I am racing along on my bicycle, taking in the scenery, and when I whiz past two elderly women strolling along, chatting peacefully, I scare the living daylights out of them. Ooops!  Bad move; should have been a bit more aware. (Sorry about that.) I come home after a tough day, and when my wife says something I just don't want to hear about, I immediately go into high gear, putting as much on her as I possibly can and feeling ever more justified by her protests. Not too long after, when things have settled down, I can see it all more clearly: I was a jerk, plain and simple; too bad she had to pay the price. (I really didn't mean it.)

There is much about the human condition, I believe, that suggests that we are virtuous beings, quite capable both of acknowledging our capacity for wrongdoing and of moving in the direction of the good. But ours is often a virtue deferred, awaiting the passage of time to come into being. Hence the idea of "moral lateness."

The examples presented so far are relatively simple ones. We can be impetuous and oblivious, taken in by the pleasures or seductions of the moment and fail to see what's going on beyond the perimeter of our own concerns. And we can become so wrapped up in our own ego-driven issues that we can act them out, with frightful self-certainty, only to find them staring back at us, later on, reminding us of what we had refused to see. In these kinds of cases, hindsight can perform a very valuable function. By allowing us to see what we either could not or would not see earlier on, it can allow for a kind of moral rescue, providing a corrective measure to our lateness. Hence hindsight's hope.

But what about those situations that seem so beyond the pale as to be, or at least to feel, unredeemable? In a harrowing chapter called "Shame" from his book The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi recounts the horror that so often accompanied liberation from the concentration camps: "Coming out of the darkness, one suffered because of the reacquired consciousness of having been diminished. . . . We had not only forgotten our country and our culture, but also our family, our past, the future we imagined for ourselves, because like animals, we were confined to the present moment."  Especially troubling, in retrospect, was the conviction of having failed one's fellow prisoners.  Few had been troubled by having committed deliberate acts of violence.  But, "almost everbody [despaired] of having omitted to offer help."

As Levi goes on to ask, "Is this belated shame justified or not? I was not able to decide then and I am not able to decide even now, but shame there was and is, concrete, heavy, perennial." Here, hindsight emerges as a source not only of insight but also of extraordinary pain, the act of looking backward serving to reveal, in all too full relief, the depth of one's own diminishment. It was this "turning back to look at the ‘perilous water,'" Levi maintains, that had led to so many suicides following liberation. There could be no moral rescue for the likes of these tortured beings. It was too late.

If only they could have seen, and felt, that this very capacity for self-condemnation was itself a sign of virtue, of their humanity and potential for goodness, now returned. What would it take -- what does it take -- to forgive oneself for those actions and those non-actions that seem all but unforgivable? 

About the Author

Mark Freeman Ph.D.

Mark Freeman is professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross and author of Hindsight: The Promise and Peril of Looking Backward.

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