The Long Road to Forgiveness

Why forgiveness is so difficult in the age of apology

Content Tools

If we all recognize that forgiveness has the power to liberate us from the past, then why are we so reluctant to grant it? Spiritual leaders and psychotherapists say that forgiveness is bliss, but what about that voice in our heads that demands an eye for an eye? Does forgiving mean forgetting, or—even worse—excusing the unforgivable? And if we forgive, how do we protect our dignity?

Such questions touch most aspects of our lives, from politics to trash TV, from road rage to smoldering resentments. With so many countries apologizing for past sins, there's a sense that the world's leaders are trying to balance the books after an untidy century, squaring some debts, absolving others. Yet still we face an age-old dilemma: How do we, as individuals and as a society, choose between the urge to get even and the need to move on? —The Editors

I opened the door to my car, swinging my feet out onto the asphalt driveway. Suddenly I found myself out of balance, swaying into the gravel path edged by the shadowy yew bushes as if I were going to spill, chin first, onto the ground. I righted abruptly, jerking up marionette-style, and heard at that moment—with a sort of auditory hindsight—that I had been screaming, moaning really, but low and powerful, like a train coming through. I had never felt a sound like that before. My husband had just left me, suddenly, mysteriously, and the sound in my body came from the strange rift his leaving had made.

Of all the parts of my life that I had just lost—the two of us nested in bed at night, our working hip-to-hip in the narrow kitchen, the family's joking after dinner, elbows sprawled around the plates—the most startling loss was this, the crack in the spirit, the gyroscope tumping over, the compass points scattered.

When I was a child daydreaming in the cool retreat of a Sunday school classroom, the act of forgiving other people, no matter how bad they hurt you, was as surely a sign of rightness as the chicken and cream gravy waiting for us back home. But there came a time, this time, when I found myself so stunned with anger and suffering that the transcendent relief of forgiveness seemed as unreachable as heaven.

Even five years later, just having coffee with the man who was now my ex-husband, I found myself lashed by startling wind shears of anger and sadness. I felt wronged, forever harmed, not just by the loss of our marriage but by his betrayal of our family life. Yet I kept a vision of the family I still wanted to share, a relationship that had enough love and trust to carry us through children's weddings and grandchildren. So I knew that I wanted to forgive. But how would I do it, how could I move on, detecting in him no regret for the pain he had caused?

I took to asking friends, colleagues, spiritual gurus, clients in my psychotherapy practice, “What's been your experience with forgiveness?” The question induces a certain hesitation.

“It's too much to get into in one afternoon,” a good friend says, noticeably upset. A colleague tells me, “It's humiliating just remembering that someone could hurt me so much that I would need to forgive.” I was plunging into a politics of forgiveness, the complications of a world divided secretly into leavers and leavees, perps and victims, actors and those acted upon.

How do we forgive offenses against the spirit? Does forgiveness come only slowly, with time—say, seven years later, after renewing, as our bodies do, every molecule, cell by cell? People often come into my psychotherapy practice seeking a cherished peace with someone, someone perhaps long gone, who has broken their heart—a mother who killed herself, an incestuous father, a spouse who abandoned a family. People can find themselves with a double burden: there's the original injury—the childhood terror or the tragic, drunken auto accident—and then there's a choking hatred and disillusionment to digest. That's often a meal we are forced to eat by ourselves.

I have come to look at the act of forgiving as a profoundly intrapsychic or spiritual shift in which we do not necessarily depend on the will or skill of the injuring person to ask our forgiveness. Some people ask to be forgiven, and while that presents a richer dilemma, I know that even in those situations, the heart needs its preparations. For the injured person, forgiveness often proceeds along a path from stunned innocence to the tortures of obsession to a surprising expansion of meaning.

Innocence

In early stages of suffering we search for meaning: Why me? Do I deserve such pain? A great injury cracks into our childlike belief that good people thrive and bad people are punished.

But if we believe that we are not so bad that we deserve suffering, then injury shapes a new story—the story of contamination, the world cleaved now into what is pure versus what is tainted and selfish. Without this tale of persecution of the good by the bad, injury disorients us, cracks the frame of our cherished beliefs, reveals our weak and human shame. And we'll do anything to avoid feeling shame.

Dogged fascination with innocence has its costs, though. When I first met with Jack and Ann, they were coming out of years of worry about a runaway son who had finally made it into responsible adulthood. Now facing retirement, they were turning to look at their marriage.

Ann had stored up years of resentment about how she had labored under Jack's temper and how nobody in her family had taken her seriously. “I didn't deserve that!” she said over and over. In our sessions, at least, Jack was earnest and undefensive, but Ann unremittingly kept up an attack on him. It seemed that no amount of understanding—or empathy or apology or remorse—was making it to her heart. Together, we questioned whether Ann's real argument about innocence wasn't so much with Jack as with her overbearing father, a harsh and imperial intellectual. No matter how hard her husband worked to earn her forgiveness, she was not ready to give up the power of a moral position that her judgmental father had never, not once, allowed her. At least with Jack, I said, you speak up, you try to break that spell of injured innocence.

