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Home / Reality Or Lack Of It  /
To Err Is Human, To Forgive Is ... Something A Bit Less Than Divine

Most meaningfully enjoyed under a limited redemption period

The concept of forgiveness has endless quotations to go along with it. "Forgiveness is the best form of love. It takes a strong person to say sorry and an ever stronger person to forgive. How about "Forgiveness is not something we do for other people.  We do it for ourselves." Gandhi offered, "The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."

We all make mistakes. I make them every day, several times of day. I err as reliably as my digital clocks keep time – and probably on the hour as well. A big mistake maker like myself should probably empathize well with other mistake makers.  If it were only that easy. To err is human, sure. To think the rules don't apply to you is also quite human. 

We live in what I call a reality lag. I can recall incidents in my past where my father condemned me for doing something stupid. Were my actions actually stupid? Absolutely. As it happened, I didn't usually grasp how insipid my behavior was, but you have to cut me some slack. I was but a young teen at the time. Now that I have a son who's thirteen and I witness many of the nonsensical and idiotic things he does, the reality of what my own father saw decades ago fully sinks in.  Now I've grasped it.  I really was stupid, and what my son is doing, most of the time, is even more stupid.   

So, years after the fact, I can forgive my father for his outbursts, now having experienced, firsthand, a version of sorts of the stupidity he put up with.  I'd like to believe I don't lash out as much at the next generation compared to my father. That would really be saying something, if true, because my son is actually a stepson and from a completely foreign culture.   There are built in misunderstandings and differences when raising a stepchild hailing from a different continent. My father didn't have to deal with that. I was his biological son and raised in the same town he grew up in.  On the other hand, my father had to deal with multiple children doing multiple stupid things at once. There must be an equation documenting that the length of one's temper is inversely proportional to the number of children you have.

I forgive my son for his idiocies. I always forgive my wife.   I know her so well that when she becomes upset with me over something trivial, I just need to give her a few hours break time before she'll apologize and then I'll forgive her.  And the same works in reverse.

But can someone always be forgiven?   Is it always worth your while to forgive?  Is it always a possibility to honestly forgive another?

I am reminded of a Chasidic story I read years ago in a children's prayer book. A young man goes about town spreading malicious rumors about the local rabbi. He realizes he's done the wrong thing and visits the rabbi he's maligned, begging for his forgiveness and willing to do anything to make amends. The rabbi instructs the man to take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers hither and yon. The man does as he's told and returns to the rabbi hoping the slate has been wiped clean. The rabbi now informs him that one more step must be performed.  The man needs to locate every feather he dispersed and stuff it back into the pillow. "But that's impossible," the man gasps, which is the lesson all along.   It is impossible to take back all the damage your words have wrought once they've been tossed into the winds.

Observant Jews consider the harm done by speech to be worse than that incurred by stealing or cheating someone financially. When someone is filched out of cash, in theory the cash can be earned back. Insurance may cover the loss.  Reputations smeared by poor choices of words may never fully recover. Some Jewish sources claim there is no forgiveness for the act of disparaging speech.   Even if that is a gross exaggeration, it's worth mentioning to show that not all acts are easily forgiven.

Were you a sibling or a parent of Nicole Brown Simpson or Ronald Goldman, would it have been easy for you to forgive O.J. Simpson for murdering your loved one?  Could you forgive your rapist? Famous actors Kyra Sedgwick and husband Kevin Bacon had untold millions pilfered by Bernie Madoff in his multi-billion dollar financial Ponzi scheme. Should they forgive Madoff when they're easily in a position to earn back the lost money?   What about those who aren't? John Robbins, son of one of the Baskin-Robbins founders, says he lost 98% of his net worth in Madoff's shady investments. Should Robbins be forgiving Madoff any time soon?

Fortunately, I've never had a loved one murdered, been raped, or had untold millions ripped right out from under me. But I can think up two recent personal incidents where it made no sense to offer forgiveness to the transgressor. 

The first involved a former girlfriend, whom we'll call Clara here. I met Clara, an Australian, in January 1997 in Cape Town, South Africa. She was in the company of a British girl I'd met a few months prior in Zimbabwe. The British girl spotted me walking down a main street and got my attention, and in the ensuing conversation I was introduced to Clara. Nothing romantic developed between us, and several weeks later, when I left Cape Town, we parted ways, most likely forever.    

Months later, still in South Africa, visiting the Drakensburg Mountains 1500 km away,  I encountered Clara again by some fluke. Keep in mind that this all happened in an era before the internet, smart phones, and text messaging. I had no way to know exactly where Clara was on her travels in real time. Running into her was a fortuitous reunion, and one of those incidents you just ascribed to the hand of fate, especially since Clara wasn't checking in or staying at the backpacker hole where I was sleeping for the night. She had stopped by to look for her Australian friend, Melody.  Melody and Clara were staying fifteen minutes away with two South Africans they'd met hitchhiking. Melody and Clara had gotten into a fight, and Melody had angrily marched off, pitching her tent in the front yard of this heinous backpacker hellpit.

To make a long story short, Clara and I decided to travel together to Mozambique. It was a platonic relationship to start.   This soon changed on our way to Mozambique via Zimbabwe, and we remained together, 24/7, for the next five-and-a-half months traveling through Kenya, Ethiopia, and back through Mozambique and South Africa until she took off to the UK to exercise a working holiday visa.

It was the most intense relationship I'd ever had during some of the best experiences of my life. We stayed in touch over the phone for years. It was openly acknowledged the romantic part of our relationship was over. We told each other about what was going on in our lives, including new relationships. Sometime around 2003 she started badgering me to come over to Australia, and in December 2005, after more than 8 years separation, I finally did.

