Forgiveness: If and When?

Much is made, especially by the religious, about the importance of forgiveness. But the topic is worthy of some discussion before one gives a blanket endorsement to forgiveness of everyone and everything. Should all acts be open to forgiveness? Is apology essential before there is any forgiveness? Are some offenses unforgivable? Are some people permitted more leeway to act inappropriately and exempt from the expectation of apology?

First off, who has the right to forgive? Only those who have been injured. I have no right to forgive your mistakes unless you have done me harm in some fashion. Certainly, this right might include an injury done to someone I love, if I too will have suffered pain due to the harm done to the other person. The idea that I can’t forgive you for an injury you did to someone I don’t know, for example, is allied to the notion of legal standing. I can’t bring a law suit against you unless the court agrees that I have a stake in the matter. As the old saying goes, “I don’t have a dog in this race.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what happened; rather, it means that in matters of injury, compensation, or apology, I’m not directly involved.

Another consideration is whether the injury is ongoing. If someone is in the process of playing practical jokes on you day after day, to take an example that is relatively small, would you forgive his poor taste or judgment? He’d probably laugh at you if you did, because that individual sees nothing wrong with what he has done. Better to get him to stop or get out of his way, than to consider any generosity of spirit on your part that is likely to go unappreciated.

Then there is the question of apology. Let’s assume the joker just mentioned has a moment of self-awareness, or perhaps has been persuaded that his actions are rude. What must he do to apologize? According to Aaron Lazare’s book On Apology, he should acknowledge what he did to hurt you, say that he is sorry, and attempt to compensate you in some way. In the case of public humiliation caused by the practical jokes, for example, it would be appropriate (although perhaps impractical) for the prankster to make a public admission of his foolishness in front of the same people who were present when he embarrassed you. Moreover, he must do his very best to make sure that his boorish behavior isn’t repeated. Simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to state, “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” a turn-of-phrase we hear from public figures, but one that is absolutely inadequate. According to Lazare, it is crucial that the transgressor be precise in admitting what exactly he did that caused harm, leaving no ifs, ands or buts, and making no excuses. This is the same sort of thing that happens in court, when, after a plea bargain, the accused admits exactly what he did without excusing it away, and recounts the consequences that followed from that behavior. In legal terms it is called “allocution.”

With respect to the question of some offenses being unforgivable, that is for the injured party to decide. Murder, rape, torture–all terrible–still permit the possibility of forgiveness if it is in the capacity of the afflicted to give it. The same answer would apply to the question of having a different standard for the behavior of one person than for another. We all do this in practice, accepting the failures and misbehavior of those we love when we aren’t so generous with a stranger who does exactly the same thing; and we often let things go without apology.

Forgiveness, however, is not the same as forgetting. If you have been injured, it is most often worth remembering who did what to you, lest you put yourself at risk of being hurt once again. Nor does forgiveness require that you continue your relationship with the person who harmed you; it is sometimes good judgment to forgive the person at the same time that you end the relationship with him.

Relationships are messy and we all can do better and be kinder. Many people have trouble telling others when their actions have caused an injury. The victim can suffer silently or in grumbling discontent, and passive-aggressively try to pay-back the injurer in some indirect fashion. Often, the hurt that the injurer caused is inadvertent and might be easily remedied if the one who has done the harm is told gently but firmly that he caused unhappiness.

Of course, some relationships, if they regularly cause injury, can be quickly dispensed with at little cost. But for those closest to us, we usually will suffer more and longer before limiting contact or severing the bond with that individual. And contact with parents or siblings, for example, cannot be replaced. So, for most of us, we will usually put up with some measure of unhappiness in order to keep a place in our lives for even the unrepentant relative. And, in part, it depends on how much one is willing to put up with.

There is at least one additional very important and useful reason to forgive. It follows from the old Italian expression, “If you want revenge, you should dig two graves (one for yourself and one for the object of your revenge).” The point here is that carrying anger is costly and letting go of that anger might allow you to be happier and more at ease in the rest of your life.

But, be careful not to let go automatically and too soon. Anger is often a necessary part of getting over an injury. While it doesn’t always have to be expressed at someone else, neither is turning the other cheek invariably the best policy for your psychological well-being. Writing about your feelings will oft-times help, and talking to a friend or counselor can be useful. But once you are through the stage of anger, forgiveness is at least a possibility.

Still another reason for accepting an apology and forgiving is that the relationship can be continued and sometimes improved by the act of mutual understanding that is involved. Life is full of disagreements and differences, in addition to unintentionally hurt feelings. Those parties who can survive conflicts, communicate about them, and come to a point of acceptance, understanding, and appreciation often are bonded together more strongly by the experience.

