Forgiving Better, Part 1

The High Holy Days are an immensely helpful and mercilessly focused guide for the process of self-inventory, seeking forgiveness, and atonement, and they can serve as a template for non-Jews as well. But though we hear a lot about the importance of asking for forgiveness, there’s one aspect about which we get much less guidance : how to be an effective and honest forgiver.

I confess, I am not very good at it. I’ve been carting around a couple of injuries inflicted long ago upon me.  I am sure I am not alone in that. Has anyone reading this been spared?

 I will also confess that over the years,  I have made more intellectual progress than taken practical steps towards successful forgiveness.

Here are a few of my problems with being on the forgiving end.  

First, it’s different whether someone asks for forgiveness, or if they realistically are never, ever going to.  Forgiveness when someones asks you for it involves dialogue, a meeting of the minds about what that person did that makes them want forgiveness and what atonement might look like.  But you have to know what you are forgiving for it to have any meaning.“Please forgive me for being a bad friend” may be sincerely felt, but when you don’t know what the other meant by “bad friend” it’s hard to believe anything really got resolved or that the dynamic has changed in any meaningful way. 

Jewish tradition says confession has to be specific and spoken aloud, and this is the first can of worms. If for example my first husband should out of the blue utterly shock me by wanting my forgiveness, I would have a real problem  because I would need to understand what he feels guilty about. I probably don’t know half the things he did that betrayed me and our marriage, and I certainly don’t want it dumped on me now. So that’s the first hard part of being a Jewish forgiver.

Moving on to the process of repentance and atonement, I have been mulling the situation of a deathbed plea for forgiveness. There might be a lot of psychological release for both parties. But one might rightfully ask, did they on their deathbed just realize for the first time that they had hurt you? Or have they always known but didn’t want the pain of dealing with it?

How many years, or even decades might they have had to show in a concrete way that they are sorry?  How many chances did they have to demonstrate how their atonement has made them a better person? And yet they didn’t. They waited until it was too late for anything but the confessing part. 

It’s a tough call.  They might die in greater peace, but you have been robbed of what you should have gotten out of the process. Maybe that lack of ability to see your needs was the core problem all along, and you have once again agreed to let them be the only one who matters. 

And then, I stand in awe again of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition.  All we really have to do is listen, and maybe not even that. Confession, repentance, and atonement is between a person and God.  We don’t have to forgive just because someone wants us to. Our consent is irrelevant when repentance is sincere, and we should not feel guilty or diminished when we just aren’t there yet. 

Forgiveness is different when people haven’t asked. You can rise to the challenge, but you’ll have to put in all the effort yourself.  But blog posts can get too long, and I hope there’s enough to think about here. I will save the rest for part two, as well as some thoughts about how we might start getting unstuck.



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