Now the story becomes truly fascinating.  From the moment I arrived, she was cold to me. Everything I said was wrong, every action I did was offensive.  I was staying at her house with her and her brother while her brother-in-law tried to source me an adequate car to travel around Australia. During this time, our relationship morphed from me being eager to see her on her days off work to me being ecstatic when she worked overtime. Meanwhile, her brother was quite gracious and sociable with me, which likely irritated her further. I broached the subject with her of our inexplicably soured relationship during a long weekend in which her brother was absent. When this reconciliation failed, I stopped trying to figure her out.  As I traveled around Australia in the succeeding ten months, I kept in touch with her brother and completely ceased communication with her. Since leaving Australia 7 ½ years ago, I've seen her brother a half dozen times. He's visited me in Thailand on three occasions, the most recent being just last week. She's been to Thailand twice since I've moved here, but I've never laid eyes on her.

About a year after I departed Australia, I received a very terse e-mail from her. "Sorry for the way I treated you while you were in Australia.  I wasn't in a happy frame of mind then. Bye. Clara." It wasn't the most heartfelt apology, but I accepted it anyway.

I didn't forgive her though. The damage had been done. Her behavior, caused by whatever demons she was experiencing circa 2005-06, had destroyed our friendship. Our reunion after 8 years of separation was one of those rare opportunities where we could have deepened our friendship. With that time together squandered and with all my recent memories of her being negative ones, how would my offering her forgiveness have changed the current state of affairs? I no longer cared about her or trusted her.

The next incident involved another Australian, Mick, whom I befriended in Perth. Mick was a simple, dependable guy. Not the brightest bulb in the socket, but always reliable.  In late 2011, Mick called me up to ask me questions about cosmetic surgery he'd like performed to remove the excess wrinkles which had formed all over his face from working without sunscreen under the thin ozone layer barely shielding Australia. I'm no expert on the subject of cosmetic surgery. I think Mick figured I was adept at researching various options remotely and, living in Asia myself, would be able to locate a cheaper cosmetic surgeon here.  Indeed I did, for a tenth the price of what he'd pay in Perth.

The surgery involved a trip to Karachi, Pakistan.  Mick confided that he was not comfortable journeying to Pakistan on his own.  Not many people I know are. He offered to pay my roundtrip airfare to Pakistan from Thailand, my hotel accommodation, and food if I came with him.   

One of the conditions of the deal was that I keep the trip a secret from all the people we mutually knew in Perth. He was afraid he'd be mocked by all his masculine Aussie buds for going under the knife. I respected Mick's decision for privacy, and I readily agreed to his terms.

The surgery passed without event. Mick received compliments about his improved appearance, and no one suspected Mick had surgery performed. Two years later, I got an e-mail from one of our mutual friends in Perth named Stan. Mick was calling me a blabbermouth.  After Stan queried Mick on what I was blabbering about, Mick just said, "Ask Doug."  When Stan came to me, I replied that I had no idea what Mick was talking about.  I e-mailed Mick to ask him to substantiate why he felt I'd betrayed his trust. I pointed out all the obvious things in my defense. If Stan knew about the cosmetic surgery and Pakistan, he would've brought up the topic by now.   Who else would I tell? For what gain? I might as well have been e-mailing my rebuttals to a citizen from another galaxy with no comprehension of English. Mick's low CPU brain wasn't logical; he found a way to see a deception in my every word. I warned him to back off this topic, but he couldn't let it go. Midway between yet one more e-mail I was sending to prove my innocence, I realized I was wasting my time. I felt like a moron for allowing myself to be dragged into his idiotic accusations and giving them power by trying to refute them. I suddenly didn't care if he thought I was innocent anymore.    My e-mail turned into one of obscenities. I told him to F off and that I never wanted to hear from him again.  I immediately delisted him from my Facebook friends list and blocked all his incoming e-mails so I wouldn't be tempted to ever respond to him.

Even after all this, I still didn't dislike Mick. I was simply fed up with him. I concluded that if Mick ever tried to apologize, the friendship, like the one with Clara, had been irreparably destroyed.  I would never see him the same way again knowing he'd always think of me as untrustworthy for reasons of his own invention. More galling was that I had planned and researched his Pakistani surgical outing, saving him A$8-10k, and there was no sense of accumulated good will.  All he could think about was how I'd "screwed" him. I expect to this day he feels zero remorse that I cut off the ties.  Quite the opposite. He likely thinks I cut off the ties because I had something to hide.

Forgiveness is one of those concepts which is fantastic in theory, like world peace. In practice, neither concept may mean all that much. I could forgive Mick, I could forgive Clara, and would do so if it would really make their days, but what real difference would any of it make? With the way things had gone, Mick and Clara still wouldn't make my Facebook friends list; and trust me, that list isn't very selective.

There is a window of opportunity where an apology can be offered and forgiveness granted, and the relationship maintains some chance of being restored to what it was pre-offense. Once that window closes, we start going through the motions, much like the apologies my parents forced my brother and me to render to each other whenever one of us wronged the other. I'm not sure at 8 years old I was truly repentant for whatever I did, but it didn't matter. Kids have short forgiving memories. As adults, we hopefully acquire the capacity to be genuinely repentant and forgiving. By then, however, our actions usually cut a lot deeper and can't simply be forgotten.  

Were it only true that to forgive is always divine.  If it is to mean anything, forgiveness is a matter of timing first.   

If you liked reading this, consider:
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 The Complete Article Index