It takes maturity to know when to ignore something and when, instead, to confront the person who has injured you. Most things probably aren’t worth the trouble of a conflict, lest one always be fighting and accusing others. Best to wait for a cool and calm moment to decide whether confrontation is worth it, than to act in the over-heated instant. That is nothing more than common sense.

But, as a wise man once said, common sense is rather uncommon.

Last Words: Be Careful What You Say

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/25/Gertrude_Stein_1935-01-04.jpg/500px-Gertrude_Stein_1935-01-04.jpg

We tend to think of last words in terms of famous quotations. On her death-bed, Gertrude Stein (no relation to me) was asked, “What is the answer (to the meaning of life)?” Her matter of fact response was “What is the question?”

John Adams, our second President, alternately rival and friend of Thomas Jefferson, found some relief and gratitude in the belief that “Thomas Jefferson still survives” as he (Adams) lay dying. What he did not know in the pre-electronic year of 1826, was that Jefferson had in fact predeceased him by a few hours. Nor did either of them appear to reflect on the irony that these founding fathers both expired on July 4th.

On a less ironic note, students of American history will recall the story of Nathan Hale, captured and convicted of spying on the British during the Revolutionary War. “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country,” uttered Hale before his execution. More locally, those of us in Chicago might have heard of Giuseppe Zangara, an anarchist, who took aim at President Elect Franklin D. Roosevelt as he and the Mayor of Chicago shook hands in Miami’s Bayfront Park on February 15, 1933. The bullet hit Mayor Anton Cermak, who reportedly said to FDR, “I’m glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak died soon after and is memorialized to this day with a Chicago street that bears his name.

There are other kinds of last words, of course. The father of legendary musician and conductor Carlo Maria Giulini gathered his family around his death-bed to remind them that the word love, “amore,” should guide their thought and conduct throughout their lives. And one can only imagine how many times the word “love,” the words “I love you,” have been on the lips of both the dying and their survivors at the every end of earthly things. The religiously faithful have been heard to add, “See you on the other side.”

Last words of our parents tend to linger in the memory. We are often cautioned to part from loved ones on a high note, not a dissonant one, lest someone be left with the recollection and pain of a final disagreement, or the regret of injuring a loved one in what proves to be their last possible moment.

Two unfortunate examples from my clinical practice come to mind in this regard. One woman, whose mother had died many years before, had difficulty in shaking her mother’s last minute assertion, “You’re an ass, Jenny (not her real name).” It is not the only such example I can recall hearing from one or another of my patients. But the all-time cake-taker, the grand prize winner in an imaginary Hall of Shame of ill-timed and venomously expressed invective, are the words of a rebellious teenager to his severely taxed father.

A long history of mutual destructiveness typified their relationship. It seems that the pater familias was inept and self-interested in raising his son, and the son repaid his parent’s cruelty and clumsiness with as much drug use and petty crime as he could muster. Nor did it help that the family was under financial pressure and that the two adults of the home were a badly matched pair.

The father had only recently sustained a heart attack when the school reported to him and his wife that the son had once again been suspended. The “mother-of-all” shouting matches ensued between the middle-aged man and his first-born disappointment. And then, the last words: “You’re going to kill me.” And the reply, “You deserve to die.”

Not 24 hours later the words were realized. Deserved or not, the father was dead. And despite the fact that one could easily make a convincing rational argument that his death was not produced by his son’s words (or, at least, that the killing heart attack was waiting for whatever the next stressor was and would have happened very soon even without the argument as a trigger), it is easy to imagine that the sense of guilt would be lasting.

That said, I’m not opposed to standing up to people who have injured you, including parents. To say, “I know what you did (even if you deny it or justify it); and I won’t let you do it any more” is sometimes perfectly appropriate. That act of self-assertion can be therapeutic, even though it is usually not essential.

You can recover from childhood mistreatment without confronting the offender. Witness those individuals who do so when their abusive parents are already dead and therefore unavailable for any real-life discussion. What is essential, however, is to make certain that the mistreatment stops. This usually means that you, the now adult child, have to stop it: walk away, say “no,” or hang up the phone — whatever is required.

If, instead, you aim to change the offender, be prepared to be disappointed. Most won’t change or even admit that they did anything wrong. But if you wish to overcome your fear and master the situation, that mastery, at least, is possible.

Better, though, so much better to live as Giulini’s family lived, with love at the center of their being. I’m told that the old Italian expression for this is, “volersi bene” or “voler bene:” an untranslatable sentiment indicating that you cannot be happy without the happiness of the other. Yes, much better this way.

Perhaps its no mistake that in English and German the words for life and love are so close. Change the word “live” by one letter and you have “love.” In German, change the word “leben” (to live) by adding one letter and you have “lieben” (to love). Not just last words or Giulini’s father’s last words, but words to live (and love) by.

The 1935 photo of Gertrude Stein is the work of Carl Van Vechten, from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division; sourced from Wikimedia Commons.