In a 2008 essay in the journal In Character, history professor Wilfred McClay writes that as a society we have twisted the meaning of forgiveness into a therapeutic act for the victim: “[F]orgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.” Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School writes that, “There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’ ”
We have a day of love – Valentine’s. We have a day of repentance – Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. But, we don’t really have an acknowledged day of forgiveness in this society (no, I know – there are hundreds of random days like “Give Your Neighbors Zucchini Day” on the Insight Calendar, but let’s get real, here).
That there’s no one day set aside for “this thing” is probably because it is harder than it looks, more complex, more nuanced, than what can be experienced in a single day.
Oh, closure, schmosure, and reel in your talk of reparations. It’s not about what you’re owed, or what you need, but about what’s been done – and how you survived. It’s hard to be okay with people who aren’t really sorry for the things that they’ve done to you, who are armed with justifications for the whys of their behavior, but not with heartfelt concern for your reaction to it, and never with real remorse. It’s harder still that society, religious dogma, some psychologists, parents – loads of people are all for us forgiving an affront in the face of the most meaningless and mumbled “sorry.” Maybe it’s one of the reasons I love the blog SorryWatch so much; like an Olympic judge, I hold up my card when I hear those hurried or heartfelt words: ooh, started out well, but didn’t stick the landing, 5.5 – an honest effort, let’s see how the follow up goes; 7.5 – Hmm, sounds like we’re on the way to real remorse, here, 9.5, 9.6, 10… but, there’s never a perfect ten, is there? Is there? Do we often hear real apologies that are sincerely meant?
My least favorite apologies are like the ones my father gave us when we were really small – in third person, from the doorway, into our darkened bedrooms when we could not see him. “Daddy’s sorry,” in a mumbled sing-song. My favorite apologies these days are from my three-year-old nephew, who sweetly says, “Sorry, Auntie,” when I tell him for the umpteenth time NOT to thump something on the wooden floor and shriek while we’re trying to talk, and not to break the crayons he’s been given to draw with, and not to scribble on the floor. His apologies are always 10.0 – in that moment, he’s really, truly sorry. In that moment. The next moment, however, is but a heartbeat away…
Repeat offenders may indeed have a problem with sincerity. And believability. And we, as those offended, struggle with immense pressure from society to “forgive and forget,” and sometimes, sometimes… forgiveness can feel a whole lot like gullibility. And that’s a really yucky feeling.
When I was teaching, yard duty meant that I was breaking up petty quarrels on a every-five-seconds basis. And one of the requirements of Ms. Davis for an apology was a.) acknowledging the error, b.) telling Ms. Davis how or why it was wrong, c.) and explaining how the path of behavior would henceforth be changed. I was never one of those pushing a small child to “Say you’re sorry!” because some of us don’t even know what “sorry” means.
Journalist Emily Yoffe always speaks clearly and logically about the human condition, and here she breaks down forgiveness into bite-sized pieces. Her words on what we owe abusive or damagingly unapologetic people – parents – is food for thought.
I peruse this line of inquiry because I like to write about family, friendships, and forgiveness… but sometimes I wonder if I’m really writing honestly, and if there is yet more to say… There is a dearth of honest conversation on this topic, but the issue is real, and it’s there, and it’s one I think about often.