Every year around this time I struggle with the idea of asking and granting what feels like lip-service forgiveness.
As kids, it seemed silly how we would all run around repeating: “Do you forgive me?” barely waiting for an answer, as we were leaving the school building, just to be “covered for the holidays.” As adults, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t feel that much more genuine most of the time.
I’m not generally an angry person, and if someone sincerely apologizes for something reasonable, I’m happy to forgive. But there are some people that I don’t really forgive for what they’ve done, either because it’s especially hurtful to me, or because I know they’re just going to do it again, or they don’t understand why it bothered me so much.
On the other side, I struggle with the pressure to remember everyone who might be upset at me and anything I might have done wrong, and then make sure that they forgive me for it, all just because of a calendar box on the year.
I try to be a good Jew, and I want to have a good year, so I go through the “sorry, sorry” motions anyway, because it seems like it would be bad to leave this stuff hanging. But I’m wondering if you could help me
feel less cynical with more insight about this practice. Sincerely, Not totally sorry, not totally forgiving
Dear Not Totally,
Thank you for your emotional honesty and spiritual integrity. In general, we might hope that our levels of function will advance from childlike or simplistic over time, and become more sophisticated and nuanced as we mature, but specifically in the realm of religious practice or social interactions, that doesn’t always happen on its own.
The idea of having a seasonal focus on taking moral and relational inventory to make amends can be a valuable construct for addressing rifts. But as you said, for it to be genuine, it needs to be more than perfunctory or performative. Both Torah and psychology literature have rich content to help us analyze this repair process, but here I’ll speak within my therapy lane, while recognizing that Torah wisdom predated contemporary psychology. Let’s try to break down the process:
1.Introspection: pausing to think about what I may have done wrong and to whom 2.Remorse: Allowing myself to feel sorry and regretful for whatever harm I might have caused 3.Acknowledgement: Admitting to the offended person(s) “I realize I did that, and I understand that it was wrong and how I hurt you.” 4.Apology: Expressing this sincere remorse as a specific “I statement” that encompasses both items 2 and 3 and taking responsibility for the relevant consequences of those actions 5.Offering, when possible, to make some sort of concrete amends 6.Committing to try and do better 7.Requesting forgiveness I’m embarrassed to admit that I was well into adulthood when it finally dawned on me that apologizing and asking forgiveness were not synonymous, but in fact quite different. Someone was confiding terrible guilt about something she’d done, and asking for advice, so I asked: “Well to start, did you apologize?” She replied: “How could I ask them to forgive me for that?”
That’s when I realized how much I’d also aways conflated apology with asking forgiveness, when they really are very separate exchanges. Apologizing is the speaker taking ownership and expressing remorse, while asking forgiveness is the offender making a personal request of the aggrieved. I replied to her: “Maybe you don’t need to ask for forgiveness if you don’t think they’re ready. But it might help for them to hear that you understand what you did, how it affected them, and that you regret it. Without asking them to respond or do anything for you.”
(She did end up expressing that to them, in writing. They were quiet about it at first, but the next day, sent a message saying that they appreciated hers. It wasn’t forgiveness but it was a step toward repair.) In these cases, we’re talking about significant ruptures. When there’s a minor oversight, slight, thoughtless remark, or misunderstanding, and everyone agrees that it was inconsequential, then often a simpler apology will suffice. But with a deeper cut or a repeated hurt, the repair may be more layered, complex, and sometimes incomplete- some injuries heal entirely, while some leave effects or scars.
As much as we may want to, we generally can’t fast track someone else’s healing process to a wound we caused. We can only control what we do from our end. And what we can do is examine the incident, empathize, regret what we may have damaged, admit it to ourselves and to the relevant parties, express the remorse, apologize sincerely, and try to make specific amends where possible. Requesting forgiveness may not be appropriate right away and may make the other steps look like just disingenuous means to receiving amnesty. I’ve frequently heard one spouse say to another in a session, after what may have landed as a superficial or dismissive apology:
“Are you sorry because you understand why I’m hurt, or because it’s annoying for you that I’m upset, and you just want to not be in a fight anymore?”
It can feel almost like: “I’m sorry I made fun of you; hope we’re good now. Also: could you do me a favor?” So I agree with you that a flippant: “It’s Elul- sorry if I did anything; hope you forgive me,” can ring hollow if there’s been a real problem, and in those cases, a more substantive conversation would be preferable. But I do see the value in the practice of broadly reaching out to those in our lives in a seasonal way, sending them blessing, and apologizing for any potential leftover, unaddressed hurt that we may have inflicted without realizing or remembering, and even inviting people to let us know so we can discuss or apologize properly.
I also appreciate the practice of mindfully releasing the smaller, pettier, even subconscious grudges or judgments we might be holding within ourselves, that don’t require a whole interaction. It allows us to declutter space in our hearts, move forward, and rise above what was, to focus on what matters more. Again, this will work for basically healthy stable people and relationships; when it comes to trauma or deeper betrayal, as described above, we may need more complex emotional or relational work. Now on the difficulty of forgiving:
Sometimes, forgiveness may not feel or even be possible, or it can take more time, depending on the relationship and the depth and severity of the offense. But if/when a person would theoretically like to forgive, but is struggling to do so wholeheartedly, it might help to think about the idea of gradations, or “flavors of forgiveness.” In our prayers, we have multiple words for forgiving, and they are explained by commentaries in exquisite nuance.
Let’s try to categorize in general levels:
1.Nominal forgiveness: This might help for people who may not realize what they did, or how you feel about it, but it doesn’t seem worth it to engage with them about it. For ex: Your fourth-grade teacher who criticized your oral report in front of the class, and since then you’re nervous about public speaking. It can also work if you want to try to forgive those who either won’t apologize, or who’ve apologized, but you’re still not really ok about what happened. What this basically says is: I don’t want anyone to suffer significant harm or punishment because of what they did to me.
2.Intellectual forgiveness: This is useful for when we’re ready to begin moving on cognitively but are not finished metabolizing the hurt emotionally or may not believe the relationship can or should go back to what it was, either now, or even ever. But it’s a release of the conscious, active position of anger, resentment, grudge, or indignation.
3.Partial forgiveness: This is easier when the person has made a good faith effort to repair, and you can say, either to them or yourself, “I understand and accept that s/he is trying to mend the rupture, and the feelings start to dissipate as a result, over time.”
4.Real, complete forgiveness: You’ve processed what was, spoken about it so that you feel understood and validated, or moved to a place where you no longer need that, and can honestly let go of that heaviness for that person. (Please note: forgiving does not have to also mean “forgetting” despite the alliterative cliché. Forgetting, definitionally, can’t really be a deliberate choice anyway.) Complete forgiveness is not the same as excusing, justifying, or acting as though it never happened. It’s more of a healing integration. Another tip: When someone apologizes, you don’t need to trivialize what happened by saying things like: “that’s okay,” “no big deal,” “I’m over it,” “it’s all good,” or “it’s not your fault.” (It’s great to say that if it’s true.) But it’s also fine to say: “Thank you for saying that,” “I appreciate that,” or “I forgive you,” even if it feels awkward.
There are also some occasions where a two-way apology might be appropriate, and one party might not have realized. It’s healthy to be open to this possibility as well, of a mutual relational repair (which is not the same as moral equivalency.)
We can’t always make it alright, but often we can make it incrementally better. Forgiveness is not all or nothing. The point of this apologizing ritual is not to flippantly absolve the guilt, but to try and make ourselves and our relationships a little healthier and more respectful each year.
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*This was originally published in the Five Towns Jewish Times