On Forgiveness and Sincere Apology

 
On Forgiveness and apology, their interaction and the relative power of each, I often think of an experience from decades ago as one of the best illustrations of the amazing healing power of a complete apology. 
 
It began with a comment a friend dashed off back in the age of snail mail, in response to a badly recorded guitar solo on an early Ray Charles tune (that later was retooled with new lyrics and became the gem “Hard Times”) I’d sent him on a cassette.  I’d pointed out the solo and commented that the blues solo in the jazzy setting was something I admired, was trying to learn from, or something to that effect.  My friend wrote, a phrase I remember being greatly stung by, although it has no sting anymore: “no offense, pal, but that solo was so amateurish, I thought it was you.”
 
I called him, mightily peeved, and when I read him the offending line he sounded truly aghast (might have been a good act, but it worked) and it became clear at once that he’d had no intention of saying what he appeared to have said (or at least he skillfully and immediately conveyed that impression).  He told me he understood how terrible the words sounded, that he would have taken it the same way I did.  He agreed the words as written were hurtful, told me he hadn’t intended the offense, said he was sorry.  
 
The relief was instant, and I think the empathy– that he would have felt as I did, that it wasn’t crazy of me to have been a little offended — was a key to that.   I did not have to weigh for a second whether to forgive him or not.  The insult had not been intended, or so I was convinced by his clarification, and the hurt of it disappeared immediately.  As hurt as I’d been by the artlessly phrased line, I was grateful for and instantly relieved by the apology.  I recall the immediate effect of the apology clearly to this day, decades later. 
 
It is a rare experience, the one I’ve just described, not just for me but for anyone.  People rarely apologize for anything in our In-Your-Fucking-Face, Asshole, Culture, the most common facsimile being the annoying “if-pology” (a tip of the chapeau to Harry Shearer, who may have coined the useful term): if you were offended (why not let the passive voice be used for further distance from responsibility?) then I’m sorry.   Sorry if you were pathetic enough to need my stinking apology, in other words.
 
In the case of someone who has done terrible, objectively abusive things — and waits until hours before his death more than 40 years later to utter his first acknowledgment that he probably shouldn’t have acted that way, and apologizes for the first and last time– we’re presented with a different scenario. 
 
For my own mental health I had to figure out a way not to be angry at a father who, in a fundamental way, was close to insane.  My many attempts to have a dialogue with him over the decades were roughly rebuffed.  He was so damaged that he couldn’t help but inflict the damage he did.  He was unlikely to ever acknowledge it, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have been able to on his death bed either, if I’d stood there angry at him as he was dying.
 
Fortunately for both of us, in intensive therapy not many months earlier I’d finally put the connections together to realize that, given the atrocious abuse he’d endured, he was not capable of being a more compassionate person, that his life was a tragedy, and very painful to him and that my only play was letting go of my own anger to the extent that I could.  
 
As I stood there talking to him those last couple of days of his life I was aware only of doing what I could to make his passing as easy as I could help to make it.  I repeated the phrase “if you could have done things differently you would have” every time he raised the whip over himself for what a monster he’d so often been.
 
So I’ve lived those two sides of apology/forgiveness.  A sincere apology definitely helps a person to forgive:  I hurt you, I understand why you were hurt, I didn’t mean it, I was wrong, I’m sorry, I’ll try my best not to do it again.  Please forgive me.  Easiest case.  I try my best to quickly apologize every time I’m aware I did something hurtful to someone I care about.   
 
Forgiving when the person is unrepentant– I think it can only be done when there is a strong psychic reason, like the person is a parent, or sibling, or if not forgiving will drive you mad, something like that.   And in that case one has to go through something like the same process of ‘apology’ on behalf of the other before you can forgive: he underwent traumas that made him a monster, he didn’t intend to become a monster, if he could have not been a monster he would have done it, he tortures himself for his monstrousness, etc.  Only after that series of understandings is reached can one let go of some of the pain by forgiving, it seems to me.  And forgiveness is for ourselves, primarily, if we are carrying anger in our hearts.
 
Jack Kornfield, Zen teacher, tells the one about two former prisoners of war who meet years later.    “Do you often think about our captivity?” asks one. “I think about it every day, and whenever I do I think of going back and slaughtering them all,” says the other.   “Well,” says the first,”then you are still their prisoner.”  
 
Without the acknowledgment of injury, and a sincere attempt to make it right, there is only hurt and anger in the injured party most of the time.  In the case of rough characters who are not my father, I toss them aside if they repeatedly dismiss as neurotic over-sensitivity my hurt reactions to hurtful things they do.  Don’t want to talk about it?  Fine.  Have a nice day.
 
I can really relate to the anger of people living in a fifth or tenth generation of inherited poverty that goes back to slavery and the 40 acres and a mule they were promised but never got.   This immensely wealthy nation has never really given any sort of meaningful apology to its former slaves for the obscenely profitable monstrosity of the “Peculiar Institution”.  The shameful subject is most often daintily dismissed as unfortunate ancient history, though in my lifetime lynching was still a matter of “states’ rights”.  Those who call for reparations for centuries of slave labor are thought of by most whites as grand-standing polemicists, even though economists have calculated the almost incalculable wealth created here by slave labor, on behalf of the genteel “Planters”, some of our wealthiest and most powerful families.
 
“You … er, uh, n-words, are so fucking over-sensitive, we built housing projects for you, we give you money for nothing, let you get into college with lower SAT scores, still give affirmative action to a few of you, we even conduct investigations when a police department shows a pattern of racist harassment, brutality and murder against you — what the devil more do you want from us?”  only goes so far.  And how far it goes is nowhere.
 
Sorry.
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