I used to pity friends who stopped speaking to their relatives or colleagues. I didn’t want to be an angry person, clinging to an everlasting vendetta. But I wasn’t a doormat, either. I adhered to WH Auden’s poetic advice to “believe your pain” and Rabbi Hillel’s warning: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Still, I’d always forgiven everyone everything. I forgave my college boyfriend who’d slept with not one, but two of my roommates. I’d also exonerated both of the women after they’d explained they’d been under the influence of magic mushrooms and expressed regret. Clearly, I was capable of pardoning anyone if they just said “I’m sorry.”
Yet after the long-term therapist who’d saved me from decades of drugs, alcohol and self-destruction lied to me repeatedly, he wouldn’t acknowledge he did anything wrong. The refusal of my father figure to come clean seemed more unforgivable than his initial betrayal. Being trustworthy was his job. How could I excuse someone who showed no regret?
I googled “forgive”. A billion-dollar Forgiveness Industry popped up: a British charity, a PBS documentary, a Mayo Clinic website. A Lutheran minister in Denver at the House For All Sinners and Saints called her Facebook sermon “Forgive Assholes”. A Japanese Apology Agency on YouTube took money to say “I’m sorry” to the clients you offended so you wouldn’t have to. I read pages and watched videos on the personal benefits of granting amnesty, even when it was undeserved.
At the Strand Bookstore, I splurged on used paperbacks touting forgiveness from every persuasion. Pushing radical absolution were: an interfaith hypnotherapist, an Amish expert, a Reform female rabbi, a Muslim father who forgave his son’s killer. A “New Thought” spiritual leader promoted 21 Days to Forgive Everyone for Everything. A pastor of Christ’s Church in Philadelphia offered Getting Rid of the Gorilla. I read their words with frenzied hope. But unable to stop thinking of my therapist’s deception, my gorilla grew.
Lonely with my husband away, I devoured the books, along with articles of crimes and cross-fires. Pundits proclaimed that granting clemency – even to someone who wouldn’t say “I’m sorry” – makes you freer, helps you sleep better, ups your sex drive, lowers blood pressure, decreases stress levels and increases lifespan. These psycho-babbling promises insisted any offence could be overcome without an apology. My best college friend Judy, a psychotherapist, ran grief therapy groups on turning wounds into wisdom. Alas, with no repentance from the therapist, my angst would not be calmed. Wounded, I was dumber and more miserable.
As a sceptical Manhattan journalist whose essential tenets were culled from confessional poetry and Bob Dylan lyrics, I was surprised how quickly my desperate search for enlightenment led me to religious exploration. At Holy Apostles soup kitchen – where I taught a writing workshop for 13 years – I spilled my saga to Reverend Liz, the most forgiving person I knew. I used to mentally divide the world into “Jew” and “Non-Jew”. After doing a charity anthology with Liz to fight homelessness, racism, and homophobia, her congregants deemed me “an honorary Episcopalian”.
I knew my tribe had different flavours (Chasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic, Kabbalah, Reconstructionist) that led Dad to say: “If you put two Jews in a corner, you get three opinions.” Now I got lost down the internet rabbit hole of deciphering Christian forgiveness differences between Roman Catholicism, Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy, Assyrians, Restorationism and Anglicanism.
“Which are you?” I asked Reverend Liz.
“We are the American branch of the Anglican Communion, with roots in the Church of England,” she clarified. “To make it more confusing, Anglicans include both Catholic and Protestant elements.”
“What’s different about the Episcopal outlook?” I asked.
“All Christian denominations believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Our services are similar to Catholics’ but our beliefs are more democratic, with no pope, less dogma, and we don’t mind saying ‘We don’t know’.” She added that they had no problem with birth control and their leaders could marry, with female and openly gay priests, deacons and bishops, unlike most Catholic churches. I tried to gather whether that affected their views on forgiving.
Christians repented for sins during Lent, the way Jews did at Yom Kippur, she explained. They were taught to “turn the other cheek” and forgive, as Jesus didn’t wait for an apology; he gave forgiveness freely. Confessionals were more common in Catholicism, yet her members still came to her for advice over sins and repentance.
