Unforgiveness [let’s talk about it]

Another title for this blog could be “Let’s talk about it – a way to foster forgiveness” but I didn’t think about it before publishing.

Recently, I came across a poem titled “A Poison Tree” written by William Blake, and I was both intrigued and amused by it.  It’s theme seemed worthwhile considering and I’m writing this little blog as a kind of thinking out loud – very casual, rendering of my thoughts.  I’m using the poem is a tool – not a perfect one – for my thought process about interpersonal dynamics that could lead to a spirit of unforgiveness.  Here’s the poem as written:

by William Blake

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

For me, this poem speaks clearly in how it captures the result of unforgiveness; the very real and sometimes not well attended to (on the conscious level) behaviours of our fallen human nature. Behaviours that feed what is essentially destructive to relationships between people that can lead to a sort of “death.”

Most of us will of course deny we wish to cause the death of anyone, as the poem portrays, even the death of an enemy. Yet for me, the first stanza declares where the problem starts, takes root and that there is a solution. But the choice made was according to the labels of Friend or Foe. No doubt, my view will be naïve, simple and lacking in a robust investigation of the how’s and why’s of getting into these fixes. But please do follow along if you don’t mind going down rabbit warrens…

We belong to all sorts of communities: family, school, church, work, to name a few. And so we live in relationship with other people in our various communities. And depending on how closely we interact find that disagreements and misunderstandings are simply a reality of life.  I would even venture to say that we try to avoid those things that separate or cause disharmony; yet it does happen. And depending on our emotional makeup will from time to time find ourselves either faced with, or harbouring strong/passionate feelings in need of reconciliation.

So, using the poem as my backdrop for how badly things can end when there is a lack of reconciliation,  I will ask some questions without getting too down in the weeds heavy.

Blake’s poem begins with how wrath is diffused by the telling of it. The distinction here of course being that it is between friends.  My first question is this:  In our relationships, why would we choose to have a foe?  Then when something displeases us, hide our “wrath”?

Are we perhaps afraid of sharing ourselves for what we are? Maybe what we are angry at is somehow little; even petty? That could be (of course). Or might we simply fear the unpleasantness of facing whatever the issue could be? (The combination of these two things is a sad commentary, because what I’m displeased about is petty and I don’t want to voice my “wrath,” that’s how the rest of the poem comes into play.)

Then with a very slight twist – maybe, we are afraid of being honest? Of calling-out an action over which we only have some slight reason to be concerned. Sort of a “why do I have to be the one to bring this up?” when it could (possibly should) be addressed by someone else. And yet, this thing we’ve seen needs attention and if unchecked, will in time grow into something hateful, harmful.

This reminds me of a much encouraged course that was offered at my workplace.  The course was called “Having difficult conversations.”  It’s been several years since I took it, but I remember getting nervous that I might have to actually use the skills the course taught.  It wasn’t an appealing thought at the time.

Which – funny enough – leads me to think about the virtue of courage. Do we lack courage? And is this what is actually necessary to bridge the gap between anger and peace? Between destruction and health/life?  Does it take courage to reach reconciliation?

Conversely, why is it easy to “tell wrath” to a friend? For it is quickly done and all the negative fallout simply never occurs.  Is it because we feel a certain safety in stating our cause…with a friend?  That we are on equal footing with a friend and so suffer none of the qualms of exposing ourselves; of making ourselves vulnerable?  Ah ha!  There’s that condition we all try to shy away from; vulnerability.  As if it is at all possible for a human being to be invulnerable….

Anyway, these aren’t particularly deep, soul shaking questions but I liked that the poem had such a stark and graphic continuum resulting from un-checked hatred; or unforgiveness.


On a side note:  The poem uses two familiar images: Apple and Tree.  I believe these images snagged my imagination; and caused me pore over the poem.  I know next to nothing about William Blake and while the poem itself is placed inside a collection called “Songs of Experience” the images felt right for me to take the poem seriously.  I’m not a scholar but I liked that the images spoke to me, and seemed to point to [for me] the Christian realities of sin, unforgiveness, mercy and reconciliation.


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