Forgiveness and Apology

In A God of Infinite Possibility on September 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm

          I do not forgive you for you.  I forgive you for myself, and for the relationship I wish to have with you.  You have done something that has hurt me in some way.  What ever it is you have done, it has consequences beyond the initial hurt itself.  The hurt has led to anger, to grief, perhaps even to fear and defensiveness, to a distancing between us.  I cannot do anything about the fact that your actions have hurt me.  It happened.  But I can do something about these other burdens.  I can do something about my anger, grief, and fear.  I can do something so that I can make a clear and healthy choice about my relationship with you.  When I forgive you I allow myself to put down those burdens, so I can heal.  If my forgiveness helps you heal, also, then I am glad of it, but your healing belongs to you as my healing belongs to me.

           If I think that I am forgiving you for you, then I make myself superior to you.  I make the claim that my injury gives me power over you, the power to forgive or not.  Because your actions have hurt me, you are made inferior to me, subordinate to my pain or anger, my grief or fear.  If I think that I am forgiving you for you, then my forgiveness seeks to obligate you.  I have forgiven you, so now you owe me something for that.  What is our relationship after I give you this gift of my forgiveness?  You need to forgive yourself for the consequences of your actions; unless you can do that, you will sooner or later resent such forgiveness, blame me for your guilt.  When you know, however, that my forgiveness is an act of self-healing, that I do not require your guilt, do not desire it, then it becomes your responsibility and you may do with it what you will.

                When I apologize, I do that for you.  Something I have done has hurt you.  I may not have intended it, or perhaps I did.  Perhaps I was thoughtless or careless, or insensitive of your needs.  Or perhaps I was angry, or defensive, or fearful.  Perhaps there was a lack of trust, or courage.  Perhaps I was simply ignorant or stupid.  In any case, my actions have hurt you and I must take responsibility for those actions and their consequences.  When I say that I am sorry, I am saying that I accept responsibility for my actions and I recognize that they have hurt you.  I have, first, acknowledged that; then I have decided that it is also my responsibility to make the effort to help you heal the hurt that my actions have caused.  When I apologize sincerely and honestly, I do it as an act of healing, and of love.

                If I apologize for myself, then my selfishness might actually increase the hurt.  If I say I’m sorry so that I don’t have to actually resolve the conflict that the hurt represents between us, then I miss the opportunity to understand how my actions have hurt you and what your needs are; and that injures our relationship as much as my hurtful actions, perhaps more.  If I apologize for me, then I am saying that it is I who am the injured party.  The hurt you feel makes me uncomfortable, frightens me.  I am angered by it, resent it, fear it.  I want you to stop being angry with me, stop being hurt by me, so that I can get back to my life without feeling my fair share of responsibility for that anger, that injury.

It is important, however, that we both understand that responsibility is not the same as blame and apology does not need to come out of guilt.  It needs to be clear whether I am apologizing for my actions or for your injury.  If my actions were wrong, but not intentional (I didn’t act specifically to hurt you), then I can apologize for those actions.  If my actions are reasonable, but you are injured by them, then I can apologize for the injury without apologizing for my actions.  If my actions were intended to hurt, then I can apologize for both my choices and the consequence of those choices for you.  In any case, apology offers me the opportunity to ask how I might help you to heal the hurt.

                Forgiveness and apology should not be confused with forgetting.  Remembering the relationship of action to consequence allows us to learn from our hurts.  We can build better relationships, make ourselves stronger, love and trust more openly, we can take the risks, when we remember what hurts us; and when we know that forgiveness and healing are possible.

                In the same way, forgiveness and apology do not mean that the relationship is not changed, nor that it shouldn’t change.  If you have hurt me greatly, then even if you have apologized and I have forgiven, it might be that we need to sever the relationship for the continued growth and health of one or both of us.  This is true even where there is genuine love, perhaps especially so.  A woman who has been abused by the man in her life may forgive him; he may find a way to forgive himself, and to apologize sincerely to her; they both may go through a process of learning how to get their needs met in healthy, rather than hurtful, ways.  They may continue to genuinely love one another.  And it may be best for them both that they go their separate ways.  Old relationships where there has been hurt contain traps for us; memories that may bring back anger or fear or grief; and these can infect the relationship in ways we may not even be aware of.  It may take more than even genuine, unconditional love to overcome the memories and avoid the traps.  It certainly requires enormous courage and vigilance and self-examination.  Some relationships might be able to do it, but it should not be expected or assumed.

                Both forgiveness and apology need to be choices we make unconditionally and without expectations.  “If you will apologize, I will forgive you,” leads to insincere apology and controlling forgiveness.  “I apologized, so you ought to forgive me,” seeks to avoid responsibility and shortchange the other’s legitimate feelings.  We must forgive and apologize in our own time and on our terms. 

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