So, during the High Holidays we say the equivalent of ‘may no one be punished by You, God, because of something done to hurt me.’ That’s sort of kind of vaguely forgiveness of a sort. I was thinking about forgiveness – it seemed like an appropriate topic. Different rabbis talk about different levels of forgiveness, mekhila – letting go of any obligation between people, selikha – pardon, truly accepting the other person again despite mistake, kapara – granting atonement, reaching a level where the connection and relationship are fully restored. There are different words used and different ways of explaining forgiveness – release, exoneration, acceptance, forbearance, reconsiliation – and I found it all useful as a way of helping me through anger this year.
I have a fantasy of full forgiveness. The true apology, the reconciliation, that moment when I understand and am understood, when the fight was actually worthwhile and we end up closer than ever. It’s happened. I treasure the moments when it has – but it’s rare. There are few people who will stay through the pain and misunderstanding to reach that level, who will fight, even when it is irrationally emotional, to ensure that they are heard just because the relationship they are fighting about matters and must be maintained. Most people will back away, will take the space they need, will accept the preoccupation with the everyday and will never get to full forgiveness. Oh, but it’s beautiful on those rare occasions when someone is willing to go the distance, to truly understand and accept – to know the other. This is the forgiveness that says ‘I am glad you exist, and gladder than ever, and the hurt I suffered was worth the closeness I gained.’ It translates that Yom Kippur line into ‘don’t punish the one I love – I’m not angry any more and it’s better than it was.’ That kind of fighting, and the forgiveness that the apologies can then lead to; that is the key to trust and to love. I wish it could always be that way.
But it can’t. There’s children to take care of after all, and dishes to do and work to go to and besides, there’s the need for safety and protecting one’s pride and maintaining one’s boundaries…If one opens one’s heart with a true apology and it isn’t heard, why would one ever do so again with that person? So, the apologies become more guarded and more safe. “I’m sorry if anything I said there was hurtful – there was no intention…” There is forgiveness here too. It’s not that the relationship is back and stronger than ever. It’s just that we find a way to go on. Like the oyster, we wrap the problem in layers and layers of protective stuff so that it stops irritating us. We connect – but there’s an area where we ‘agree to disagree’. There’s space there and a break in our connection that wasn’t there before. I might choose to not mention that topic with a person whom I have this kind of forgiveness with. I might watch for signs that things are getting stressful and back away from confrontation. This kind of forgiveness says ‘Let’s have a good time together because there are many things we do well and I am glad to be with you – but let’s avoid this area because it’s a sensitive topic.’ The Yom Kippur line becomes ‘Don’t punish this person on my account even though I was hurt because I care about her and we’ve found a way to live with this hurtful situation or to avoid it’.
And what if there’s no apology? How can there be forgiveness then? It’s still important to let the anger go because anger and resentments are unhealthy – but oh, it’s not easy! The best I can do in those cases is just work on not thinking about it, not dwelling on the problem. Yes, I’m furious. But I don’t have to live there. I can accept that the person I’m fighting with is a person with his own problems, and that there’s nothing I can do about that. I don’t have to forgive him. I just have to be able to live in the same world, and to function without trying to think of ways to get back at him. The Yom Kippur line changes again and now it’s, ‘while emotionally, I might like a ton of bricks to fall on that schmuck’s head, nevertheless, she’s a person, and people don’t deserve bad things, so may God not punish her but instead bless her and keep her…far away from me.’ This is an internal letting go, for my piece of mind. It does nothing for the relationship except allow it function on a very superficial not-trying-to-kill-each-other level. Sometimes, this has to be done. It is never the best option.
I have used all 3 types of forgiveness (and coincidentally received all 3 – I put my foot in it more than most and I still have trouble getting out an ‘I’m so-o-er-um-o-um-orry’.) They’re all useful and necessary. I will not hide from that. However, I will say that I always hope for that first kind, actual reconciliation and growth. It’s rare, it’s hard to get to, it’s often loud along the way, but it is worth everything one puts into it.