Thursday, January 3, 2008

Letting people off the hook

I had the opportunity to practice forgiveness today, in a small way. I went to my doctor at the appointed time (and she's usually right on time), waited 35 minutes, and then left. I called and left a message saying that I had been there but she hadn't, and to please call and reschedule.

At first I was somewhat irritated, because it was a very early appointment (and I got up on time this morning, yay me!). But I wasn't sure whose "fault" it was, and I put "fault" in quotations because I'm not sure assigning fault or blame to every situation is really important. (At least, that's what a friend of mine 30 years ago said -- I had some really bad habits then!) The fact was that we were not able to meet. I regretted this, but I thought I might have made the mistake as easily as she, so my irritation was already lessening because of that.

She called later and it turned out that it was her mistake that caused the mix-up. And that was my chance for reacting angrily, or even just peevishly -- anger would be overreacting, but showing irritation was not necessarily out of the question. But instead I let her off the hook, saying that it was fine, asking to reschedule. The basic wrap-up: this kind of thing happens to all. And it can be enormously satisfying to let someone off the hook.

It helped greatly that she apologized, and I am now thinking about the role of apologies in the ability to forgive. It can be easy not to accept an apology because I'm still mad, and I need a bit of time to cool off, but usually if someone apologizes, sincerely, accepting responsibility, I settle down and am able to forgive.

I have in the past few years forgiven some people who have caused me great harm or done egregious (according to me) things -- without an apology. But man, it took a long time to get there. One of them was my mother, and she died six years ago, and I wasn't able to forgive her for a lot of things until after her death. Sometimes I still have flare-ups of anger toward her. And now I think, if one is practicing forgiveness, doesn't that look a lot like acceptance of another person, including their flaws and errors and everything? And where does self-respect enter in? If forgiveness is about acceptance, does that mean we forgive/accept everyone who treats us badly? Where do we draw the line? Do we set ourselves up for more problems if we are too accepting? Or can we sever unhealthy relationships in a forgiving way?

Stay tuned as I continue to examine this phenomenon and ask even more unanswerable questions!


hymes said...

Forgiveness doesn't have to involve reconciliation. If someone is a bully, accepting their abuse is of course a bad idea, but if one moves on and then forgives when ready, without reconciling/being with that person again, I think that might actually be good for one's self-esteem for some people. Not everyone of course, everyone is different, but forgiving someone for hurting you as long as it does not invite further hurt can be liberating. Hope that makes sense.

Catherine said...

I think that makes a lot of sense. So you move on from abusive people, but then forgive them. It seems hard to do! Sometimes I hold onto anger way too long, but more about that in another post.

Thanks for writing!

John said...

I don't think it's good to repress anger (or irritation) toward someone who has "cost" you in some way simply in the name of forgivness - IF it's something worth getting upset about in the first place. I think it's a dichotomy. Allow yourself to express your anger or irritation, THEN forgive. When I'm able to do the first part, the second part is much easier. I think this approach is better for both parties. If someone I know (I qualify this because if it's someone I know, I'm likely to encounter this person again and again) has harmed me, I want to let them know that because after doing so, my anger is usually gone, or at least greatly diminished. You don't necessarily have to relay this message in a huffy way. Usually, a "matter of fact" countenance is more palatable, and probably more effective in getting your point across. And if the other person has any character, it should send the message that you're someone who will not allow others to blatantly disrespect you, and they will hopefully bear this in mind the next time they deal with you.

Catherine said...

Interesting. I had recently come to this conclusion myself, realizing that part of forgiveness means speaking up for myself, so as to give the other person the chance to clear the air. It's funny how contemplating forgiveness leads one into so many areas of interpersonal relationships.

My dr recommended that I read Loving Kindness by Sharon Salzberg (whom I've liked in the past) so I'm going to do that.