The Washington Post surprised me the other day with an op-ed featuring Warren G. Harding – the first president after World War I, most-remembered for the corruption in his administration. That’s him throwing out the first pitch. It was a weird week. First, I liked Dick Cheney, of all people, for accompanying Liz to the Jan. 6 commemoration. Then I read WaPo and ended up admiring the super-capitalist, Teapot Dome president!
I did not know that Harding forgave Eugene V. Debs! He commuted the sentence of the Socialist who ran against him from prison! Debs’ crime was doubting-out-loud the validity of WWI — he called it a diabolical capitalist war. I guess I would have voted for him. However, he got no affection from the Woodrow Wilson administration. They threw Debs in jail for his speech with a dubious application of the Espionage Act. When Harding followed Wilson he decided, against the advice of his advisors, to forgive Debs. He even made sure the traitor came to the White House on his way home from prison, so he could meet him and form some connection.
Biden has been acting out a similar public drama for us all year. He’d love to forgive people. But he took the gloves off on Epiphany and laid out Trump. For most of the year he has been restrained, trying hard to bridge the divide. But maybe that’s over. Are you similarly conflicted? Do you rehearse snappy things you would say to your enemies in your head — the zingers you will never get a chance to deliver? What do you do when your offender will not apologize, much less reconcile?
Have you decided how you are going to handle the people who have undermined you, lied about you and then blamed you for what they did to you? A lot of us are in a lot of drama. All over the country divorces have gone up, families have been divided over politics, churches have split and pastors have resigned. You can’t look at the news, if you dare, without someone worrying about American “democracy” – which Eugene V. Debs did not think much of when he was jailed for saying something that 900,000 people voted for.
It can be hard to forgive sometimes, but if Warren Harding can do it, maybe we can too.
What if they don’t say they are sorry?
This is always the big question when it comes to forgiveness. What if the person who hurt us is not sorry? It is not uncommon for someone to protest when forgiveness is suggested:
I can’t let my guard down. That would be surrendering and acting like they were justified in hurting me. They would get away with their crime! I would be just as vulnerable to more of the abuse I just suffered.
I will not forgive until the other person: 1) knows that wrong was done; 2) feels an inner sorrow for doing it; 3) apologizes to me; 4) and makes amends. Then I’ll know it is safe to forgive and enter back into the relationship.
Most of us are taught to apologize from a young age along the lines of those four conditions. We bite a sibling, say something cruel, push someone around, and some well-meaning adult intervenes and tells us, “Now, say you’re sorry.” Half-hearted apologies ensue along with forced hugs and we move on. But something changes as we age. Apologies are harder to come by and pain cuts a little deeper than “She took my Sports Diva!”
What are you supposed to do when someone intentionally hurts you, rips your heart wide open, and then leaves you to pick up the pieces? What if they move on with their lives, with no well-meaning adult to come along and demand they apologize?
From our playground lessons, we’ve been conditioned to think that forgiveness follows an apology. But things change and people forget how to apologize. We protest and we hear “That’s your problem.” We get the unspoken message we’re wrong for being hurt. But living wronged with that prickly disconnection installed is a recipe for bitterness and it might even make us sick.
When hurt remains unforgiven, when the memory stays unprocessed, it sits in our hearts as if it is still happening. We wait for an apology in order to get some relief. Do you have anyone on whom you are still waiting? Is it fairly easy to get all worked up when their face pops into your mind or someone speaks about them fondly or you see them succeed? Jessica Harris wrote:
“My dad left our family when I was in elementary school. The pain caused by his abandonment ran deep. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly when I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Then, as I got older, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly and not care.
That ate away at my heart for years. The hurt remained unresolved as I waited for this man to return to my life and apologize for wrecking it. I thought my anger was my power. My ability to never forget was going to ensure I would never get hurt again. It was how I protected my heart.
That anger bled over into my other relationships. I became angry in general, always blaming it on my dad. If he would just admit he was wrong, my life would be better.”
I couldn’t tell that same story. But I have definitely had to work through similar hurts in the last few years. You probably have had some hurts too. My clients certainly share them every day: a trauma that is lodged in the memory and won’t go away, a loved one who betrayed their trust, an unscrupulous salesman or contractor who swindled them, a family member who hurt them but has since passed on. They still feel people who cut them deep but have never once breathed an apology. You might feel you have a right to hold a grudge, yourself.
What if anger is not strength?
Bitterness is an enemy of resilience. It is the opposite of joy isn’t it? It is the taste of poison. You cannot be strong and move forward with your life while still dragging around chests full of bitterness from your past like you’re Jacob Marley.
What kids rarely learn is that forgiveness is more for the forgiver than for the offender. Forgiveness is not, “I am OK with what you did.” It isn’t even, “I accept your apology.” It is, “I am not going to hold this in me or against you anymore.”
The point of forgiveness and apologies is ultimately reconciliation. An apology is extended by the person who committed the hurt. They need to do that to get free. Forgiveness is extended by the person who was hurt. It frees them more than the offender. Then two free people who have freed one another can move on to work out how to live together in love.
Even if you can’t get to reconciliation you can still forgive, and bring closure to a hurt. You can do that even if there is no apology. If you’re too hurt to forgive right away, take time to scab over. But try not to hold on too long. The anger you nurse is just the hurt hanging on. Being angry is not being strong. Forgiving brings strength that lets us really heal and move forward with life without waiting for someone to let us out of the bitterness prison.
Go ahead and forgive
Forgiveness is uncommon enough that it is actually studied. You can be a forgiveness expert. A growing body of research shows that best forgiveness practices are about people exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness even if there is no justice or even hope of reconciliation. One tries to be good, within reason, toward an offending person. As a result, the forgiver reduces their anger, anxiety and depression and improves their self-esteem and hope (Robert Enright). A good reason to forgive is to protect your health!.
We dare not conflate forgiveness and reconciliation. People often do, but we dare not. Forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation, restitution or justice. The offer of forgiveness can be unconditional, not dependent on the other’s response at all, including an apology. Sounds like Jesus, right? Reconciliation, when at least one party is deeply and unfairly hurt, is the fruit of forgiveness and apology and is conditional; it depends on how the offending party or parties understand their hurtful ways and change. Sounds like what Jesus would like to build, right?
A forgiver is motivated by their desire to be rid of resentment and act as good as is possible toward an offending person. If that person has no inner sorrow, never intends to apologize or to make amends, you don’t act like they do. Yet, you can still have the intention to reconcile if the person changes and interaction becomes safe. You even can show an outward quality of forgiveness, for example, by not talking disparagingly about the offender to others. It is working out Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If a person keeps abusing you, you can struggle for peace instead of just struggling against hurt. You don’t need to bear their responsibility.
Why not be healthy? If you reject forgiving because you conflate it with reconciliation, you deprive yourself of a chance to recover, lead a healthy psychological life and even a healthy relational life with others (if not necessarily with the offending person). Deep anger from injustices can lead to a lack of trust in general, thwarting potentially uplifting relationships.
How we think about forgiveness is important. If we make the mistake of waiting for an apology or holding out for an ideal reconciliation, we allow the offending person or a passing act to dominate us for a long time, maybe even for a lifetime if the wound is deep enough. Forgiving and reconciling are not the same. You are free to forgive, if you choose, even if someone refuses to apologize.