Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance.  Repentance is a funny thing in Judaism.  We’re not big on heaven or hell, yet we make quite a fuss over our sins.  There are ten days between the start of the new year and Yom Kippur, during which Jews are supposed to seek forgiveness for their sins against other people.

Here’s the deal: if, truly repentant, I seek forgiveness three times and the other person refuses to grant it, the whole thing is over with.  I am supposed to walk forward and let it go, as I have done everything I can to atone.  As long as I have repented fully in my heart and deeds.

Now, I get this, as it seems to me that there needs to be a way to move on past one’s transgressions.  There is room for abuse in the system, as a person who does not deserve to be forgiven blithely can move on from the crimes of her past.  However, it does seem that anyone who can fool herself into thinking she has truly repented when she has not probably would let herself off the hook with or without the third-time’s-the-charm rule, so really it just offers protection to those who cannot win forgiveness from those who really ought to allow them to move forward.

This brings up some interesting questions in my life, as there are those I have hurt.  I lived with my aunt and uncle for my teen years.  It was an unpleasant situation, at best, and I was not particularly treasured, but there was no abuse to speak of and they gave me a roof over my head and food on the table.  When I was in my early twenties, I sent a very hurtful letter to my aunt and that more or less severed all ties.

It has been fourteen years.  I feel sorry for hurting my aunt and uncle, for allowing myself to be separated from my cousins.  Yet, I absolutely do not want my aunt or uncle back in my life, as that relationship was incredibly toxic.  So, I could ask forgiveness three times.  But I could not do it the way they want, which is begging them to return to my life.  They made it very clear several times that in their minds forgiveness was tied to a continuing relationship.  I don’t want them in my life, and how do you say, “I’m sorry I hurt you, now bugger off?”  It seems that would hurt them all the more.

I don’t expect them to ask me for forgiveness, of course, but I’m talking about my side of things here.

Then, of course, is the highly theoretical question of what would happen if my father or step-mother asked me for forgiveness.  Could I grant it to the parents who abused and neglected me?  Is it right to do so?  I have made on in many ways, but to grant them forgiveness is to say that abusing a child is a forgivable crime.  It is not.  It never is.  So, although I have made peace within myself, I could not grant absolution.

Not that they would ever ask for it.  But, forgiveness is about both the asker and the askee.  Even though they may never ask for it, part of my healing is deciding whether I am in a place where I could forgive them.  I don’t think I am, although I desperately want them to ask for it.  I want some acknowledgement that what they did was horrendous.

What bothers me about the Ask-Three-Times-And-Then-Move-On Rule is that it is taking my power away.  I should be the only one with the power to offer forgiveness to my father and step-mother.  (I mean, me and all the other people who have been hurt by what happened in that household.  Like my kids who will forever be the children of an adult survivor of child abuse.)  The fact that a loophole exists bothers me.  I don’t want anyone else, even some mythical higher power, to have the right to forgive those parents.

I think, however, that the rule exists to free us all. It reminds us that forward is the motion of life, and constantly circling back is unhealthy for everyone.  Unfortunately, I am here to tell you that forward motion, while fantastic in theory, is not always realistic for those of us who were locked out for long afternoons in Western Massachusetts winters and sent to elementary school on empty stomachs after spending the night sleeping naked in the hallway.  We can move on and heal, but forgiveness is too much to ask of us.

Forgiveness is a funny thing.

18 responses to “Forgiveness

  1. Does the askee have only the options of “yes” or “no”? Because I think that would be the way out of the disempowering aspect of the ask-three-times thing. You don’t simply snap back “no” three times, but rather put forward some idea of what forgiveness would look like and require. Maybe that’s even part of the point of it? It’s not just for the asker but also a framework to require the askee to formulate what he/she needs in order to forgive. So responses could include, “I’m just not ready yet, but ask me again in a few months,” or “To show me that you are truly repentant you need to do x.” Of course, I guess that’s exactly the problem with your aunt: the condition she attaches to forgiveness (a restored relationship) is not entirely reasonable, which renders the whole process less clear. Are you entitled to ask for forgiveness three times – making it clear that a relationship is not in the cards – and if she says no then that’s that? Or can she meet the first request with her conditions – however unreasonable – and until you meet them you’re stuck at request #1? We need a rabbi’s advice, I think.

  2. I think forgiveness is more valuable for the person granting it than the one receiving it, and that the opposite is true of repentance. Both allow people to move on, but when they can both meet we might have the opportunity for dialogue in ways we couldn’t have before. It’s funny how many of the things that we repent are connected to the things that we have trouble forgiving. I’ve been working on that myself.

    Regarding your aunt, I think I would apologize for what you feel were your hurtful words, because they pain you. It can be accepted or not- but you’ve atoned. And I probably wouldn’t do it more than once, since you feel that you won’t be forgiven any way.

  3. She Started It

    Yes, forgiveness is a funny thing, and I’ve always felt it’s highly overrated.

  4. Sometimes I think the best forgiveness is just moving on. I don’t know how, given what you went through as a child, that you’ve forgiven the world in general, let alone any of the adults involved. You are a thoughtful, warm, nurturing mother — to me, at least, that sure makes it seem like you’ve forgiven the world enough to move on and give hope and sustenance to the next generation.

  5. I think that in sincerely seeking to make things right, even if one is not ultimately forgiven, you give yourself a gift. You’ve reached out. You’ve tried.

    You always amaze me with your unique perspective on these complex things, Em.

  6. These are important and difficult questions, which I’ve wrestled with myself and often come back to them to wrestle some more.

