Question: I’ve had some problems getting over the anger I’ve carried throughout my life towards my father. He left my mother for another woman and my mother never really recovered. Even now, 20 years later, I still have difficulty dealing with him because of that. He hasn’t ever apologized, blaming my mother for sharing the information with me, and expects me to forgive and forget. Every Yom Kippur becomes a painful experience – feeling immense pressure to forgive and the guilt of my not wanting to. I feel I must forgive him but don’t know how.
An angry daughter
Answer: Your situation brings up various issues about family breakups and divorce. But your question about forgiveness is quite personal as its definition is truly unique for each individual. I decided to pose your question to my Facebook friends and get their thoughts on the topic of forgiveness. As you’ll see, many grapple with its true meaning and purpose. Below are some of the responses:
Vicki Lansky: I like, “don’t let the one you are angry with live ‘rent free’ in your head.”
Randy and Monica Zachary: I’ve personally learned that as I forgive I’m able to be whole and free and even get personal healing. If I don’t forgive I feel stuck, miserable and bitterness will set in and rob me of living the life I was meant to live. I make mistakes and I say things I shouldn’t, but as I go to the person I offended and ask for forgiveness my relationships grow and I can move on and grow as an individual.
Sandy Kaye: I think in order to live your life honestly, you have to forgive – no matter the offense. To forgive is not to forget, but to release the toxins and venom from your own body in order to live in the present. Forgiving is not giving the other person, people, event or circumstance a free pass, but giving yourself the power to heal and love again.
Steven Geller: Forgiveness, absent healing is empty, yet forgiveness is the first step in healing. Perhaps what we’re leaving unsaid is that for forgiveness and apology to last, it must be genuine and sincere. For a long time, I’ve lived by a principle I refer to as hineini. As you know, it literally means, “here I am.” To me it means, “right here, right now.” I am in this moment at this place. It means live right now… don’t forget the past or forsake the future, but don’t live there either. Learn from the past, plan for the future, savor the now.
Heidi Chaia Wald Mandl: I can forgive almost anything. But I feel like it would be foolish to forget. It leaves you too open and vulnerable to potentially painful situations.
Forgiveness is often asked and granted without great thought or emotional understanding. Like asking someone “how are you,” apologies become perfunctory. I find with deeply painful issues, like the one you’ve experienced, many people feel such pressure to forgive that they rush to it without really achieving any internal peace. Like my friends above, I agree that forgiving is generally cleansing and calming, however, too often it isn’t, because it hasn’t been dealt with in a manner that truly helps the one offended find peace.
Ideally, there should be an apology (unlike the situation you are in where your father seems to have never done so), and it should be one that verbalizes the offensive so the offender can begin to understand what his or her actions did to you. Saying “I’m sorry,” has little healing effect unless there is some genuine discussion about how this hurt you. Almost always, it’s crucial for you to be given a chance to describe how it was for you. At this point you may be willing to “forget” because you feel the person now understands how hurt you are and that, in itself, will significantly reduce the odds of it happening again.
However, if you’ve seen this offensive behavior repeated many times, then you should be wary. Don’t forgive so easily if you know this person is capable of hurting you in the future. Unless this person gives you firm reasons as to why these behaviors will change (he or she has gone to therapy, changed a part of their lifestyle, will give you more transparency into their lives so you can see the behaviors have changed), it behooves you NOT to forget and to expect similar behaviors in the future.