There’s a lovely novel by Nicole Krauss called The History of Love. The main character is the author of his own book by the same title, and in it he writes a chapter called, “The Age of Silence”:
“The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists…
“Naturally, there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one’s lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realize I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen…people were used to interrupting each other to ask if they’d understood correctly.
“Sometimes these misunderstandings were even desirable, since they gave people a reason to say, Forgive me, I was only scratching my nose. Of course I know I’ve always been right to love you. Because of the frequency of these mistakes, over time the gesture for asking forgiveness evolved into the simplest form. Just to open your palm was to say: Forgive me.”
I love the language and imagery of this passage, and these imagined ancestors of ours, so wise in the ways of human error that their most common phrase, held in the simplest gesture, was Forgive me. The hand is open, not in asking for the best piece of fruit or that rope over there or some money, please, but for something so much more essential to these lives we weave together: Forgive me.
I have no idea how we would figure out the most common phrase in our own language, or what it would turn out to be. But I fear it would be something much more along the lines of, “that’s mine!”, or “I want”, or “my turn!”.
It makes me wonder what our lives might be like if we lived like those fictional ancestors: so alert to missteps, so aware of the constancy of getting things wrong, that our simplest gesture was designed to mend, to heal, to restore. Embedded in our language and woven through every exchange would be the thought, the possibility, that we might need to begin again so we could get it right.
I remember very clearly the television interview with President Bush during the last election season when he was asked what he considered his most serious mistake thus far in his presidency. He was unable to answer the question. After pausing for a few seconds of apparent reflection he said, astonishingly, that he could not think of any mistakes he had made.
It would be easy to simply add this episode to the long list of reasons people ridicule President Bush. But it points to a much larger issue that involves not one president’s errors, however grievous, but our own collective attitude reflected in each leader, each government we have had. Our nation has gotten many things right in its history, and we proudly own and proclaim those good things. We have also caused great harm in the world, and never once has a president of our nation had the courage or grace to say so: to speak from humility rather than pride and, on behalf of us all, extend that open palm: Forgive us. We were wrong.
Imagine such a thing concerning the war in Iraq: not just the language of victory or defeat, but of error admitted, repentance engaged, forgiveness asked and reparations begun. I hope I live long enough to see it happen.