence not only interesting but also relevant these days,” she says. “Indulgence is back in full force. What we see in public apologies is nothing but modern indulgence. It’s neither sincere nor personal.” Perhaps we’re closer to something like Forgiveness Inc. than we care to admit.
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