“Why do confessions start ‘Forgive me Father, for I have sinned’?” I wondered.
“Admitting your transgressions to God leads to absolution and salvation through receiving Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour,” she said.
“You have to ask and admit your misdeeds before you’re forgiven, right?” I was curious why their process appeared to skip the person you’d wronged.
“Well, sinning against a fellow human is a sin against God,” she told me. “And as penitence I might tell someone to make amends with the person they hurt.”
“But what about criminals?” I threw out. “On the Law & Order show my husband writes for, there’s always a priest who won’t divulge criminal evidence because confessions to clergy are privileged.”
“If someone committed a crime, I’d probably suggest they turn themselves in,” she admitted. “And if it involved a molester who was hurting a child, I would feel morally compelled to contact the authorities.”
I questioned if the line in the Bible where Jesus says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” meant that her people were taught to always show mercy, regardless of guilt, innocence or contrition.
“That’s from Luke, showing the depth of Jesus’s love for humanity,” Rev Liz said. “The idea of loving your enemies is in the Old and New Testament.”
“After a mass shooting at a southern church, I heard a victim’s family offer unconditional forgiveness to the murderers. Why would they do that,” I asked, “even before any remorse was expressed?”
Simon Wiesenthal [the Nazi concentration camp survivor] asked [in his book The Sunflower] theologians, scholars and authors if they would have shown mercy to the German soldier. To paraphrase: Austrian Catholic Cardinal Franz Konig (“there’s no limit to forgiveness of Christ”), South African Anglican cleric Desmond Tutu (“without forgiveness there is no future”), Nazi Albert Speer (“I can never forgive myself”), Islamic historian Smail BaliÄ (“compassion for every sufferer”), Buddhist Dalai Lama (“forgive but don’t forget”), Chinese activist Harry Wu (“no, but everyone in your society shares responsibility”) and Jewish novelist Cynthia Ozick (“hell no”).
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “No one can forgive crimes committed against other people…even God himself can only forgive sins committed against himself, not against man.” My view aligned with the four-word declaration of Eva Fleischner, Montclair State University religion professor: “Without repentance, no forgiveness.”
I was intrigued by an Islamic scholar who felt similarly. Nora Zaki, an astute Muslim chaplain at Vassar College whom I’d met through a student, pointed out that Muslims also saw taking responsibility and action as an essential part of the forgiveness equation. Their God, Allah in Arabic, was merciful, but only after the offender’s apologising, repenting and changing. In the Quran, she said, a merciful Prophet Muhammad forgave Wahshi ibn Harb, who’d admitted to killing the Prophet’s beloved uncle Hamza in battle. The prophet did not have Wahshi executed but said: “As much as possible do not come before me.”
I took that as the ancient equivalent of “get out of my face for ever”. I liked the idea that you could forgive someone while still banishing them. Yet what if Wahshi was in denial about his crime? Would Muhammad have exonerated a sinner who didn’t think he’d done anything wrong or hadn’t sought out any absolution?
Amy, a Chasidic colleague, was more specific about a Jew’s method of atonement, called teshuvah. “For us, forgiving is a duty and a mitzvah. Jewish law requires a person to ask heartfelt forgiveness three times,” Amy said. “If the injured party won’t respond, the sinner is forgiven and the non-forgiver has to seek forgiveness for not forgiving.” But the request had to be inspired by true regret.
I felt vindicated when my lawyer cousin Danny reminded me that admitting guilt and expressing remorse were often the deciding elements of criminal verdicts in the eyes of the law. Yet my issue was more about feelings than legality. A Buddhist yogi friend warned: “If you lost your foundation and feel ungrounded, those emotions could show up in your spine, a body part ruled by the root chakra, the body’s first power centre.”
Too late, since I’d already killed my back kickboxing, pretending I was punching the lights out of the therapist, to hurt him as much as he hurt me.
