Every year this season draws families, friends and colleagues together. There is love in the air, but also painful memories of breached trust and unresolved conflict. The power of forgiveness, the instinct for revenge and the need for reconciliation is ever present in our lives. Forgiveness may be the most difficult challenge we ever face. For those, however, who are able to forgive and are graced by others who forgive us, we are fortunate indeed.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski, in Forgiveness – Don’t let resentment keep you captive, writes that every experience we have in our lives is stored in the memory hard drive of our subconscious. Some are harmless, some edifying and others painful. Though we may have repressed them we are, nevertheless, the sum total of those memories. We are fashioned by them and we relate to others through our memory’s lens.
Rabbi Twerski says: “With every additional year there are more provocations (major and minor) and the sum total is cumulative…when we don’t forgive an offense, it remains in the subconscious and it joins similar feelings for the various complexes to which it belongs.”
Forgiveness is often misunderstood. Forgiving does not mean excusing the bad behavior of others or forgetting that we’ve been wronged. Rather, forgiveness means letting go of the anger, resentment and need for revenge.
What if the people who hurt us or offended us have not apologized and think they were justified in what they did? Are we supposed to forgive them? The answer is yes, not for their sake but for ours. Forgiving an offender is not about doing him a favor. Getting rid of our resentment and need for vengeance is for our own good so that those negative feelings cease to complicate our lives.
The ideal goal is reconciliation with the offending other. But this is not always possible.
I heard a moving story this week about a woman in her 70s who had not spoken with her sister in 40 years. One day out of the blue her sister called to inform her that she was dying, and before she died she wanted to see her. They met, her sister apologized for the wrong that had caused the breach and asked for forgiveness. They wept together and reconciled. After she died the surviving sister felt as though a heavy burden had been lifted from her, and the love she once felt for her sister returned.
As we encounter family, friends and colleagues during these final days of the year, perhaps now is our time to dig deeply, summon the courage, take the risk, and ask for and seek forgiveness of others.
Michael McCullough, in his book Beyond Revenge – The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, extends the principles of interpersonal forgiveness to groups, communities and nations. He writes:
“The forgiveness instinct needs to be activated. When we do this we can change the world. Groups can be helped to forgive other groups, communities can be helped to forgive other communities, …and nations can even be helped to forgive other nations. Leaders… can offer apologies on behalf of their people to groups with whom they’ve been in conflict. They can also offer gestures that express remorse and empathy for the suffering of another group, and they can provide compensation to groups of people whom they’ve harmed – just as individuals can. When they engage in such gestures, it is often to great effect.” (p. 182-183)
Think of such gestures on the world stage that have been offered, and the effect. Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jewish people for Christendom’s participation in the Holocaust. Japanese leaders offered public apologies for war atrocities committed against China, Korea and other neighbors. The United States apologized to Japanese Americans who we interred in concentration camps during World War II. The Irish Republican Army apologized for the deaths of noncombatants during the war in northern Ireland.
Is it not time for Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to apologize on behalf of their peoples for the pain and suffering experienced by non-combatants on each side as a first step to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
It is never too late. Forgiveness can come at any time.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:
If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.