For there are two kinds of forgiveness in the world: the one you practice because everything really is all right, and what went before is mended. The other kind of forgiveness you practice because someone needs desperately to be forgiven, or because you need just as badly to forgive them, for a heart can grab hold of old wounds and go sour as milk over them.

Catherynne M. Valente,
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

streetsweepingLong ago I gave up on New Year’s resolutions. An inability to remember them, a lack of desire to write them down and a lack of diligence in fulfilling them all contributed to abandoning the practice. Now in my later years I am more interested in forgiveness than I ever was in resolutions. The most difficult person to forgive is myself.

My mother was one of three daughters (there was one son) and I remember that she and her sisters seemed to play this game of odd-woman out. The pattern continued with my three sisters and I, and there were events that seemed to splinter the family. For the most part events and actions could be overlooked and slights forgotten. However, at some point something took place that could not be forgiven. A chill set in, and we never got together again as a family and some took their grievances with them when they passed, leaving the departed unforgiven.

A few years ago my dearest friend was told by one of her close friends, a friend from their high school years, that “she knew what she had done.” My friend tried in many ways to elicit her crime(s), to no avail. Two years later my friend’s friend was in the last weeks of battling a disease and I thought I might intercede; this only infuriated the friend further and she took those feelings with her when she passed. My friend still does not know how she so harmed her long-time friend.

What is it that makes it so difficult for us to forgive?

Forgiveness is entirely within us. It has nothing to do with the other person. I think there are certain acts that are beyond forgiveness. Then I hear of stories of unbelievable forgiveness. There is a difference, too, I think in forgiving and forgetting. To protect oneself from future harm some acts cannot and should not be forgotten.

How can we tell the difference? Perhaps empathy can help us discern what is forgivable. Perhaps putting oneself in the role of the betrayer helps. Can you imagine yourself doing the same thing given the same circumstances and pressures?

Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Jewish year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, follows ten days later. Within the Jewish tradition the period leading up to Yom Kippur is the time for individuals to seek forgiveness from others. As only those offenses against God are absolved through prayer, one should have sought forgiveness from others before seeking it from God. If the requested forgiveness is not granted, the individual should ask twice more, and rabbis tend to encourage those who withheld granting forgiveness to do so so that both parties can start the new year with a clean slate when they pray to God on Yom Kippur.

Acts of Forgiveness

In recent weeks we have learned of remarkable acts of forgiveness, such as that by Robbie Parker, whose daughter died in the Newtown shooting and by the mother of the professional football player whose son died in an auto accident where the driver was a drunk teammate of her son.

In the U.K Fatemah Golmakani, a grieving mother whose son was brutally murdered by a gang as he played soccer, has pledged to sell her family heirlooms to give his killers a better life when they leave jail. (May 2012, reported by the Daily Mail).

There are countless examples of men and women who have lost families in automobile crashes involving an at-fault drunk driver, yet they, like the football player’s mother are able to forgive.

So, if it is possible to forgive and even to love after such tragic events, how is it that comparatively minor slights can destroy years of friendship, pleasure, and companionship? Is it not one event, but perhaps sitting on many small events over time, of not being honest with regard to minor transgressions, of not clearing the air as hurts are realized, so that the weight of those stored complaints causes one to jump off the teeter-totter, somersaulting your friend head-over-heels? She will walk away with scrapes and confusion, while you continue to carry your hurt, forever unable to build the bridge that leads you away from that horrible place.

“And that,” as my mother might have said, “is that.”


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