Despite being sceptical of interstellar predictions, I phoned the wildly provocative Jungian astrologer (aka Stargazer) I’d known through my therapist years earlier. When we first met, I thought he was a shrink. “I was,” he said. “But I found it too limiting. Astrology is the original psychology. Freud reductively based his work on the Oedipus myth to fit his own pathology. Astrological theories encompass all mythologies.”
At a loss for literal direction, I filled him in on my rift, curious to see if a planetary take could ease my personal angst.
“Forgiveness is overrated. Holding a grudge can be protective, so you’re not a perpetual victim getting hurt,” he said. “I blame all the Pluto in both of your seventh houses for shadowing love with abandonment and betrayal.”
Stargazer’s left-field advice confused me. “So I should never speak to him again?”
“Just be grateful you were betrayed by your shrink and not your husband. And you’re not done killing your therapist off. He needs a proper burial.” Stargazer used his typical hyperbolic metaphors. “Then the death can lead to rebirth.”
Now that sounded Biblical. But it was impossible for me to reconsider trusting the therapist if he didn’t offer any explanation or regret. I wasn’t in the mood to be a martyr. No wonder I became entranced by the website SorryWatch.com. I followed on Facebook and Twitter as two female bloggers from both coasts analysed public and newsworthy faux pas for “signs of defective, weaselly, and poisoned apologies”. They broke it down to such categories as “Royal Apologies”, “Belated Apologies”, “Performative Utterances”, “Twitpologies”, and “Apologies Not Accepted”. I already saw how a passive-aggressive “Sorry if I hurt you” could deepen a rift. I heard the echo of my therapist’s words: “I hope you’ll forgive the imaginary crime you envision I’m committing.” That aggressive-aggressive tone made me want to commit an actual crime.
I felt better when my husband came home from his trip, but he was too immersed in his work to chat. He thought I was, too. I was actually just scrawling notes all over the book On Apology by Dr Aaron Lazare. I read his section “Forgiveness Without Apology”, where people forgave to be free from anger, resentment and grudges. Without remorse, Lazare wrote, reconciliation was unlikely. I underlined the four elements that he felt were needed when somebody apologised fully: 1) acknowledgement and taking responsibility for your mistake, 2) explaining why it happened, 3) showing it won’t happen again and 4) offering reparations for healing. Lazare traced this formula back to Maimonides, the 12th-century scholar, a Spanish Jew. This philosophy I could wrap my head around.
I called my parents’ new Conservative rabbi, Joseph Krakoff, to see if he sanctioned this approach. He shared his theory on the Jewish apology: “I personally don’t feel any apologising has officially taken effect until the offending person is in the same situation again and acts differently, showing they’ve learnt and changed.”
“What if someone who wronged you doesn’t feel you’re owed any apology?” I asked.
“Yes, actually,” he said. “A difficult father told his oldest child, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong. I did the best I could.’ The daughter gave me a look that said ‘See what I’ve been up against for 40 years?’”
“So it was a stalemate?”
“No. I told him that I couldn’t make him do something that wasn’t in his heart, but it was a good way to end peacefully,” Rabbi Krakoff recalled. “The next day he told her, ‘I’ve thought about it. I still don’t think I did anything wrong, but I’ll say the prayer because the Rabbi says it’s a better way to leave the world’. Even saying those words begrudgingly meant a lot to his daughter.”
That could have been me, my father, and my grandfather.
As I hung up the phone, my spine was burning, as if my body were radiating red flares.
When I checked the mail, I found the copy of an old therapy bill receipt I already paid. On the bottom my therapist had scrawled: “I’m sure you’ll write about this.”
He sounded like the caustic father he was supposed to be replacing. When my back went into spasm, I took a tablet of Aaron’s Tylenol. I could only sit up at my desk pain-free for an hour before it ached again. Despite the therapist’s sarcastic prediction that I would use our falling-out as material, I couldn’t type a sentence. For someone normally busy at the computer 10 hours a day, it was paralysing. I wasted hours flat on the floor holding my iPhone above me, anxiously refreshing my inbox, awaiting an apology from the person he used to be.
Susan Shapiro is the NYT bestseller author of 13 books her family hates. This is an excerpt from her memoir ‘The Forgiveness Tour’