The Long Road to Forgiveness

Why forgiveness is so difficult in the age of apology


| March-April 1999



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?