Mark Wahlberg's Redemption?
Forgiveness is one of the most important and overlooked moral concepts we have. Let's take the occasion of actor Mark Wahlberg's plea for a pardon.
Some background: when he was a teenager growing up in the Boston area, Wahlberg attacked two Vietnamese men -- Thanh Lam and Hoa Trinh -- in separate incidents on the same day. Trinh lost sight in one eye as a result. Wahlberg laced his attacks with anti-Vietnamese slurs. He was convicted of assault, and eventually served 45 days in prison.
Recently, Wahlberg applied to the Massachusetts governor's office for pardon. He argued:
I am deeply sorry for the actions that I took on the night of April 8, 1988, as well as for any lasting damage I may have caused the victims. Since that time, I have dedicated myself to becoming a better person and citizen so that I can be a role model to my children and others...my prior record can potentially be the bases to deny me a concessionaire's license in California and elsewhere...an important consideration given my personal involvement in various restaurant ventures...receiving a pardon would be a formal recognition that someone like me can receive official public redemption if he devotes himself to personal improvement and a life of good works.
Broadly speaking, when we harm or mistreat someone else, we earn forgiveness by admitting what we did, apologizing for it, reversing the harm, and then changing our character so we don't commit the same harm again. "Personal improvement and good works" are just parts of that process.
Wahlberg makes no mention of undoing (or at least outweighing) the suffering he caused Lam and Trinh. In fact, Wahlberg rejected the idea of compensating the victims of his violence in a 2006 interview with ABC News:
"I certainly paid for my mistakes...You have to go and ask for forgiveness and it wasn't until I really started doing good and doing right, by other people as well as myself, that I really started to feel that guilt go away."
It's almost as if Wahlberg sees his crimes and his redemption as two unrelated incidents, which is horribly misguided. If you spill coffee, you don't get forgiveness from a vending machine at the other end of the building; you get forgiveness by cleaning up the mess where you made it.
The point is that the path to forgiveness has a past-regarding component and a future-regarding component. You earn forgiveness by fixing the harm you caused in the past and by remaking yourself into someone who doesn't repeat the offense in the future. Wahlberg has, by all accounts, succeeded on the latter component, but failed on the former.
Granted, Wahlberg has said he's sorry, but the apology component of redemption is easily overstated. The words "I'm sorry" aren't magic, they don't turn lead into gold. You only turn lead into gold by using your own cash to buy gold and then putting it in place of the lead you inflicted on others.
In what sense has Wahlberg "paid for his mistakes" so long as Lam and Trinh are still also paying for those mistakes? It seems as if Wahlberg is only thinking of the price he's paid personally in the form of jail time and a stifling felony record. It all comes across as being incredibly ungrateful. Most people with assault convictions prior to reaching their 18th birthday have a very solid ceiling on how far they can go in life. Wahlberg has had more success than most people without so much as a parking ticket could hope for. Living well is supposed to be the best revenge for the victim, not the perpetrator.
Whatever comes of Wahlberg's plea for pardon, I hope we can at least use it as an opportunity to better understand the nature of forgiveness.
Humans are capable of harming and being harmed in any number of ways, physical and intangible. Treating others with respect doesn't always come naturally. We learn by doing, and we learn how to live together by living together, which frequently means failing first and then fixing afterwards.
Forgiveness is the avenue by which we can fail in our attempts to treat others with respect without having those failures be irrevocable. That's what makes it perhaps the most important moral activity we have.