Culling Forgiveness from Carrie


This movie is such a classic that if you haven’t seen it, I don’t even want to give you a synopsis. Just email me and I’ll give you my Netflix password.

Not really, y’all. Stop emailing me.

Okay, fiiiiiiiine, I will give you a summary, but only because I need you to be able to follow my train of thought. So strap yourselves in because the horror-as-dharma express is leaving immediamente.


Carrie is a teenage girl with growing up in Anywhere, USA in the early 70’s.* Her mother is a religious fanatic and keeps Carrie at home praying instead of doing normal teenage things like obsessing about her appearance, shopping, and getting high. Carrie is therefore understandably unsuited to modern high school life. She wears homemade dresses and doesn’t know about sex or menstruation, but she does have telekinetic powers. The other kids make fun of her. Go figure.

When Carrie is invited to prom by one of the most popular boys in school, her mom insists that it’s just a prank. Unfortunately, her mom is right, and when Carrie is crowned prom queen, the popular crowd (including John Travolta!) dumps a bucket of pig’s blood on her. Carrie responds by killing everyone in the room with her psychic powers. When she gets home, her mom has planned to execute her as a witch, so Carrie uses her brainwaves to impale her with all the utensils in the kitchen. Then she sets the house on fire (again, with her mind powers) and huddles down to die with her mom.

Phew. That was a lot. Let’s look at a picture of a kitten.

51ca935fb52325297d20d6eb689d9381Nevermind, that didn’t help.

Anyways. There’s clearly a lot going on in this story. There’s a lot to be scared of. There’s religious extremism, psychic powers, teenage sexual awakening, teenage cruelty, mommy issues, absent daddy issues, social alienation and rejection, boys with fast cars…but what I want to talk about is forgiveness.

Yep. All aboard.

Carrie is not some self-absorbed asshole teenage girl who sets things on fire because she wants attention. She is a legitimately victimized character, even a sympathetic character. Carrie’s mom, the students at her school, even the administrators, all treat her like she doesn’t belong anywhere. She is universally ridiculed and she is betrayed by every person that she comes to trust. And this is where we all have something in common with Carrie. We all feel betrayed.

We probably aren’t bathed in animal blood by our high school tormentors or almost murdered by our mothers, but most of us experience some level of betrayal at some time. Sometimes we feel betrayed when we aren’t actually betrayed, but sometimes our feelings are totally legit, like Carrie’s.


There are an endless number of ways to respond to feelings of betrayal. We can stop trusting people, start taking revenge, get sad, get mad, start betraying other people, avoid thinking about it, avoid eating, avoid intimacy…feelings of betrayal can make once vibrant human souls into shriveled shadows of themselves.

So, if feelings of betrayal are (relatively) universal, but some people feel betrayed and are still able to lead happy lives and others becoming raging psychopaths, what is the difference between them?

I think the difference is forgiveness. And I think that the ending of Carrie is a perfect metaphor for what happens when we don’t/aren’t able to forgive betrayal: we destroy the whole world, our whole world, using only our minds. And I think that all of us, on some level, are a little bit scared of how self- and other-destructive we can really be, so we create “monsters,” to see what would happen if we did our worst.

Yes, I am really reading Carrie as a parable.

So there.

Let’s talk about forgiveness. It’s a Big Deal. It’s such a big deal that Buddhists almost never stop talking about it. Christians, too. But, why? What’s the point? Shouldn’t we get to be mad when people hurt us? Why should we forgive people if they’ve legitimately done something wrong?

We do get mad. We can stay mad. But who cares? I mean, who cares the most about how mad you are? You do. You are the one who has to live with your mad. You are the one feeling that pain. So, if you can’t get it up to forgive for the sake of your betrayer, forgive for your own good.

Lama Marut says in A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life, “Forgiveness isn’t primarily an act you do for the other. It is the best thing you could do for yourself.” He goes on to say, “Forgiveness, in fact, transforms the victim into an empowered master– someone who is resolved to get on with his or her life and overcome the paralysis of past pain.”

Being a person who forgives means that you will not end up telepathically murdering everyone in your high school or killing your mother and yourself in a fiery blaze of revenge.

You will not become Carrie.

Instead, you might heal. You might heal so much that you become empowered in the way that Lama Marut spoke of. You might become the master of your own life, instead of allowing other people’s actions (even if they are directed at you) to dictate who you will be, how you will feel, how you will live. You might have a shot at being happy.

*If you’ve been reading this series, you know that you should always beware of teenage girls. See also Jennifer’s Body and The Craft.

If you want to learn more about forgiveness practices, here’s
Pema Chodron on Maitri
The Dalai Lama on Forgiveness
Sharon Salzberg on the Dharma of Liberation

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