No, she doesn’t contact her son any more. The grandkids, yes. But not her son. Not so much as a birthday card. Why? “Because he won’t forgive me, and I deserve to be forgiven,” the woman says.
Deserve to be forgiven? Wow. The word choice is strong, clear, powerful … and uncommon. Surprising.
For years this woman tried to account. She stood in patient, naked humility before her son’s ire, resentment, and disappointment. She affirmed her son’s every grievance. Over and over she invited her son into healing dialogue in hopes of rebuilding the bonds of love and respect.
See, the woman stayed married to a drunk, mean little boy disguised as a man when she should have stood up for herself and for her children. “I’ll die sorry about that,” the woman says. “My kids needed a mother with strength and self-respect, and they didn’t get that. I know that had consequences especially for him. But I’m not willing to be punished for the rest of my life.”
Sounds like, somewhere along the way, mom has discovered some strength and self-respect.
I’ve been waiting here for you/ Wondering what you’re gonna do/ Wondering how long you can eye this wall of pain/ I don’t blame you for the ache/ I admit my dark mistakes/ It was I who painted this wall with the pain/ But won’t you come with me/ Away from this darkness and see/ That our past has been redeemed/ By the love of One unseen/ Who knows all our sins and casts us not away
The man cheated. He had an affair. A stupid, reckless, selfish weekend on a business trip with a woman who meant nothing more to him than the fantasy she provided. Then he came home and got caught. It was awful. Of course it was awful. “I ripped the heart out of the woman I loved,” he said.
But he’s not here today to find support and resources for the journey of reconciling betrayal in a marriage. He’s here to find support and resources for the journey of divorce. He’s leaving her, you see: “I was a total [expletive], but I’m not going to spend the rest of my life wearing that sign around my neck. Because I’m not a [expletive].”
The betrayal was six years ago. They were in and out of therapy for the next two years. He watched her weep and ache. He pledged. He pleaded. He joined a men’s group. He returned to his religion. He waited. He accepted near celibacy the way an ancient Jew would welcome sackcloth and ashes. Six years later, the only thing holding this marriage together is his guilt and her bitterness holding hands.
“I told her to forgive me. Or leave me. She will do neither. So, I guess it’s left for me to put the dog down.”
The metaphor is stunning. Marital euthanasia. He sees himself as the stronger of the two – strong enough to pull the trigger. He understands this act at once as regrettable, yet merciful, and most importantly as taking a stand of self-respect. He’s leaving her, because she won’t forgive him.
Don’t you see how much we’ll miss/ While your pride beats like a fist/ Against the echo of the love that we once knew/ I regret I hurt you so/ And I’ve tried to let you know/ But the pain between us now belongs to you/ One last time I lift apology/ And ask your forgiveness of me/ I have something hard to say/ I’ve decided not to stay/ Held hostage by the hope that you’ll love me/ A prisoner of your cold indignity/ An outcast in the shame you feel for me
Here’s a great irony for people who cultivate and cherish self-respect: At some point in a conflicted relationship, the thing that most needs to be forgiven is your refusal to forgive me. Yep, at some point your refusal to forgive a grievance or injury I caused becomes itself an injury to us and to me.
Can we deserve to be forgiven? Can we rightly render that moral claim on a relationship? Yes, in some instances, I think we can. And should. Though the concept will never stop astonishing me: “If you love me like you say you do, then take a breath and freakin’ forgive me. Otherwise, leave me alone. Because I’ve decided to forgive myself, and live well.”
Maybe someday soon I will/ Oh with God’s help yes I will/ Forgive you, friend, for not forgiving me
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada author, a therapist and an Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)