Apology and Forgiveness

Forgiveness. Kavanaugh. Also Cowbirds. part 1

When to let go? When not to?


"Letting go" has many forms, as this month’s On the Journey issue shows. I'll be looking at the kind of letting go that is forgiveness: letting go of the wrong committed against us.

The blessing of forgiveness isn’t always in the forgiver’s hands. It can’t happen without the other party having contrition, apologizing. Sometimes, no matter how much we might want to forgive, the healing power can only be unlocked by sincere apology. Not always: sometimes we can forgive and let go without getting an apology, and other times apology isn’t enough. But there is a middle area where the apologizer’s willingness to let go of self-protection and defensiveness and acknowledge the wrong they’ve done allows the person wronged to then also let go.

An essay by Deborah Copaken appeared on Fri Sep 21. Deborah Copaken identifies herself as “a year older than Christine Blasey Ford and a year younger than Brett Kavanaugh.” Her story illustrates the power of apology to unlock the healing power of forgiveness. She writes:
"But there has been an upside to the Kavanaugh circus and Trump’s presidency. For one, it has galvanized women and the men who love us. For another, like so many rape survivors in this country living through this particular moment in history, having to relive our assaults daily — even hourly — with every new allegation of rape, I have been so brought to my knees by this latest allegation that I, too, was inspired to speak out. Directly. To my rapist. I wrote him a letter, 30 years after the night in question, reminding him of what he’d done and how hard it has been to overcome. And do you know what this man did, less than half an hour later? He called me on the phone and said, 'Oh, Deb. Oh my god. I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I’m filled with shame.' We spoke for a long time, maybe 20 minutes. He had no recollection of raping me, just of the party where we’d met. He’d blacked out that night from excessive drinking and soon thereafter entered Alcoholics Anonymous. But that, he said, was no excuse. The fact that he’d done this to me and that I’d been living with the resulting trauma for 30 years was horrifying to him. He was so sorry, he said. He just kept repeating those words, “I’m so sorry,” over and over. Suddenly, 30 years of pain and grief fell out of me. I cried. And I cried. And I kept crying for the next several hours, as I prepared for Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of forgiveness. And then, suddenly, I was cleansed. Reborn. The trauma was gone. All because of a belated apology. My rapist promised to pay it forward, this horrible thing he’d just learned about himself. I have no doubt, judging by the admirable life he’s led, he will." ("My Rapist Apologized," Atlantic, 2018 Sep 21)
Keeping that story in mind, let us return to the question: When to let go? When not to?


Some things are worth holding onto, right? As Terry Pratchett points out, in a quote from this month’s On the Journey issue:
“There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this.”
On the other hand, in our hymn, "I Wish I Knew How," we sang that we wished we could: say all the things we could say; share all the love in our heart; do all the things we can do; give all we’re longing to give; live like we’re longing to live. Why can’t we? There may be external barriers: structures, or social attitudes, or economic realities that keep you from living like you long to. Or: you might be giving those factors more power than they need to have. Maybe you could let them go.

In Robert Eller-Isaacs' "Litany of Atonement," the leader mentions "remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference," "each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible," "each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause," "each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others," "the selfishness which sets us apart and alone," "falling short of the admonitions of the spirit," "losing sight of our unity," and "so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness." After each clause, the congregation speaks back the refrain: "We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love."

It feels so good, so healing, when we truly can forgive and begin again in love. On the other hand, we don’t want to set ourselves up as a doormat, a mark for being taken advantage of. We want our hurts to be acknowledged seriously. We are worthy beings, and our hurts matter, and if we forgive too readily and too easily we give the impression that wrongs against us don’t matter.

So, when is it time to forgive ourselves and each other and begin again in love? And when do we stand in righteous indignation to say, maybe, for example, “No, not this nominee for the Supreme Court.” I’ll be looking at the kind of letting go that is forgiveness, letting go of moral outrage, condemnation, judgment – versus the kind of holding on that holds on to condemnation. And I’ll be looking at an example that’s all over the news this week: the case of attempted rape from 36 years ago. But, first, I’m going to talk about cowbirds.

This is part 1 of 3 of "Forgiveness. Kavanaugh. Also Cowbirds."

See next: Part 2: Cowbirds and Moral Judgment
Part 3: The Kavanaugh Case

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