My childhood rabbi once explained that on Yom Kippur, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, sins we make before God are mercifully erased, but not offenses committed against fellow humans. To come clean, we have to approach those we’ve wronged, specify our misdeeds, and beg forgiveness. But what if I was the person who was wronged, and the one who hurt me refused to express any regret?
This question haunted me after my falling out with the mentor who’d helped my career, marriage, and sobriety. I’d trusted him for a decade and a half. Then, early one September night, I found out he’d lied to me. I felt betrayed. I could barely eat, sleep or work well. When I told him how upset I was, he refused to apologize.
I wanted to be benevolent and big-hearted. But as a Manhattan journalist, I was skeptical of psycho-babbling promises implying any offense could be overcome without a heartfelt apology. Believing you had to teach people how to treat you, I’d prided myself on being self-protective and not anyone’s punching bag. I pondered the line from an ancient battle poem “Wounded I am more awake.” Alas, with no repentance from my wrongdoer, my angst would not be calmed. Wounded I was only more miserable.
I used to pity volatile friends who wouldn’t speak to their relatives or colleagues for years at a time. I didn’t want to become one of those angry people, clinging to an endless vendetta. I had always been forgiving. I forgave the college boyfriend who’d slept with not one but two of my roommates. I even exonerated both of the women, but only after they’d all explained (they were under the influence of magic mushrooms), and asked for my pardon. I was fully capable of granting anyone atonement — if that sinner first admitted their transgression and coughed up, “I’m sorry.”
Yet now the person I depended on refused to acknowledge that he’d injured me emotionally, which seemed even more unforgivable. I couldn’t understand his cold behavior. Preoccupied by his inability to acknowledge his betrayal, I cut him off. But I couldn’t move on.
Yearning for wisdom, I Googled “forgive.” An entire Forgiveness Industry popped up: a British charity, a PBS documentary, a Mayo Clinic website, all touting the personal benefits of exoneration — deserved or undeserved. A stack of books from all religions promoted radical forgiveness for everyone, for everything, to help you “get rid of the gorilla.” I read the titles with frenzied hope, yet my gorilla grew.
To ease my distress, I searched for enlightenment from other gurus. At the Manhattan soup kitchen of the Episcopal church where I taught a workshop, I asked the Reverend her feelings on forgiving. She said, “Christians repent for sins during Lent, the way Jews atone on Yom Kippur. We’re taught to forgive and that God will forgive us, if we ask.” But the man who hurt me hadn’t asked or repented. He knew I was distressed, but didn’t think he’d done anything wrong.
A Chasidic colleague was more specific: “Jewish law requires a person to ask heartfelt forgiveness three times,” she explained. “If the injured party won’t forgive, the sinner is forgiven and the non-forgiver has to seek forgiveness for not forgiving.” Yet the initial request had to be inspired by true regret.
A Muslim friend told me Allah was merciful, but only after repentance. I felt vindicated, especially when my lawyer cousin added that pleading guilty and expressing remorse was the deciding factor in many legal verdicts.
When my mentor emailed, “I’m sorry for the imaginary crime you think I committed,” his aggressive-aggressive tone made me want to commit a real crime. I feared I’d never get a real apology to fix what was broken.
I asked Vatsal, a Hindu-born psychiatrist I knew, how someone who’d been amazingly helpful and generous to me for 15 years could have changed. “There’s something missing from this story,” Vatsal said. He used the metaphor of a commuter enraged when a woman driving an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the backseat, and risked causing an accident. The other driver couldn’t see the SUV driver’s infant choking. “Similarly, you have no closure because there’s an unknown factor you can’t see that’s essential to understanding what happened,” Vatsal opined. In my sadness and fury, I couldn’t figure out what I didn’t know.
Six months later, my mentor emailed: “I’m sorry for what happened. If I had to do it over it again, I would have acted differently.” He asked if he could apologize in person.
We met for coffee. He looked thinner and frail. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” he reiterated. He seemed remorseful.
I gripped my glass of water. After back and forth questions, I asked, “How’s your family?”
“Not well.” His voice cracked as he explained that a minor medical procedure his wife needed to remove a tumor had turned out to be malignant. Six months earlier, she’d undergone extensive brain surgery. He thought he was going to lose her.
“Is she okay?” I asked, alarmed.
“She’s recovering. But there might be nerve damage. Right now, she’s half-deaf, can’t drive, can’t walk without a cane, work, or fly without seizures.”
I’d had no idea. I felt like crying. That was what I didn’t know! I hated how agonized and haunted he looked as he admitted he’d been in denial.
“I tried to compartmentalize, but I wasn’t functioning well or making good decisions,” he confided.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Hard to talk about.”
If my husband were seriously ill, I’d lose it too. My mentor had once told me, “Unhappy people have nothing to give. They need all of their energy to function. You would get more from a happy person you barely know.”
“I feel like I lost a whole year,” he said. “I want this bad blood between us finished.”
Just like that, it was. His words halted my rage and elicited instead my sympathy. My appetite, concentration, and sense of humor returned. Mesmerized by the magic dust of his mea culpa, I scanned my world for other broken bonds. Even when I didn’t believe I’d sinned, if I’d offended someone I cared about, I could still offer an authentic apology to respect their feelings and erase their pain. That realization felt transformative and powerful. So I borrowed my mentor’s humble, gracious apology technique to go on a manic forgiveness binge, wanting to make amends in every relationship I’d screwed up.
Over the fall, my close family friend Isabelle had asked me to read and edit hundreds of pages of her project on surviving breast cancer. Drained from my own deadlines and feud with my mentor, I’d told her I was too busy. She’d cut me off, ignoring my emails. Now I could see how important it was for her to share her harrowing journey. Blessed with health, I’d selfishly made it all about my work schedule.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you when you needed me,” I called her to say. “Want to take my upcoming class without charge and show me your pages this week?”
“Susie, I’d love to!” she said, using my childhood nickname, cancelling out all the bad juju.
Knowing my brother had hated something I’d published about his family, I wrote him and his wife a heartfelt letter saying, “I’m sorry. I regret opening my big mouth. I never meant to hurt you.” He responded by putting me back on his email list for Republican propaganda. I was in again! And so relieved.
In a circle of forgiving, everyone I’d wronged pardoned me. I saw that by obsessing over my mentor’s disloyalty, I’d been myopic, small-minded, and blind to how lucky I was.
For this year’s Day of Atonement, I vowed to forgive myself.