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Flavors of Forgiveness: What to do when it's not "all good"

Updated: Oct 1, 2022

Welcome to the season of begging forgiveness. We run around apologizing, trying to let go of past resentments and obtain pardons for our own transgressions. For many of us, much of the time, this can be a simple, annual interpersonal cleansing, an apology-acceptance social ritual. It can feel great to dissipate some of that awkwardness, clear the air, hug it out, smile and say “it’s all good”, letting bygones be bygones, and other fuzzy platitudes.

But for some of us, some of the time, it can be a little stickier. What about those really bad offenses? The ones still reverberating painfully in our lives, the ones where amends weren’t properly made, or the ones where no one actually bothered to take accountability or apologize?

I’ve always felt that there were categories of feelings, and one useful dichotomy is: intellectual vs emotional feelings. I know the idea of emotional feelings may sound redundant, but I’ll explain:

Imagine that you hurt me, and then ask forgiveness. In response, I scowl and say: “Yeah, ok, fine- whatever, I guess I forgive you..” and then sort of roll my eyes, and turn away. Does that sound much like forgiveness? Probably not.  BUT….

Let’s say, instead, I reply: “You know what? No. I don’t forgive you. You really need to learn to think before you speak- you hurt me very much, and it’s just not ok.” That one is REALLY not forgiving, whereas the first example is offering something, just that it’s reluctant or insincere.

Of course, ideally, what we’re looking for is something more like this: “What you did was hurtful, and I’ve been upset, but I appreciate your apology. I know you don’t want to hurt me, and so I accept it and forgive you. It’s ok now; I’m ready to move on.” This is an example of genuine forgiveness.  

But what should we do when someone apologizes and asks forgiveness, and we don’t want to be dramatic or perpetuate the conflict, yet we’re just not feeling the love?

One idea might be to say within ourselves, (and when appropriate, even to the offending party):

“Honestly, this is where I’m up to: Officially, I don’t want to be angry or bear an active grudge. I don’t wish anything bad on this person, and I certainly don’t want him to suffer for this. So between me, him, and G-d- we’re squared away technically and officially. BUT… I’m not quite finished feeling sad/hurt/upset about what happened, so I don’t want to get too close right now, or maybe ever. I’m not ready to reconnect or trust yet.  As time goes on, and things go better, I may feel more ready to move on from this, but right now, intellectually and practically, you’re forgiven, but emotionally, I’m not quite there yet.”  

Of course, it’s up to each individual to decide whether and when he is ready to forgive at all, depending on the degree of the offense, remorse, and circumstances, whether this time of year, or anytime. Forgiveness, in extreme cases may not always be possible, or advisable, even partially.

But this is simply a useful tool, when we might want to forgive cognitively but we’re not ready to do so emotionally.

Wishing everyone a safe, healthy, happy year, of blessings and all things good.

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