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This post contains mild spoilers for the film “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”.
There is a scene in the (very entertaining) film Forgetting Sarah Marshall where the protagonist, played by Jason Segel, is dismayed to learn that his ex-girlfriend, played by Kristen Bell with whom he is on the verge of reconciling with, did not merely leave him for another man but had been carrying on a secret affair with him for a year. This obviously puts their reconciliation on hold.
This reminded me of something I find to be an interesting question. In all aspects of human affairs, the question of truth versus reconciliation often presents itself. Nearly all people, all groups, and all nations are guilty of numerous transgressions both in history and in the present. And many, if not most, of those transgressions are unknown; like Sarah Marshall, people, groups and nations will attempt to conceal the bad things they have done.
The problem is this: the truth about these things generally makes reconciliation more difficult. In the movie, this is presented as a good thing: Bell is supposed to be not only someone who wronged Segel, but an inferior mate for him than Mila Kunis’ character, a hotel hospitality worker.
But outside of the logic of the movies, I’m not sure I agree. Sure, Bell cheated, and for that matter, dumped poor Segel. But as the movie makes clear, she did so with a fair amount of reason. Segel’s character is another in producer Judd Apatow’s long list of man-children, a composer who spends most of his time lounging on the couch in sweat pants eatings mixing bowls of Fruit Loops. But more than that, Segel is someone who feels diminished by his girlfriend’s success, bitter as he is relegated to holding her purse just outside camera range as she walks the red carpet. Meanwhile, despite the different level of success she has achieved while he has stagnated on the couch, she confesses to having spent scads of valuable time and money going to therapists and others to try to figure out what more she can do to help him and their relationship. Besides her infidelity, the main complaint that Segel has about Bell is that his stepbrother feels that she felt she was “slumming” when they went over to visit.
The reaction, however, of both the person I went to the movie with and of several of my friends was that Kunis is much prettier than Bell, so they knew that she was the right girl for him.
That and the infidelity is sufficient in movie language to communicate who is really better for Segel. But I remain unconvinced. Maybe it is something broken in me which believes this, but I think that years of actual love and commitment ought to count for something. A lot of something.
But it brings up a question which I think has important implications beyond merely the movie or relationships in general. Is the truth always the most important thing? Is it more important than reconciliation?
It is a natural impulse to feel that everyone ought to be punished for their misdeeds. But punishing people for what they did wrong tends to come with hidden costs, or what economists would call “externalities”. Bell’s character deserves to be punished for her cheating. But she also deserves credit for years of loving him despite being neglected, and more to the point, Segel’s character deserves to be with someone who truly loves him.
Which leads to the question of what is truly better, seeking truth no matter the consequences, or seeking reconciliation, even if reconciliation bears a cost paid in truth. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda is an example of sacrificing some truth (and justice) in exchange for reconciliation; he implemented a policy where rather than punishing most of the Hutus who participated in the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi minority, the government encourages confession and forgiveness.
This conflict is also illustrated by the difference of sentiment between Barack Obama and his former preacher, Jeremiah Wright. The message of Wright, grossly simplified, is that the need to expose the truths of the massive historical bad behavior of the United States is paramount. Obama’s message counters that the opportunity for reconciliation, healing, and progress beyond the wrongs of the past overwhelms the need to seek the truth and to obtain justice for those sins.
Truth and justice are very important things. Like all of you, I am angry at the lack of truth about and the utter disinterest by those in power to even pursue justice for the known and unknown crimes of the American government of the past eight years.
But I also see the great harm that too much truth unleavened can wreak. There is no shortage of truth about the horrors committed in the names of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yet that truth is so great that no real justice is possible; when decades of military occupation, colonization, terrorism, and religious and ethnic hatred exist, most rational people believe that finding a way to reconcile is of greater import than uncovering every wrong and punishing every sinner. At the end of the day, it seems obvious that reconciliation will do those peoples more good than any amount of truth.
There is no shame in forgiveness. We do not diminish ourselves by admitting that those we love or those with whom we share the world have feet of clay, any more than our ability to recognize that we ourselves fail and sin sometimes lessens us. And while I think that is an insight that might well be beyond a simple romantic comedy (although not beyond the scope of a superior TV show), it is one which those of us who consider how best to be involved citizens of a democratic Republic ought to give some thought.