However useful as a developmental state, innocence is vastly overrated as a moral state. The hallowed innocence of the inner child is a starting point, not a steady state. A fundamental experience of basic worth helps us tolerate the complexity of being truly human—which, alas, includes such realities as coming in last in a race or losing someone's love. I could feel this defense going on in my own heart when, at the beginning of my separation, I searched myself hourly for a story line that would reconcile my idealistic faith in our 30-year marriage with losing it. For example, when my husband told me that he might have to file for bankruptcy (which made no sense given our income), I grew hysterically convinced that he had an undiagnosed brain tumor. “All these years, did I just make you up?” I later asked him. And I knew that at some point I would want to take a long, hard look at my own contribution to our dilemma. But in the beginning, I just couldn't abide the rotten feeling of corruption, either his or my own.

Then I watched in amazement as a friend fell in love with a married man. Mired in her own morally compromising situation, Sarah began to think differently about her ex-husband's infidelity. “I had always felt that Tony had not behaved very well when he was leaving the marriage,” she said ruefully, “but now behaving well doesn't seem as simple as it did before.” She no longer felt secure in her own innocence. “It wasn't even a conscious decision. I just found that I had forgiven Tony. Hell, I've even forgiven Woody Allen.”

If our first childlike belief is that innocent people don't deserve bad things, our second is that our suffering will render us good. The hard truth, I learned slowly, is that your hurting me doesn't make me the good guy.

I've come to believe that rigid fascination with the moral stance of innocence sets us up for prolonged suffering, for passivity, for a heartbreaking expectation that the world can be tidily divided into good people and bad people. We argue that someone—not us—should pay, as if innocence lost were wealth stolen. Often we are angry more at bystanders than we are at the injurers themselves, so powerful (and not necessarily wrong) an idea it is that innocence should be protected. Of course, the bystanders then protest their innocence. Such passivity, while tempting, leaves us all stuck; no one picks up the bill. Thinking morally, are we not all charged with repairing and restoring our disordered universes, including the messes left by others?

Obsession

At times the loss of my marriage felt hard and final, like a death. I thought I knew about death. My mother had died just weeks before my husband's sudden leaving, and the two losses were sometimes joined into one great numbing cosmic whack, while at other times they shaped themselves into two sharply contrasting experiences. At 77, my mother died too young, but her dying was saturated with profound meaning. On the other hand, I couldn't begin to comprehend the loss of my marriage. Nothing made sense to me.

For a good half year, my thinking flowed in two layers, a double dialogue. On one layer, I thought about my mother, my children, my clients, my friends. I talked to the car repairman, I bought movie tickets, I drove to Connecticut. But the other layer flowed along, too, a dark and grumbling creek, ice-rimmed. I drove muttering to Connecticut, wondering the whole way: Had he meant this when he had said that? Should I have spoken up here, kept quiet there? I began to appreciate my obsession's grinding mission: the effort to hold an absent and often unrepentant person accountable.

Similarly, my client Susan racked herself to understand her husband Ed's abandonment after 22 years of marriage. “Why?” she plaintively asked him. “Well,” he said, “I know this sounds stupid, but remember when I asked you to wear those earrings? And you wouldn't!” Susan's mouth dropped open. Ed went on, “Then something just shut down in me.” That's all he could say.

Susan was left to imagine what it was that had truly gone wrong. In the absence of the perpetrator's accountability, injured people work with the only material they've got: their minds. Indeed, it is the essence of obsession to try to handle something in your mind when you believe it cannot be resolved in the outer world.

Susan was determined to learn how to accept her loss and move forward. But if she were suddenly to find herself lightened of rage, if her suffering ended, what would such lightness of spirit say about her husband's abandoning her?

Paradoxically and inevitably, Susan's thriving would be living proof that it was not such a big deal. “I start to imagine letting go of all this bitterness, and then such sadness comes up! He gets off scot-free, saying, 'See, it wasn't such a terrible thing.' But I know one thing: This is a truly crazy idea—that my suffering will make him pay!”

My client Phyllis spared no energy in concocting daily malicious retaliations during her divorce from a bully of a husband, delighting in leaving him waiting for poky children, enforcing restrictions on his calls to them, refusing to bend rules. I was unable to help her set limits on her sadism, despite endless appeals to the well-being of her children. I finally asked what would be a proper punishment. “Oh, I wish every day that he would die. I really do,” she said.

“Would you like to kill him yourself?” I asked.

She didn't blink an eye. “I would if I could get away with it.”

I pushed further. “Maybe we should take some time to imagine you causing great pain to your husband. A sort of guided fantasy.” Clearly stunned, she looked at me with glazed eyes. “Like, you could hit him with a baseball bat.” Her mouth was open. “A gun?”

Phyllis finally spoke. “No, I can't. I can't really imagine any of that. It doesn't move me.” Her voice grew firmer. “That's not what I want.” But she had clearly made a shift out of her ruthless desire to persecute. We sat together in wonder, watching her hatred in its dying fall.

