On the way to work today, I was listening to Ray Charles and Elton John singing “sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
This got me to think about the importance of “saying sorry” and of “forgiveness”, but also to consider the need for both the sorry and the forgiveness being timely and authentic.
Psychotherapists Matthew and Dennis Linn, with Sheila Fabricant Linn advise that forgiveness should not be offered too soon. VanOyen Witvliet (2013, pg. 403-410) states “forgiveness requires remembering in a way that takes seriously the wrong and the harm done. … (it) does not mean minimising, tolerating or excusing the offense.” You hear of many people talking of “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget!” I wonder if the true principles have been followed, I do know that sometimes the sorry needs to be said, when the person can actually hear it and when you truly mean it. If for example, you try to say to somebody sorry when you have just hurt them and they are angry at you, will it be effective or will it be heard? I know when some people become angry, they may move into a red flag period – where it is dangerous to approach them. If you are to approach them with a sorry during this time, then they would not hear your apology. What then happens you get resentful, because they have not accepted your apology. Then before you know it a large brick wall is built which seems impossible to break down.
Einstein said, if you have a problem and continue to approach this in the same way then you will not solve the issues. So in this instance, the pause and test is the way forward. Once tested and the person can hear, then an authentic apology is likely to be heard. This apology would of course need to address both the emotional consequences of what went wrong and the logical outworkings of the same.
Timing and authenticity
Another issue with the idea of saying sorry, is that sometimes we do not realise we have done anything wrong. A couple of years ago, I met somebody who was very angry with me. You see he saw me on the street and I walked past him without saying hello. This was despite the fact that I knew him well. However, it was a sunny day and in the sun I screw my eyes up and do not see details. When he told me about the incident, I apologised. He heard me but did he forgive me, I do not think so, because from then on he did not talk to me. Perhaps, I should have waited until I was not angry with him for accusing me, then go to him and apologise with an explanation. Timing and authenticity is everything with forgiveness.
The other factor that makes forgiveness difficult, is that sometimes people are repeat offenders – do something wrong, say sorry, receive nominal forgiveness then a day later repeat. Does this person deserve forgiveness, the simple answer is “no” but this is mistaken. Something needs to change! This does not mean however, we should remain in positions of being abused, thinking of something like domestic violence, but here there are a number of factors to consider for the person being abused, should they keep themselves in positions of being abused. No, this is dangerous, but can they leave without forgiving themselves and their partner?
Viktor Frankl (A neurologist and psychiatrist who survived five concentration camps and who wrote the inspirational Man’s Search for Meaning) writes “I do not forget any good deed done to me and I do not carry a grudge for bad ones”. If anyone where in a position to struggle with forgiveness it was him, but he presented this different picture and this changed his struggles.
Peterson (2006 , pg. 33) talks of encouraging his students to think of someone who had wronged them in the past and to write them a letter of forgiveness, they did not have to send it unless they really wanted to and only if it were sincere.
“Think of the people who have wronged you in the past whom you have never explicitly forgiven, although you desire to do so. Write a forgiveness letter to one of these individuals describing in concrete terms why you forgive him or her and what if anything you hope will happen between you in the future.
By the way, has this individual ever apologised? If so, how did you react?
Please do not send this letter unless you really want to do so and are sincere in your forgiveness. Regardless, bring the letter to class * and be prepared to discuss this”.
In doing this exercise for a couple of people I wanted to forgive, I found the experience illuminating and enlivening. Neither of the two I sent, one because I know it would be perceived as reasons for them to feel righteous and the other because it would not be received. A third I thought of writing was for someone who had already died and I think as a consequence of this reflection I will write that letter.
I do also remember where I was asked by someone “what have I done to offend you?” I thought about it, got red faced and then explained. Apologies were received and forgiveness offered, relationship restored in very new ways.
* for class read “someone you can trust” – think about how this makes you feel? What reaction you hope for, etc.
About the author: David Rawcliffe MAPP, is a parent, researcher, author, Senior Lecturer, Mental Health Nurse; Positive Psychologist, speaker and conference organiser. He has worked with people with Autism and is a member of a parent support group. Has published including Autism Chapter in Mental Health and Well-Being in the Learning and Teaching Environment. Research includes experience of staff and patients of restraint, students with disabilities experience of support and recently examining the flourishing continuum, positive education and application of positive psychology in mental health care. Three times winner of most inspirational tutor award at Bucks New University.
Frankl, V.E. (2011) Man’s search for Ultimate Meaning, London, Rider.
Linn, D., Fabricant Linn, S. and Linn, M. (1997) Don’t forgive too soon; extending the two hands that heal, Paulist Press.
Peterson, C. (2006) A primer in Positive Psychology, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
VanOyen Witvliet, C. (2013) Forgiveness, IN Lopez, S.J. (Editor) The encyclopaedia of positive psychology, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.