I tried to…unravel the distortions, have her right mind restored to her. She said it was impossible, that it was perilous to focus on good things when there were bad things, all these bad things, she said, that could not be forgot. She said old dark things as well as new dark things had to be remembered, had to be acknowledged because otherwise everything that had gone before would have been in vain… [The bad things] were not to be let go of, otherwise that would mean forgiveness could get in by the back door.

What I really love about this passage from Anna Burns’ Milkman is that it’s not about forgiveness per se but about the difficulty of forgiveness, why anyone might fairly hold out against it. Burns captures the subtle, tender feeling of danger in the very idea of it.

At this point in the novel, we learn of a suffering girl — known only as “tablets girl” — who drops poison tablets into strangers’ drinks as the result of an agonizing personality disorder. Haunted by past traumas, tablets girl is convinced that she must dwell on the “dark things,” because if she were to focus too devotedly on good things, the suffering of those dark things would be “in vain.”

This passage nods slyly at a wider social context. Milkman takes place during the Northern Ireland conflict, which Burns refers to as “the era of not letting bygones be bygones.” She never speaks explicitly of the Troubles, choosing instead to write more vaguely of “the political problems” — seemingly inviting comparison to other contexts, like our own. After all, resentment and retribution occupy no small part of the popular imagination. What someone once did must not be forgotten but held up to the light for judgment by the masses. We hold tight to the “bad things” as if it might really quench our thirst to do so, as if we might somehow find the justice that couldn’t be found before.

But there’s a plainly personal side to the passage as well. As many will know, it is difficult if not impossible to let go of some interpersonal beef, some grudge. Even a small experience that colored an impression of some person some time ago can be hard to look past. As Frederick Buechner says, “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past…it is a feast fit for a king” (h/t EKR in the Forgiveness Issue). There’s refuge to be found not only in righteousness but self-defense, too, or maybe that’s all the same.

Burns’ words here are telling. Here, she writes not of pleasure or fun but of “peril”. A danger is welcomed by — not even forgiveness — but merely letting go of the bad things and looking toward the good. The danger is, forgiveness might sneak in by the back door. No doubt, this is a risk. That things might possibly work out would mean moving away from the excruciating pain once suffered, and the singular loneliness of it. When we feel a particular pain, so often we feel it alone and become protective of it as a means of letting others know it’s real. Burns describes the experience this way, speaking again of tablets girl’s fear: “…if she were to focus only on shiny aspects, then everyone would think there were no other aspects. They’d forget… Consider everything fine and they’d leave her the only one remembering.”

Tablets girl’s sister’s response to all of this is, “Focus on the good.” This tack calls to mind a number of things, first and most obviously, the unsolicited optimism I’m sure we’ve all faced at least once, probably by a well-meaning person, when we were smack in the middle of a nice long vent and our confidante said the very same thing. “Just focus on the good.” The effect was probably the opposite of whatever was intended. With this kind of advice, if it doesn’t backfire it’s likely just annoying. Tablets girl’s sister admits, “I blundered in my words.”

At the same time, though, I am also reminded of the famous verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (4:8 NRSV)

I haven’t thought too hard about this verse since that day I saw it on a rustic plaque at Target for $30. I sort of thought, maybe I’m better than this particular piece of advice. I also thought, isn’t this the way to denial? How, in thinking all about good things, do you not suppress the bad? I thought, no thanks, I’d rather think about un-excellent things, about suffering, hardship, you know, real life. On the one hand, that’s a useful trick, because it does permit a certain engagement with a deeper level of emotion. It does kindle an empathy for someone in a tough spot — oneself included.

On the other hand, which of us can handle all of the bad things? I believe Someone did, once. But not me. Recently my wife and I were jonesing for a documentary, something educational, but as we scrolled through our options and became aware that the only documentary that didn’t seem super depressing was about yet another diet that we needed to know about, she said, “Maybe a rom com?” I guess it had just been that kind of week.

As someone who has spent a fair share of time thinking about the bad things, I can safely say Philippians 4:8 is pretty good advice, if only you can take it. Many times, though, like tablets girl, we can’t take it; many times “focus on the good” feels like a poison tablet in itself. Tablets girl, Burns reveals, is “entrapped.” Likewise, in the equation of “letting go and letting God,” it is often impossible to “let God” — but that’s not to say we shouldn’t. That’s not to say grudges are good, or that wrath isn’t one of [only] 7 deadly sins. Though Beuchner likens anger to “a feast,” he also says, “The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.” The notable tragedy of the tablets girl is that her obsession with the bad things ultimately destroys her. In vengeance, she poisons one person too many and is herself attacked. It seems she was safe from her enemy, forgiveness.

Paul’s advice in 4:8 is not intended to suggest that believing Christians should never be sad. It’s only to say that good gifts are given to be enjoyed. Before all of this, he writes first about the cross. In a section traditionally titled “Breaking with the Past,” he says, “I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ” (3:8-9). By the cross, our righteousness is not based on merit or how much we suffered, but on how much God suffered for us. Even on the days we’d prefer it not to be so, the forgiveness of God has snuck in through the back. Finally, beloved…

Among we the people — down here on the ground — this is a hard principle to apply. On the best of days, you might pray something like, “Dear God, forgive me that I haven’t forgiven this person already.” Sometimes it’s hard to identify exactly how such forgiveness works, and what makes it real one day to the next, when often what looks like forgiveness is, practically speaking, a mere pretense to everyone’s benefit, a moving on. A focusing on the good things, in other words. Tablets girl is in such pain she can’t even do that much; even the idea of positivity threatens her sense of safety. So one might infer that sometimes focusing on the good could be the most one can do. A little denial, then, might offer a nice respite now and again.

Maybe then, just as tablets girl fears, forgiveness will sneak in by the back door. Maybe that’s how it has to be. Not that we should go dizzy trying to organize some great reconciliation, but that in a moment of diversion, when we’re distracted with some shiny thing, a reconciliation might approach quietly and tap us on the shoulder. Sometimes we try to force it to do as we wish and all that comes is disdain, further resentment. Perhaps forgiveness may come when you’re otherwise occupied, in through the back of the house. You don’t even notice it has entered but for the light clatter of the screen door. You turn and are surprised to see: she is there.

As a post-script, some vague version of the above plays out in this clip, the grand finale of Derry Girls (which incidentally also takes place during the Troubles). The scene still leaves me in tears.