    The 3x thing is not a rule but an interpretation.

    The whole issue of forgiveness is complex and there are a variety of differing interpretations in Judaism about everything.

    I wrote more about that here.

    If even an abuser followed all the steps of “teshuvah,” ie repentance, it would look something like this.
    Sincerely recognizing the wrong, coming with compassion to the victim, offering to make amends, say by paying for therapy, had their own counselling to work on the roots of their own abusiveness, I suspect that forgivenness wouldn’t be that hard then.

    That is the work of teshuvah.

    As for your aunt and uncle, I’ve wrestled with that side of things, too. But safety is not meant to be sacrificed in this process.

    And to engage with toxic people isn’t safe–whether that is physically or emotionally.

    I know that there are certain people who, if I were even to write a letter apologizing for my own hurtful behaviour, would take that as an entry point to re-engage and that would be damaging.

    They are not capable of taking in the apology for what it is: a straight-forward acknowledgment of my behaviour. It would be understood very differently, as a carte blanche, so they can pull all the same old shit again.

    No. That is not what healing and forgiving is about.

    Perhaps first you can simply forgive yourself for having been an angry hurting teen who behaved in the way a kid living without support and love and appreciation, and who had been abused, would behave.

    And that is enough.

  7. I struggle with this, too…and couldn’t have said it all so eloquently.

  8. I was talking about this with my friend whose husband cheated on her and then left her with two children, one only five months old. The conclusion we reached was that you cannot forgive people who don’t think they did anything wrong. You can make your own peace with it and move forward, but that’s something different. And I agree with Lillian (as well as wishing I wasn’t commenting right after Lillian because geez…) — it’s not worth jeopardizing your emotional well-being and therefore that of your family by re-engaging with your aunt and uncle. I think by thinking this through the way you are you’re already continuing the work of moving through and ahead.

  9. Forgiveness is not the same as absolution. Usually it ends up being better for us than the person being forgiven.

    I think you can forgive them for their imperfection, for making mistakes, for not doing the right thing – but there is no need to let them back into your life. Their position, as conditional as it is, is not forgiveness. That’s bartering.


  10. Moving on and healing IS forward motion, even if it isn’t the Yom Kippur ideal of forgiveness.

  11. I often wonder if I’ve forgiven the people who have wronged me or forgiven the idea of them – I don’t know who they are or why they did what they did, so is my lack of resentment and anger truly forgiveness or just ignorance? If, somehow, I know more some day will it all change? I don’t think there is a single, correct answer for how, or even if, one should forgive any more than there is really very often a definable moment when the process is complete.

    Beautifully written Emily!

  12. I think that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. For example, your aunt and uncle are talking about reconciliation. They don’t want to find peace, they want to foster a relationship.

    There are some people that I can offer forgiveness to (if only silent and to myself), but not reconciliation. For me, forgiveness is about finding my own peace and moving on. Ceasing to harbour ill-will. I may never speak to that person again, and they may not know how I feel. But at least I’m not eating myself alive from the inside anymore.

    I wish you peace.

  13. I don’t know what to say about this post, other than that is incredibly powerful and has much food for thought. You are a wonderful writer, and clearly a brave and strong person. That you even have conflict about forgiveness, given what you’ve spoken of, is testament to your beauty.

  14. Wow. Now here’s a provocative post.
    First, I’m sorry that you had to overcome that. Talk about having to run hard just to make it to the starting line. How painful.
    I love the notion of forgiveness and repentance because it suggests that we don’t have to define our relationships by our worst (or our loved one’s worst) moments. We move on. But the question remains, move on to what? If you drove us into a wall and I see no reason to believe that you’ve learned how to drive any differently, I’m still not crawling in the backseat. It is a matter of competence, or knowing what you create in my life (injuries that come from crashing) and choosing not to have that. For you to really repent, you have to know how to drive differently. If you can’t, you can apologize but not repent – not bring us back to the point at which I again trust you to drive.
    Or so it seems to me.
    And what a gift that you’re choosing to overcome all that to provide your children something so different.

  15. This was an amazing post, Emily. Really honest and thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    Also, since I’ve been MIA and not reading blogs lately, Happy Belated Birthday. 🙂

  16. Forgiveness IS a funny thing! Plus its hard to tell if you’ve really forgiven someone, or if you’re just saying “I forgive you” because you think you should but in your heart you still resent the person.
    I am a survivor of abuse by several different people. For me, I think the key to my truly forgiving people would be if they apologized, from the heart, for what they did, and if it seemed like they really understood that what they did was wrong. If a person could honestly say, “There’s no excuse for what I did, and I’m dismayed that I did it, and that is no longer the person who I am,” then I think I could forgive them… but it would be harder to FORGET it and to just move on as if nothing happened.
    On the other hand, there are some things that we do (such as the letter you wrote to your aunt) that deserve to be forgiven fairly easily, and if the other person chooses to hang onto their anger or attach strings to forgiveness, then there’s really nothing you CAN do except forgive your own self and move on!

  17. People have said a lot of really smart things already. There is something to be said for being able to move forward with peace in your heart. But, you do have to remember. Because remembering and healing in spite of the remembering, is what keeps you from completing a cycle of dysfunction.

  18. I don’t think I can add anything wiser than many of the comments you’ve already gotten. You have some smart readers girl! I would just like to offer support and say that you continue to amaze me in so many ways. The fact that you can even sit down and think about the very idea of forgiveness (and then write it out so beautifully) is a testament to what a strong person you are.