Ideas & Advice

The Missing Piece of the Forgiveness Puzzle

Nick Fewings / Unsplash

Source: Nick Fewings / Unsplash

After your brother, friend, co-worker, parent or child despises or hurts you, should you forgive without receiving an apology?

Susan Shapiro, New School writing teacher, is the author of The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Excuses. In her new book – 10 Years of Preparation – she spoke to therapists, religious leaders and people who had suffered terrible wrongs never righted. In this guest post, she shares with us her anger and dismay at the person she trusted the most and who offered no explanation for her actions and no regrets. Throughout her journey to find answers, she shares surprising pieces of the forgiveness puzzle that can lead to peace and reconciliation.

Guest post by Susan Shapiro:

After the controversial elections and the ongoing pandemic, half the country is trying to determine whether it could forgive the other half. I have always boasted of being a forgiving person who never held a grudge. But that all changed the night I caught her leaving her brownstone.

“I can’t believe you lied to me!” I tell him, feeling betrayed.

“I wasn’t lying,” he replied, shutting the door so no one could hear him.

No, my husband was not cheating on me with another woman. It was my longtime therapist by whom I felt betrayed. He had sworn he wouldn’t treat my favorite student. Their deception pissed me off.

“I get an All About Eve aura from her,” I had warned him six months earlier. “She already works with two publishers that I recommended. She wanted issues for my literary agent and Jungian astrologer. Now she’s asked to see you too. We’re getting too connected.”

“She looks crazy,” he commented.

“Don’t be flippant. She is important to me. What if she contacted you? I asked. He had been my mentor for the past 15 years. A brilliant addiction specialist, he had helped me quit smoking, drinking and drugs, getting married, getting out of debt and starting a new career.

“I’m going to refer her to someone else,” he assured me.

Sharing a shrink wasn’t like having the same dentist, I explained. Dr. W. had guided me through substance withdrawal and recovery into my forties, creating the kind of intense addiction you would have with an AA sponsor. Even though he was only eight years older than me, I considered him a father figure. While I freely referred professional contacts to my colleagues and classes, it was more personal. I didn’t want to run into her in her waiting room, my sacred space. I suggested that he try one of the 20,000 other chief medical officers in town.

“I will,” she said. “Sorry if I overstepped.”

End of the story. At least that’s what I thought, until six months later, when I was shocked to see her come out of her office. I learned that he had been treating her for six months, behind my back. He even set his date right before mine and was late, like he wanted me to know.

Their double disappointment pissed me off. Wasn’t being trustworthy his job? When I urged him to explain why he cheated on me, apologize and fix the problem, he said, “I hope you will forgive the imaginary crime you think I am committing.” .

My crisis management strategy has become my crisis.

Writhing boisterously until dawn, I had nightmares where my dad ran off with the red-haired daughter I didn’t have. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or concentrate on work. After inflammatory emails from Dr. W. hinting that I was irrational to be upset, I even chanted a secret Yiddish curse for revenge. (“The Goodman women have always been witches,” my mother said of her side of the family.) When he emailed that he had been bedridden with kidney stones, j I was petrified that my spell could kill him. Deprived of sleep, my sanity was slipping. I was afraid of relapsing – or worse.

Worried, my husband insisted that I cut them both. For six months, I refused to speak to Dr. W. or respond to his emails or messages. But that did not end my distress.

I was left puzzled that someone who had been so empathetic could suddenly be hurtful. I kept trying to figure out why he had changed. Was he fed up with my annoying problems? Maybe he needed the money?

I hated being so angry, wishing I could figure it out and move on. If he had just explained what had happened and apologized for lying, I would forgive him anything. But I couldn’t forgive someone who didn’t even think they did something wrong.

Researching the billion dollar “forgiveness industry” that promoted forgiveness to everyone seemed wrong. But without my longtime guru to guide me, I was in desperate need of direction. I have read hard covers about forgiveness from all angles. I interviewed religious leaders of different faiths, asking them for their theory on forgiveness to someone who wouldn’t say “I’m sorry”.

Essential readings for forgiveness

Although Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” one reverend explained that an unrepentant sinner would not actually be unpardoned. A Muslim chaplain clarified that in Islam forgiveness also followed repentance. A Hasidic colleague said, “Jewish law requires a person to ask for forgiveness three times. If the injured party does not forgive, the sinner is forgiven and the unbeliever must ask for forgiveness for not forgiving. Yet the request must have been inspired by sincere regret, missed by my mentor.

I felt justified when my lawyer cousin Danny reminded me that admitting guilt and expressing remorse reduces sentences in many criminal cases. I have underlined the chapters in a book describing the elements of a full apology: 1) Acknowledge and take responsibility for your mistake. 2) Explain why this happened. 3) Show that it will not happen again. 4) Offer reparations for healing.

Now this philosophy I could wrap my heated head around. But I still couldn’t get over the fact that he had no remorse.

After telling my friends and colleagues what happened, they revealed dramatic stories of wrongs they had suffered that had never been repaired. When I asked them how they were doing, they shared their wisdom. Some have managed to forgive offenders based on a person’s general kindness in the past, while others have held a grudge and found ways to thrive on the grudge.

In telling my story to a doctor who grew up in a Hindu family, he too found it mysterious that a professional who had been kind for 15 years suddenly turned on me. “There’s a piece missing from your puzzle that you can’t yet see,” he opined, offering a metaphor: “A commuter was enraged when a woman in an SUV suddenly pulled over to pick up something on the backseat, almost causing an accident. He Didn’t know the driver’s baby was choking. Likewise, there’s something you don’t know about your mentor’s life that will shed light on them. reasons he hurt you.

He was right. Six months later, Dr W. sent an email stating that he was sorry and asked if he could apologize in person. There, he explained that his wife and daughter had ongoing medical crises that had screwed his head – and his life.

“Why didn’t you just tell me they were sick?” I asked.

“Hard to talk about. My wife is private. I was in denial, thinking that I would compartmentalize and continue to do my job well. I feel like I wasted an entire year.”

“I’m so sorry. I had no idea,” I heard myself say to him, thinking that if my spouse was seriously ill, I would probably lose him too. After his full-fledged mea culpa, he found ways to redeem himself. We ended up co-writing a book together on Addiction to Help Others Conquer Substance Addiction and it even became a bestseller (for two weeks) proving how fruitful forgiveness can be. It was so liberating that I myself started gorging myself with forgiveness, apologizing to anyone I had unintentionally hurt.

Copyright @ 2021 by Susan Shapiro

Related: When are difficult sibling relationships worth fighting?

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