What can you do when others refuse to forgive you?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, July 23, 2008

This is the third in a series of columns on forgiveness. It began with a look at coffee companion Annette Stanwick’s book, Forgiveness: the Mystery and Miracle, in which she described her life-changing journey that started with the murder of her brother. It continued last week with letters from our readers, and especially one from Tamara Ali, who up front admitted she had hurt others and now was seeking to make things right. “How does one make restitution to others?” she asked; “How do I ask others to forgive me?”

In follow-up correspondence with Tami, it became clear that her desire to receive the forgiveness of others met with obstacles. She wrote:

“Of particular interest, perhaps is opening the doors for healing when others remain angry, bitter or resentful because of something I have done. Not blaming them, of course; looking at the process. Although I finally see what I have done, it is not their position to allow me in on my time – patience to wait for their time. But, how do I know? What can I do?”

She shared with me how, in a marriage break-up, she had deeply hurt her three children, and they, as adults, were the ones having a hard time forgiving her.

With her permission, I shared her concern with Sandy Corenblum, my very wise advisor on Jewish religion and life in general. Sandy said:

“I think my answer would be to write a letter to the individual and have her pour out her heart to them on paper. In this way they can read and reread the words from her heart. She can say as part of the letter that there is never a 'statute of limitations on forgiveness' and that she hopes in time there will be healing and forgiveness. Often when someone reads a letter in their own voice and in their own time, then a new meaning or understanding arises and forgiveness is easier to achieve.

“In Judaism one has an obligation to go to a person three times to ask for forgiveness. God tells us that if after humbling ourselves three times, the person will not hear us out and forgive us, then we no longer have the obligation to ask again. We are told that in asking three times we have done all we can to try to remedy or rectify the situation and that we should not belittle ourselves further. Our sages tell us that this act may open hearts: ours and theirs. But after three times, we are belittling ourselves and them.

“I am reminded of the children of Nazis who wrote Holocaust survivors in Israel letters of apology and asked for forgiveness on behalf of their murdering parents. It was a miracle of God that they eventually met up together on several occasions in both Israel and Berlin and both sides came to understand and forgive. If this can be achieved, then there is hope in each and every situation.”

After I forwarded Sandy’s letter to Tami, Tami replied that, in fact, some time previously she had made attempts at writing two not-well-considered letters to her children. Those letters only increased the anger and hostility.

“I am open to writing a letter again. I am now willing to look at the events through their eyes and hearts. On this third time, my heart and mind is at a very different place, one of peacefulness, love and respect. I hope it carries,” she said.

“I prayed for the willingness to make an amend. To make a change in our relationship. To make a change in my side. To acknowledge how my actions affected them, no matter the reasoning. Then I wrote three letters, one to each. I have not sent them yet. I have more to add to the letters as more is revealed to me.”

Already, however, Tami’s change in attitude is bearing fruit. In the past few days all three of her children have phoned, she said. There was a caring attitude. “Each one of them responded to my ‘I love you’ at the end of the conversation, with ‘I love you, too.’ The miracle of Spirit.”

When I mentioned Tami’s story to fellow columnist Mary Lou Davis, Mary Lou picked up on Tami’s use of the word, “amend.” She drew my attention to the importance of making amends within the Twelve Step philosophy. (A Google search on the words “Twelve Step” plus “amend” proved most enlightening.)

“I think that is the ultimate way to express sorrow and ask for forgiveness,” she said, “— through the action of attempting to make wrongs right to the best of one’s ability.”

To conclude this important discussion for now, then, it is my opinion that the entire question of forgiveness can be summarized in two sayings of Jesus, champion of forgiveness: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy,” and “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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