Other injured people are caught in repetitive, fantasized scenes, not of retaliatory harm, but of rescue and reparation. It's another way of not letting go, of trying to master what is otherwise unthinkable. Fantasies of either revenge or repair temporarily help us manage the humiliations of injury and loss.

I called my ex-husband one day to tell him that I had forgiven him. On one level, my motivation was simple: I felt less angry and thought I needed to admit that shift. On the other hand, I could have merely behaved with more warmth, and he would no doubt have gotten the message, so there was something else in my longing to speak.

I said that I was at last able to feel that I was doing well, and that I forgave him. But my voice felt flat, and his response was thin: “Well, ah, thanks,” he said, and dropped the unwelcome gift. Hearing this story, a friend accused me of asserting moral superiority, but superiority was not what I felt. The wave of emotion that almost swamped me was humiliation.

We sometimes rush too quickly to forgive someone in an attempt to avoid humiliation. “Oh, no problem,” a friend says when I call to apologize for not calling her sooner after her father died. Still, her tone makes me wonder whether my neglect made her feel she doesn't count very much with me. So I try to apologize again, but that just makes her withdraw more. She wants to keep the small dignity of acting as if she's OK.

Even in that limp moment of speaking to my ex-husband, I understood that this small, awkward display of forgiveness marked an increasing independence in my own spirit, a shift—surviving humiliation—that was internal, not interpersonal.

Transcendence

As injured people give up obsessively replaying scenes with the person who injured them, they begin to deal with a hole they find in themselves. If they can tolerate the emptiness, they have a chance to look inward, toward a self they might now experience as both spare and surprisingly spacious. Giving up the effort to be whole, unsullied, I was astounded at how I was both cracked and liberated by the loss of my marriage. Everything was up for grabs. What, really, did I want to eat for dinner? Did I want to visit a friend in Chicago? And what about my work—did I really want to sit, hour after hour, listening to more tales of cruelty and suffering? I had to admit it was interesting, not knowing what was ahead. I moved through the days with a mysteriously sweet and painful awareness of what a prize, really, life is, and how little we realize that.

Humans will, no doubt, debate this issue until the end of time: when to hold other people accountable, even punishable, for their offenses, and when to move toward acceptance and tolerance. There is nothing about genuine forgiveness that precludes holding people accountable if we have that power. Nor does forgiveness necessarily include restoration of the perpetrator to a place in our daily life. I would be highly suspicious of a marital partner who rushed to forgive an infidelity without wanting to understand both partners' accountability for the breach. And it would be outrageous to push a traumatized client back into a relationship with an abusive parent. Forgiveness is not about being blind or stupid.

I spoke again the other day with my ex-husband. I had the feeling of listening in two directions: inward, toward my own reactivity, and outward, to what he was telling me about a move to the ocean. I made a place for hearing him, letting it all leap through me, as a diver might receive the cool electricity of the water, a strange gift, a blue baptism into aliveness.

To forgive means, literally, to give up—to give up hatred, revenge, punishment, hard payment of a hard debt. In struggling to forgive someone, our motive is to move our lives past bitter obsession.

Regrettably, forgiveness is not necessarily about justice. The murderer may be justly condemned, but the grieving family doesn't always forgive. Nor is forgiveness otherworldly acceptance of what must be. We all know injured people who push forward in their lives without struggling with forgiveness. Ex-partners remarry, even prosper, but can stay as bitter toward each other as if the split had happened yesterday. In contrast to justice and acceptance, forgiveness is not only the recovery of our spirit, but also the enlargement of that spirit—somehow, some way—to imagine the humanity of the injuring person. And why would we want that?

In a great injury, something is broken, psychologically or spiritually. The break not only erodes our sense of living in a fair world, corrupts our experience of our own worth, and fragments our control over our own lives and emotions; it also fundamentally damages our faith in the worthiness of others. It is that loss of the other that we absorb, and somehow transform, in forgiveness.

Last year I heard a radio interviewer ask a minister why there is evil in the world, why people do terrible things to one another. He said he didn't have a satisfactory answer, but he thought that the fact that we suffer at the hands of others keeps us aware that we are not solitary, that we cannot be indifferent to the conditions that make people mean or desperate enough to harm.

We're part of the main, and anyone's loss diminishes us all. Strange to think that sometimes the only way we have a chance to truly experience the losses other people suffer is when, no longer able to contain their own grief or greed or rage, they cause us harm.

Forgiveness dissolves the clear distinctions between perpetrators and victims, self and other. It's an illusion to think we can keep what is good separate from and uncontaminated by what is evil, that it is our birthright to live a gated life. There's no way we can stay aloft, like angels, never making the blue dive. It's an existential dilemma—inevitable, human—living as we do with the outrageous fortune of both leaping and falling, of riding out irresistible urges both to save everything and to destroy it all.

Molly Layton is a therapist in private practice in Wyndmoore, PA. From Family Therapy Networker (Nov.-Dec. 1998). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 8528 Bradford Rd., Silver Spring, MD 20901.