Forgiveness Is Not An Option

Please forgive me.

I am sorry if anyone offends themselves, but I’m going to be controversial. Most everything I read these days says that forgiveness of those who have harmed or offended us is something we must do. I don’t agree, not if they haven’t apologized.

A wise man once told me that true forgiveness is not something you can do. It is something that happens as a result of something else happening. I actually think he was right. Forgiveness is something that can happen after a heartfelt apology is made.

At a recent Live Conscious gathering, we showed a remarkably moving TED Talk by Joshua Prager: “In search of the man who broke my neck.”  Joshua shares the tale of his search for the reckless man, Ahmed—who had 26 prior driving violations—before plowing into Prager’s car and causing so much damage.

Joshua was severely disabled by this event and another person was killed. Many years later Joshua searched for Ahmed in order to receive two words: “I’m sorry.” When Joshua found Ahmed, not only did Ahmed not apologize, but he complained of his own minor and non existent injuries, and he had conveniently condensed his 26 driving violations and this reckless accident into a one time speeding incident.

After hearing Ahmed’s complete distortion of what happened, had Joshua chosen to forgive Ahmed, I would have been dubious. And I probably would not have been as profoundly touched as I was by what he did with his unfulfilled need for an apology.

Compassion yes, Forgiveness no.

Joshua, for his own healing, found compassion for Ahmed’s ignorance, his inability to be accountable, and his unexamined life. Joshua found compassion– not forgiveness– because there was no acknowledgment and no apology coming from Ahmed.

Sometimes I believe that the popular idea of “forgiveness” ends up encouraging repression or is a naïve ideal we are told we must fulfill, something we think we “should” do for ourselves and others. For me, inappropriate forgiveness may plant the seed for denial.

A patient of mine recently shared that she had long ago forgiven her father’s betrayal, being molested numerous times by him beginning at the age of nine.  She explained that she was “a very forgiving person.” My perception was that her excessive alcohol consumption played a big part in her ability to forgive the unforgivable.

Parents are supposed to protect their children. And they are fully aware of that. If they are abusing their kids, they are doing it consciously. And conscious crimes, to me, are the most unforgivable. And if there is no sincere apology, I believe, forgiveness is not an option.

Unresolved feelings surfaced from time to time for this woman, but they were quickly repressed with a nightly bottle of wine. She could not bear her father’s rejection, even as an adult, so it was easier to repress and minimize the abuse than to confront her father. The subject never came up and he never apologized. If feelings arose, she would numb herself accordingly.

Flexing our apology muscles.

Even with way less serious offenses, I amaze myself with how difficult it can be to say two little words: “I’m sorry”. But, sadly, being held accountable, admitting that we’ve made a mistake, is more than some of us can handle.

Were we to know how much better we’d feel after expressing those two words, we might step up to the challenge more often. Certainly with practice, this becomes easier.

I propose that we apologize for anything in our past and be prepared to apologize in the future—begin flexing our apology muscles. The healthier we are the less willing we will be to spend much time with someone who cannot say they’re sorry; but we can still feel compassionate toward them because we understand how difficult it can be to say we’re sorry, particularly when we ‘re unpracticed.

In the Live Conscious paradigm we get good at examining our lives and learning to appropriately Redo ourselves. In this practice we take blame out of the equation and thus, eliminate the sting of using those two words, “I’m Sorry”.

I’m sorry, but forgiveness is not an option for me if “I’m sorry” does not come first. If you find this subject interesting and want to read more about it, you’ll find part II of this article here.

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5 Responses to Forgiveness Is Not An Option

  1. Metta November 9, 2013 at 3:57 am #

    Beautifully and simply put. I would love to read your thoughts on what constitutes a heartfelt apology. I think it involves more than words, and emotion at the time of apologizing. As a child, I learned that “apologizing” was a way to get rid of my own feelings of shame and regret, and that I had the option of following up on my “apology” with codependent behavior–which gave me license to blame the person “unforgiving.” I am sure that this kind of “apologizing” is not what you mean. And probably, you would agree, that it is as detrimental to growth as “forgiveness.” I struggle myself with my desire to “apologize,” particularly when re-doing myself or even re-speaking myself is not an option.

  2. Chrissy November 9, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve apologized for many things I’ve done, but I haven’t received apologies for purposeful harm done to myself. I’ve been responsible and accountable for my actions. I’ve made my apologies and will not invest time with those who attempt to hold me back. I forgive myself, and for now that’s good enough!

  3. Hannah Eagle November 12, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    Dear Metta,

    I believe heartfelt apology is one that is received as sincere, not sarcastic, not forced, nor manipulative. Seems to me that the one doing the apologizing is probably always doing so to feel better about themselves, or that would certainly be the outcome if the apology is sincere. If the apology is not accepted, that is unfortunate, but will tell you something about that person you’re dealing with. Of course, there may be an offense that is just not forgivable. Or an offense that occurs over and over. Apologies made but then behavior does not change. That may also be unforgivable. If they were really sincerely apologetic, would they keep repeating the offense? I understand there are exceptions to this rule, for example with Asperger’s syndrome where they are not necessarily able to transfer one lesson to the next experience.


  4. Jason October 31, 2016 at 9:44 am #

    I like to think of it this way:
    Forgiveness is earned rather than granted.

    So if I crash your car, say sorry, hand you the keys and walk away, not at all cool. However if I offer to help out with the insurance paperwork and take you to work everyday while the car is in the shop, my actions are more than empty words. I take responsibility for both the accident (no matter who’s “fault” it is) and relationship. I’m taking action to prove that I’m worthy of both trust and forgiveness.

    But back to the walk away scenario. So if someone hands me a useless set of keys rather than a useful car, of course I would upset myself. I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is for myself, not the other person – but this has never sat right with me. I find it difficult to have compassion in these situations. Especially for an abuser situation described above. Doesn’t seem appropriate to me. In the absence of an apology or compassion, I find myself resentful. They say resentment is a poison pill that I take hope the person dies……

    At times I find myself struggling with a past situation and the resentment that it reflects in the now. With a lot of work I can muster some compassion, but it is fleeting. Am I still stuck in some sort of victim/perpetrator conversation with myself? What is a healthy way of dealing with this rather than a bottle of wine?

    • Hannah Eagle November 1, 2016 at 9:58 am #

      Dear Jason,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, I like the idea that forgiveness is earned rather than granted.

      Regarding your the past situation: As we would say in Respeak: you are still “sticking yourself” with this conversation in your head. If you acknowledge that you are the one bothering yourself with this story, you may be able to choose to stop telling yourself this story when it comes up. As long as you continue to repeat this story, you’ll make yourself victim to the story. Whatever the story is about is long over. It’s your own story-tellling that creates your suffering. What would happen if you stopped doing that to yourself? Maybe this isn’t so much about compassion or forgiveness but more about letting go of the story or the way you have been telling the story.

      Try to access the power you could feel for not letting that situation disturb you now.


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