Monday, May 18, 2015

When It's Difficult to Forgive

The hardest thing in the world, it seems to me, is to genuinely forgive someone.  I don't mean just saying the words because your religion demands it, or your family expects you to.   I mean genuinely letting go of the anger, the contempt, and the disgust you may feel towards the person who wronged you. I'm a former counselor and I am well aware that forgiving someone is supposed to be healthy. Holding on to rage and resentment ultimately does eat away at the person holding the grudge.  I know that.  And yet at many times in my life, I've found it difficult to forgive.

When I was in radio, during the 70s, I went up for a big job interview at a company where I really wanted to work. The guy conducting the interview was a well-known radio executive, and after a nice dinner, he invited me back to his hotel room to talk further about the opening.  I suspected nothing-- we were two professional broadcasters, and I had been in hotel rooms many times talking radio with out-of-town guests.  But when we got there, something changed. He didn't want to talk business.  He wanted to do something else.  He tried to get me to kiss him; he tried to unbutton my blouse; he tried to grab me and hold me close to him, even when I asked him to let me go.  I was able to talk my way out of the situation, but he seemed totally surprised that I wasn't flattered by his attention.  In fact, he said he could never hire anyone who didn't know how to be "nice" to him.  As you may expect, I didn't get the job.

(If you've ever watched "Mad Men," now you know why I never was able to sit through even one episode.  I couldn't watch it because I lived it. It brought back too many bad memories.) Anyway, I hated that guy for years.  I know: I should have forgiven him.  But I couldn't.  I just couldn't.

In Washington DC recently, a famous Orthodox rabbi was convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail for spying on innocent and unsuspecting women who were using the mikvah-- the ritual bath that religious women use at certain times during the month and also use as part of a religious conversion ceremony. He had installed a hidden camera to watch the women as they undressed.  Violating someone's personal privacy is disgraceful, but it's even more shameful for a rabbi to have done it.  And of course, the question was raised about whether the victims should forgive him.  I'm not sure.  There's a part of me that says now that he is being punished, it's best to move on.  But another part of me says that moving on is often easier said than done. I am sure it will take some of these women a long time to get beyond  feeling betrayed by someone they trusted, a man who claimed to be a religious leader.  I imagine the victims of pedophile priests felt the same way, even after some of the priests were arrested and sent to jail.

I believe that seeing the person who wronged you punished can certainly alleviate some (but not all) of the negative emotions.  I believe, for example, that some of the victims of the Boston Marathon Bomber are glad he got the death penalty; it might provide that elusive sense of closure.  (I must admit that, although I am generally opposed to capital punishment, in this case, I am fine about it:  that young man, who was given so many opportunities to succeed in America, not only threw it all away, but intentionally put a bomb next to a little boy and his parents, and then walked on.  And at his trial, he did not show any remorse at all.  I can't think of one good reason why such a monstrous person should get to live out the rest of his life.)  And yes, I know that some people, including some of the victims, asked that his life be spared.  They are better human beings than I am.  I don't think he should live one day longer than is absolutely necessary.  And if this had happened to my child, I am not sure I could ever forgive.

I don't know where that leaves any of us:  to forgive or not to forgive, that is the question.  First, ideally, there must be justice.   And if there can't be justice, there must be some way for the victim to let go of the pain and find a new purpose in life.  I am not equating being sexually harassed or being the victim of a voyeur with what the Marathon Bomber did.  I am simply saying that everyone who has been victimized is left with the same dilemma:  finding a way to move forward. We all know that we shouldn't let a horrible event define us.  But sometimes, that horrible event changes us in ways that are difficult to overcome.  And yet, we have to overcome it-- or else the person who tried to hurt us wins.  And if we let him win, that is the biggest injustice of all.


  1. Donna, Thank you for sharing what is obviously a painful memory. In moments like these, our humanity and our wounds become shared. In those moments, hopefully there is some healing. Perhaps even a step toward forgiveness. During my elementary school years, and then a bit in junior high school, I was bullied and harassed quite a bit. In elementary school, by one boy in particular. I didn't warrant his abuse, but I sure got it. It bothered me for a long time. As time went on, I found out that that particular man lost his sister-in-law to suicide, and then, not long after, his older brother (married to the previously mentioned woman), took his own life too. Another of the bullies from junior high school ended up in prison for what I was told a very long time. I have thought of what terrible events have befallen these very same people who taunted me and beat me up. All of my anger and humiliation evaporated. If one believes in scales being made to weigh evenly, "karma" if you will, this might be evidence of that. I never wished that on anyone. In light of those awful things happening to those two boys/men, I forgive them their meanness to me. Fate handed them awful fortunes. I read Joseph Campbell talking about being humbled by the Tibetan monks who had their homeland, their spirituality, and much else taken away from them when the Chinese invaded their country.They spoke no ill will toward the Chinese; "not a word of recrimination" I believe were Campbell's words. They took away much of what they had, but the Chinese were not able to take away the peace they found within themselves. I don't know where one finds that stillness, or that forgiveness. Thank you for reading all this. I got carried away, as you know from my time at Emerson, I rarely write anything concise. Peace and light!

  2. I find that forgiveness is not long as I don't demand justice, for justice (vengeance) is only my Creators to seek.

    1. I don't think Justice and Vengeance are the same thing at all, Augie. I agree that wanting revenge is a negative. But wanting justice is very different-- it refers to wanting the person who wronged you to pay in some way for what they did, to take responsibility for it, to turn away from their evil acts and show remorse. Without justice, people would feel free to do whatever, with no consequences. Even the Bible states repeatedly that we should pursue justice. I don't see that as a bad thing.

  3. Donna,
    I agree with you.
    Vengeance and justice are not always the same, but sometimes we get the two confused. Please allow me to clarify.

    Although justice is an integral part of the human experience that can afford closure to those that have suffered horrible loss and trauma, I also believe that the ability to forgive is not contingent on someone else suffering the consequences of their actions.
    I was molested by a family friend as a child.
    To this day, I have not a clue what became of this woman or if she ever "paid her just due".
    All I was left with was anger and resentment that completely colored how I viewed humanity. (Not a good thing, let me assure you!)
    Years after the molestation occurred, I came to realize that forgiveness would be the only way I could be free from my self imposed imprisonment.
    Was it hard to forgive? Yes, because holding on to the anger fealt like a form of retribution. But it was really hurting only me.

    Many blessings to you, Donna!