How to Forgive Without an Apology: What I Learned about Letting Things Go
By Susan Shapiro | Feb 05, 2021 | New York Daily News
In this collective annus horribilis, the raging pandemic and contentious politics are still dividing colleagues, friends and families. It’s especially difficult when somebody who offended you refuses to acknowledge your hurt by saying they’re sorry. I learned this when my long-time mentor lied to me and refused to apologize. Struggling to get over his betrayal and mend our estrangement without hearing any remorse, I went on a cross-country forgiveness tour, asking doctors and spiritual leaders if regret was a requirement for forgiving. I also interviewed people who suffered wrongs never righted or atoned for.
Here are ways I learned you can forgive, nonetheless.
1. Make a list. Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian in Manhattan, never forgave the Christian Orthodox Serbs who slaughtered his Muslim countrymen in the Balkan war. Before visiting his homeland at 30, he’d written down the names of 12 people who’d exiled his family that he wanted to avenge. He then compiled names of the Serbs who’d helped him escape, from the neighbor who shared food, to the police chief who created false papers, to the bus driver who waited in the snow to drive them to safety. He was surprised that list also numbered 12. While he never exonerated the murderers, he found peace knowing, as his mother taught, “there is good and bad in all people.”
Writing down everything good my mentor had done in 15 years immediately changed my perspective. As Confucius advised, “Forget injuries, never forget kindnesses.”
2. Seek help. A friend arranged an appointment for me with Swami Sarvapriyananda of the New York Vedanta Society, who told me, “An angry grudge is like lighting a fire that destroys the place where it’s lit. It burns your own heart first.” In his hospice work, my Michigan Rabbi Joseph Krakoff asked all relatives to recite an end of life prayer: “You are forgiven. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.” When an ailing father didn’t apologize to his daughter, hearing this helped her mourn and recover better.
3. Break the ice. After a close friend ghosted me, I decided that our long-term friendship was more important than my pride. But I didn’t want to fight. So I texted only “Happy birthday,” a month later, intentionally not rehashing our feud. She thanked me, which led to a longer, warmer tête-á-tête.
4. Calmly ask questions. Before overreacting, attempt to better understand the estrangement. When I took my father’s vote for Donald Trump as a personal affront, I asked him — in a neutral tone — to explain his motivation. He told me it was the repeal of the inheritance tax, so he could leave all his hard-earned money to his children and grandchildren “and not the government.” He’d grown up poor and worked 50-hour weeks for 50 years to become successful. His worst fear was that we’d suffer as he did. This helped me see that he wasn’t just slighting his left-wing feminist daughter. He was, in fact, attempting the opposite.
5. Be vulnerable. A former coworker seemed to have a vendetta against me. I wrote her a heartfelt letter, quoting kind emails she’d sent in the past, telling her I didn’t know what changed, wondering if I’d done anything to overstep, screw up or hurt her feelings. While we’re not besties, it led to a flurry of emails illuminating her side. Sometimes insight is just the rearrangement of facts.
6. Consider family ties. L.A. teacher Alison Singh Gee was enraged that her mother-in-law made negative comments about the appearance of her mixed-race daughter. Despite her biases, she showered her granddaughter with more love as she got older. Even without an apology, Gee kept in touch with her husband’s mom as a way to honor her spouse and keep harmony, letting the kindness she showed her daughter stand in for a direct apology. 7. Realize what you don’t know. Is there something in the story you can’t see? Connecticut psychiatrist Vatsal Thakkar offered a metaphor: “A commuter was enraged when a woman in an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the backseat, almost causing an accident. He didn’t know the driver’s infant was choking.” Indeed, I later learned shocking medical problems had debilitated my mentor’s wife and daughter. “I’m sorry, I had no idea,” I told him, apologizing profusely myself.
Susan Shapiro is the author of The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology