I’m ready to forgive. I notice this spontaneously, in the middle of an unrelated conversation with the person in question. I don’t think she even hears herself. Suddenly, in passing, she says something I’ve been waiting to hear for many years. She makes an aside reference to our conflict. And she identifies, describes, and ‘owns’ her behavior during that time of hurt and conflict.
And then she goes on with the subject at hand. Just like that. And I don’t flinch. I respond “as if normal,” as if she’d just made a casual remark about the weather. Which is to say I don’t respond at all.
This was days ago, soon to be weeks. And I’m still thinking about it. I’m focused on the mystery of the human heart – its fierce, irrational pride digging in and barricading for years and even lifetimes, coupled with its equally inexplicable, sudden willingness to emerge naked, shameless, humble and truthful.
I ask myself, “Why now?” Why now does she say, in passing no less, what I suspected was true from the beginning? Wouldn’t it have been simpler to say it back then? Wouldn’t it have saved us both a lot of hurt and consternation, not to mention wasting much less time in estrangement, suspicion and antipathy?
Simpler, yes, but just too damn scary. The reason we mobilize pride is to protect ourselves. And not first to protect ourselves from others; rather, to protect ourselves from ourselves. From our own judgments and self-loathing. We mobilize pride in exact proportion to the degree we already know we’re wrong. We advance whatever narrative is required to justify who we are and what we’re doing. We advance narratives of distortion or outright fiction about our antagonist. And we do this to hide. Chiefly to hide from ourselves.
I ask myself, “What am I supposed to do?” What’s my line? What are the rules? When someone, years later and without segue works an abject confession into a casual conversation, then what’s my job? Does social decorum necessitate pretending I didn’t hear her? Would a nice man just file this away, give thanks for it, and go on? Or do I take this moment as someone communicating readiness for something deeper and more authentic? Do I make overt her passing remarks? Do I thank her for them and forgive her in words? Or would that embarrass her? Is this a time to deploy ‘good form,’ or to engage authentic human intimacy?
Forgiving and being forgiven is big medicine. And it’s complicated. The good folks at Alcoholics Anonymous remind us of this in The Ninth Step: “I made direct amends [to the people I had harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Meaning, you don’t just walk up to someone and dump an apology on them willy-nilly. This warning works in reverse, too. You don’t just walk up and say “I forgive you” without first thinking through many layers of discernment. Both forgiving and asking for forgiveness are moments of great power. Without great care and discernment, both can provoke as much as they can heal.
I’m worse than uneasy in relationships where the most important content is inferred. I’m saying I don’t “pretend and make nice” without bristling impatiently inside myself. Oh, I’m actually quite skillful at “pretend and make nice.” I just don’t like it, nor do I like myself very much when I’m doing it. I feel much safer, not to mention more respectful of myself, when someone will join me in words to make real what really matters in love, respect, honor and intimacy.
Truth is, I’m absurdly forgiving. I don’t tend to be a “pound of flesh” type of guy. If you say to me any version of “I need and seek your forgiveness,” then you will have already engaged my natural tendency to forgive. Because forgiveness and forgiving is something I value, something I respect about myself. That you would ask is all the contrition I require.
And, if I know myself at all, the mental machinations I write here will not ultimately dissuade me from doing what I know I want to do: forgive her. In words.
But, for now, I wait and watch. Discerning. Face to face? A hand-written letter? When? How do I deliver this gift without doing damage? Without embarrassing her or tempting her to further wrath?
Forgiveness and being forgiven are quite the taskmasters, indeed.
(You may reach Steven Kalas at email@example.com. Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest who writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)