The Lacking Piece of the Forgiveness Puzzle

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Source: Nick Fewings / Unsplash

Should you forgive without apologizing after your sibling, friend, work colleague, parent, or child insults you or causes you pain?

Susan Shapiro, a professor of writing at the New School, is the author of The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. In her new book – ten years in the making – she spoke to therapists, religious leaders, and people who had experienced terrible mistakes that were never corrected. In this guest post, she takes us in her anger and dismay at the person she trusted most and who offered no explanation for his actions or regrets. On her journey to find answers, she shares surprising pieces of the forgiveness puzzle that can lead to peace and reconciliation.

Guest contribution by Susan Shapiro:

After the controversial elections and the ongoing pandemic, half the country is trying to find out if it could forgive the other half. I have always prided myself on being a forgiving person who never held grudges. But that changed the night I caught her leaving his brown stone.

“I can’t believe you lied to me!” I told him and felt betrayed.

“I wasn’t lying,” he replied, closing the door so no one could hear anything.

No, my husband didn’t cheat on me with another woman. It was my longtime therapist who made me feel betrayed. He had sworn not to treat my favorite student. Your deception irritated me.

“I’m getting an All About Eve aura from her,” I’d warned him six months earlier. “She’s already working with two editors whom I recommended. She wanted numbers for my literary agent and Jungian astrologer. Now she’s asked to see you too. We’re being connected.”

“She sounds crazy,” he commented.

“Don’t be funky. She’s important to me. What if she contacts you?” I asked. He had been my mentor for fifteen years. A brilliant specialist in substance abuse, he had helped me quit smoking, drinking, and drugs, getting married, reducing debt, and starting a new career.

“I’ll refer you to someone else,” he assured me.

Sharing a shrink wasn’t like having the same dentist, I had told her. Dr. W. had guided me through substance withdrawal and recovery in my forties, creating the kind of intense addiction you would have on an AA sponsor. Although he was only eight years older than me, I saw him as a father figure. While I freely referred my peers and classes with professional contacts, this was more personal. I didn’t want to meet her in his waiting room, my sacred space. I suggested that she try one of the other 20,000 chief medical officers in town.

“I will,” she said. “Sorry if I exceeded.”

End of the story. At least I thought, until six months later I was shocked when she came out of his office. I learned that he had treated her behind my back for six months. He even scheduled her appointment just before mine and was late, as if he wanted me to find out. Your double deception irritated me. Wasn’t it his job to be trustworthy? When I urged him to explain why he cheated on me, apologized, and fixed the problem, he said, “I hope you will forgive the imaginary crime you believe I committed.”

My crisis management strategy became my crisis.

I spun around until dawn and had nightmares of my father running away with the red-haired daughter I didn’t have. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or concentrate on work. According to fire emails from Dr. W. who said I was irrational to be upset, I even sang a secret Yiddish curse to get revenge. (“The Goodman women were always witches,” my mother said of her side of the family.) When he emailed him being bedridden and having kidney stone pain, I was petrified that my spell could be him kill. Sleep deprived, my sanity slipped. I was afraid I would fall behind – or worse.

My husband worriedly insisted that I cut them both off. For six months I refused to talk to Dr. W. to speak or answer his e-mails or messages. But that didn’t end my misery. I remained amazed that someone who had been so empathetic could suddenly be hurtful. I kept trying to figure out why he had changed. Tired of my boring problems? Maybe he needed the money? I hated being so angry and wish I could understand and move on. If he just explained what happened and apologized for lying, I would forgive him for anything. But I couldn’t forgive anyone who didn’t even think they’d done something wrong.

It seemed a fake research into the multi-billion dollar “forgiveness industry” that helped forgive everyone. But without my longtime guru to guide me, I was desperate for instructions. I read hard covers about forgiveness from all angles. I interviewed religious leaders of various denominations and asked them about their theory of forgiving someone who wouldn’t say, “I’m sorry.”

Although Jesus famously said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” one pastor declared that an unrepentant sinner would not really be forgiven. A Muslim chaplain made it clear that in Islam, forgiveness followed repentance. A Hasidic colleague said, “According to Jewish law, a person must ask for forgiveness three times. If the injured person does not forgive, the sinner is forgiven and the unbeliever must ask forgiveness in order not to forgive.” The request, however, had to be inspired by sincere regret that my mentor lacked.

I felt validated when my cousin Danny reminded me that admitting guilt and expressing remorse reduced sentences in many criminal cases. I have underlined chapters in books that describe the elements of a complete apology: 1) Acknowledge your mistake and take responsibility for it. 2) Explain why it happened. 3) Show it won’t happen again. 4) Offer redress for the healing.

Now this philosophy I could wrap my heated head around. But I still couldn’t get over the fact that he had no regrets.

After telling friends and colleagues what happened, they revealed dramatic stories of mistakes they had experienced that were never corrected. When I asked how they dealt with it, they shared their wisdom. Some have managed to pardon offenders based on a person’s general kindness from the past, while others held grudges and found ways to thrive despite everything.

When telling my story to a doctor who grew up in a Hindu family, he also found it mysterious that a professional who had been kind for fifteen years suddenly turned me on. “There is a piece missing from your puzzle that you can’t see yet,” he said, offering a metaphor: “A commuter was furious when a woman in an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the back seat that almost made you He didn’t know the driver’s child was choking. Likewise, there’s something you don’t know about your mentor’s life that sheds light on why he hurt you. “

He was right. Six months later, Dr. W. via email that he was sorry and asked if he could apologize personally. There he explained that his wife and daughter had ongoing medical crises that had mixed up his mind and life.

“Why didn’t you just tell me you were sick?” I asked.

“Difficult to discuss. My wife is private. I was rejected and thought I’d split up and still do my job well. It feels like I’ve lost a whole year.”

“I’m so sorry. I had no idea,” I heard myself say, thinking that if my spouse was seriously ill, I would probably lose them too. After his full Mea Culpa, he found ways to make amends. We co-wrote an addiction book to help others overcome substance addiction, and it even became a bestseller (for two weeks) to prove how fruitful forgiveness can be. It felt so liberating that I forgave myself and apologized to everyone I had unknowingly hurt.

Copyright @ 2021 by Susan Shapiro

Connected: When are difficult sibling relationships worth fighting?

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