July 10, 2013

This post first appeared in 2007 on my original Steve’s Not Nice blog on Blogger as part of a series on character. Now that I have integrated my blogs into one site here at Blazing Core, I am posting the series here.

I come from a family of people who don’t apologize very often—some never. It’s not because they’re without flaws. I know that because a lot of people in the family were good at pointing out the flaws of the other people. But none of us were very good at seeing and admitting flaws in ourselves. If one person said he’d been mistreated by another person, the “accused” would make excuses, deny there was any wrongdoing, or point to the “accuser’s” history to show that, by comparison, the alleged misdeed was not much to complain about.

I also come from a broader background, in school mostly, where apologies had to be sincere enough to be accepted. If Jimmy hit Johnny, Jimmy had to say “sorry” without rolling his eyes or groaning or the teacher would make him try again. If Johnny didn’t believe Jimmy was really “sorry,” he would say so and not accept the apology.

As I reached adulthood and was working in the family child care center, then also in schools and a residential treatment center, I tried to explain to children why they were expected to apologize for wrongdoing. I told them it was acknowledging that you had done something wrong that hurt or offended another person. I told them it showed that you felt empathy for the pain you had caused to another person. I told them it showed you regretted what you did and wished you hadn’t done it. I even told them it meant you intended not to do that thing again!

As you can tell, I was naive. The best an apology can mean is: I realize I caused hurt, and I know I shouldn’t have done what I did. It doesn’t always mean I wish I hadn’t done it, and it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t do it again! An honest apology would probably sound something like, “I’m sorry I ________ you. I’ll probably regret it later, but right now it still seems kinda like you deserved it. I’d be mad if someone did that to me so I know it was probably wrong. I can’t guarantee I won’t do it again. In fact, change takes time so I’ll probably act that way a lot.”

As I learned later, I was conflating forgiveness with restoration. Apologies don’t have to be “good enough” for someone to forgive. In fact, you can forgive without ever getting an apology. Apologies help in the process of forgiving, and sincere apologies can help with restoration. But apologies don’t have to precede forgiveness. Forgiveness is not earned and it is not bestowed.

I’m in favor of a different sort of message now. Forgiveness is good for the forgiver. Failing to forgive leads to ongoing hurt and resentment in the non-forgiver. We all need to forgive at least as much as we need to receive forgiveness from other people.

You can forgive and still have requirements for restoration. You can forgive and still need a lot of time to heal. But for your own sake you need to forgive as soon as you feel able.

Forgiveness is acknowledging the hurt and pain caused by someone’s offense, and at the same time letting go of the claim on revenge or punishment, or even restitution. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, but it does mean letting go of the past. Forgiveness frees the forgiver to move forward by letting go of the demand the transgressor must satisfy justice. It means letting go of anger and the desire to hurt in return. Forgiveness ends the conflict and opens the door for restoration, but it does not guarantee restoration. A person deeply hurt may require changes in a relationship in order to be willing to continue it. The transgressor may or may not agree. A person can forgive but choose not to continue a relationship. Even without restoration of a relationship, forgiveness is the way to let go of past hurt and move forward. It frees the forgiver as much as it frees the forgiven.


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