A note on my wall, pinned there for years, reads Forgiveness and Compassion. The memo’s role varies from reminder to plea to demand. Two vague aspirations, neither seem up to the task; neither word fits my intent; however, at present, these are the best I have. Forgiveness occupies most of my days; a too sensitive, nervous little boy, I never grew the requisite thick skin. If I tallied your offences, every transgression leaned against, heaped upon me, so many, so varied, so weighty, they make my bones ache: from your small lapses of consideration to your intentional snubs, your overt insults; from your slight peccadillos to the deep, irreparable wounds.

As your judge, I’ll fashion a court, wield a heavy gavel, and mete out clemencies. As your priest, I’ll build a confessional of dark, polished wood, dole out penance; I’ll hear, I’ll relish, again and again, your “Bless me Father for I have sinned.” As your king, your absolute, from my throne I’ll wave my royal hand and grant an amnesty on a whim. Occasionally, in return, I’ll send you marching off to war to give up your life, to prop up my realm.

I’ve learned the ambition to forgive implies giving up resentment, giving up the appetite for retribution. I’ve perused other variations of the concept: absolve sets you free of responsibility; acquit releases you from a charge; exonerate relieves you of blame; a pardon extricates you from punishment. (Revenge or punishment are never on my mind. These are not words on my wall.)

Listen. Here is the crux of it. Though forgiveness may appear generous and gracious, it is often an imperious act of piety. You assume I desire this power to forgive. Not so. Your misperception, your presumption of a craving for superiority is very likely the source of your resentment (and the loss of our friendship).

As for compassion, well, compassion begs for empathy, a mercy, a sorrow for your suffering. A sympathy for the recipient is the priority. (I suppose I needn’t link forgiveness with compassion, but it seems obvious that the two are joined at the hip, best buddies on the playground. Some amount of compassion is necessary to forgive.) Compassion is all very nice for those who are desperate for comfort. However, you see, regarding my enemies (I keep no list; they seem to accumulate by self-appointment.) my obstacle is that I simply harbor no pity for you who continue to prick at my edges. I am no Buddha, no Jesus. I remain wary of your intent, your dysfunction, your menace, your malice. You remain too duplicitous, too treacherous, downright dangerous.

(And then there’s guilt, another candidate. Oh dear, let’s not ignore guilt. Of course, I stew over this word as well – wallow really.)

Recently, I added a new word to my note on the wall. Surrender. (Me looking on the bright side.) Surrender will likely create new complications and initiate entirely new avenues of karma rather than enlightenment. To surrender is to give up possession or power, to relent, to yield. Surrendering is not necessarily an obsequious white flag: guns down, hands up (though, certainly we could all use a bit more of that). Surrender is a choice of forbearance. I elect to relinquish the circumstances leading to the eventual reason to forgive. You want to be manager, mayor, captain, king. Fine by me. Wonderful! Congratulations!

And we know that surrender is also not so simple. True, for now I am fortunate, my surrenders largely trivial events. When do we fight without remorse, a prerequisite for survival? Shall we surrender to greed, racism, invasion, rape, genocide? How about incompetence? Shall we forgive or surrender to incompetence? I’ll need to think on surrender somewhat more. (And we’ll pick up on apology at another time.) Or maybe, just maybe, I’ve discovered the shallowness of words. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll abandon all these words as insufficient. After all, they’re merely words.

David Sapp, writer, artist and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence grant and an Akron Soul Train fellowship for poetry. His poems appear widely in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.