By Stan Goldberg, PhD
Originally published by Verywell.com, December 19, 2016
We often struggle with what would be the perfect gift. We fixate our attention mostly on objects and events. “What could Aunt Sarah use the most in her kitchen?” Would Mother like a cruise?” While objects and activities offer temporary happiness, there are two gifts that can last a lifetime: Unconditionally asking for and granting forgiveness.
While we feel comfortable nibbling at the edges of both (e.g., apologies for something inconsequential), we are reluctant to deal with more substantial issues (e.g., hurting someone’s feelings). While this approach—gradualism—may be less painful and protects our vulnerability, it makes as much sense as incrementally treating pain.
Ask for Forgiveness
We hope by ignoring something unskillful we have done and injustices that have been done to us, they will mellow with time. In my experience as a bedside hospice volunteer, I found the opposite to be true. As we look back on our life, unskillful actions and injustices have a strong effect on our thinking. It is more than just regrets; thoughts of these unresolved issues come front and center and disrupt our lives.
In the eight years I served people in hospice, I found one of the greatest regrets people had was not being forgiven. For many, it was no longer possible to ask those they offended for forgiveness: they were no longer alive, wouldn’t speak to them, or couldn’t be found. My patients felt they had lost the opportunity to be forgiven. Imagine knowing you did something that caused great pain to someone. Something that has haunted you your entire life. With effort, you were able to repress it, sometimes for years. You probably haven’t thought about the effect it will have as you age and approach the end of your life.
Twenty years before I met my patient Jean, she had abandoned her teenage daughters and husband. Now dying of emphysema, the only thing she wanted was her daughters’ forgiveness. But even though they knew she was dying, they refused to see or talk to her. I suggested we write a forgiveness letter. Jean agreed on the condition that “they get it after I die.” For three weeks, she dictated, and I wrote. After many starts and stops, and numerous crumpled sheets of paper, we finally had something she felt good about.
All her hard work was contained in two sentences: “Please forgive me. I’ve always loved you.” It was enough to give her some peace before she died. Although it would have been better had her daughters come to her side to forgive her, what is ideal isn’t always possible.
Think back on the unskillful things you have done. Choose the one that either is the oldest, the most painful for you, or one that you believe caused the greatest harm to another person. If possible directly ask him or her for forgiveness. Offer your apologies face to face. If that’s not possible, leave a message for them, write a letter, send an email, or record an audio- or videotape. In the Merchant of Venice Shakespeare has Portia talking about “mercy” as something that heals both the person who offers it as well as the person receiving it. The same is true about asking for forgiveness.
The Takeaway: The longer you wait, the harder it will be to ask for forgiveness and for the person you offended to forgive. We often spend our lives trying to repress those things we aren’t proud of or wish never happened. Many people can successfully distort the memories of past unskillful behaviors. What happened never did, or how they remember them becomes less negative. But like the mole in a carnival game that keeps popping up after you have knocked it back into its hole, what we did returns and we are left with a haunting regret.
The best strategy is to ask for forgiveness when you were unskillful. Even if your offer isn’t accepted, the regret you will experience will be less than if you never made the offer. If it isn’t possible to gain forgiveness because the person offended can’t be found or won’t interact with you, use a strategy similar to the one that helped Jean.
Forget Righteous Indignation
It’s easy to feel righteous indignation when you have been “unjustly” offended. Moral imperatives have always instructed you how to act. Now, someone is ignoring those standards and affronting you in a way that you believe is unforgivable. Unfortunately, withholding your forgiveness is often more painful to you than to the person not being forgiven. Tibetans have a saying, “You can throw hot coals to your enemy but you’ll burn your hands.” Righteous indignation rarely results in a feeling that justice has been served. The most common result is a pervading sense of anger.
I had been visiting Vince weekly for five months, and every week he began by telling me about his distaste for his brother, whom he hadn’t spoken to in twenty years. His animosity had to do with a birthday party his brother had decided not to attend. It was Vince’s fiftieth birthday, and the entire family had decided to have a huge celebration. A hall was secured, a band was hired, and an expensive caterer was selected. Everyone came except Vince’s brother, who offered a “lame” excuse, according to Vince. Over the years, Vince’s brother had made many attempts to reconcile, but Vince had remained adamant that the insult was too great to forgive. Eventually, Vince’s brother stopped offering apologies, since the rebuffs were always painful to him. As Vince grew closer to dying, he realized that he had lost twenty years of friendship with his brother because of an “unforgivable affront” that now seemed meaningless.
The Takeaway: We often think about our behaviors regarding immediate consequences as Vince did: his brother did something so offensive, he couldn’t be forgiven. What Vince didn’t factor into his decision was the long-term consequences of not forgiving. Righteous indignation rarely if ever leads to happiness.
The Importance of Understanding
Granted, there are some offensives that you may be viewed as unforgivable. But even the most egregious ones are amenable to forgiveness. Clarence was in his eighties and had lived most of his life in Alabama. He grudgingly moved to San Francisco to be with his daughter when he could not longer care for himself. With his view of blacks, Jews, Catholics, and “them damn agitators,” he was the same as those who opposed the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. As someone who was involved in the movement, who parents were Jewish, and who was a lifelong “damn agitator,” I stood for everything he hated. As much as I tried to be a compassionate hospice volunteer, Clarence’s values and beliefs made it difficult.
Here was someone who may have been one of the people throwing stones at me as our bus arrived in Montgomery in 1965. Or he could have been the mounted policeman who was intent on making his horse stomp me as I cowered on the steps of the state capitol. Or possibly the jailer who ordered black prisoners to drag me and other white marchers from an integrated cell to a segregated one. Although he wasn’t any of them, in my mind he represented all of them. He was dying and looked to me for compassion. And my convictions said, “Give it,” but I couldn’t.
There are times when, despite our best efforts, we can’t become the person we want to be. I aspired to be compassionate to Clarence, to connect with him as a human being. I wanted to serve him, but I couldn’t. I realized that, when compassion couldn’t be tapped into, understanding might be. What would I have become if I had been born in Selma to segregationist parents who great-great-grandparents owned slaves, and whose fundamentalist religion espoused the superiority of whites, Protestants, and the Confederate cause? How different would I be? It was a matter of happenstance that I was born in the North to parents who were Jewish and who, because of the persecution they had experienced in Europe and the United States, taught me the importance of tolerance. Clarence, on the other hand, was born in a place with a history of bigotry. It was the circumstances of our lives that made us different.
The Takeaway: You may struggle to forgive someone who you believe committed an act so terrible you can’t offer forgiveness. In your mind, what the person did to you was so heinous not only can’t it be forgiven, but the painful emotions associated with it persist. Try to understand the motivations behind the unskillful things done to you. Although “understanding” doesn’t have the power of “forgiveness,” it will reduce the control the offensive has over your emotional well-being.
Nobody wants to engage in painful behaviors, yet they populate our history. When we are the perpetrator or victim, we hope the memories will vanish or at least be muted over time. While that may be true for some offensives, for other more substantial ones, the reverse if true. And just as buoys released from the depths of the ocean, they pop up, causing us endless grief. During this holiday season, one of the greatest gifts you can give to others and yourself is offering and asking for forgiveness.