Photo Courtesy of Shellyn Leeper Photography

The Arc of Forgiveness

Please. Thank You. Excuse Me.  I have methodically embedded these good manner phrases into my children’s malleable little craniums for over a decade. I beam any time a restaurant server compliments my polite offspring. These tiny details of etiquette, when spoken sincerely,   are the seeds of growing kind, empathetic, and socially aware little humans. 

While many good manner phrases easily roll off the tongue, there is one that leaves many tongue-tied: I’m sorry. Admitting we were wrong and asking for forgiveness is sometimes too much for our pride to handle.

An apology is an act of humility and accountability that even the most good-natured and kind person can struggle to utter.

As my mother tells it, I was always a strong-willed child. As I remember it, that strong will did not necessarily translate to confidence. I began grade school as a child so painfully shy that I soaked my plaid uniform skirt rather than ask Mrs. Zingrone to use the restroom. I eventually broke from my shyness to present as an outgoing preteen and teenager while always harboring an eternal sense of inferiority and self-doubt. This battle between who I wanted to be and who I feared I never would become raged through my twenties. It fed my hesitancy to admit I was wrong. If I ever admitted I failed, I would have to also admit I was a fraud.

More than anything else, motherhood has provided me with a perspective I desperately needed to begin to move beyond my inner struggles. The moment I clicked Mateo into the carseat Pete and I embarrassingly struggled to install, I knew that nothing was ever only about me. I saw the world not as I lived in it, but how my child would experience it after I exited. My actions would never only affect me and, in fact, they never had. In his forever brown eyes, I saw my responsibility to do everything I could to improve this world he lives in and teach him how to do the same. This meant I needed to work on myself- learn to address my flaws, admit my mistakes, and challenge myself to be a better human.

“I’m sorry.” Lucy and Mateo have become accustomed to a decade of my apologies. Every quest for improvement involves setbacks and abject failures; mine is no different. Sometimes the stress and anxiety get to me. Sometimes I get so lost in a maze of insecurity, indignation, anger, and despair, that I am not present. I forget. I yell. I space out. I cry. I’m impatient. I lose my temper. 

I am flawed and admitting that to my children, committing to do better, is the best I can give.

Some parents roll their eyes at apologizing to their children. Perhaps they think saying, “I’m sorry” would soften their authority or diminish their children’s respect. I wholeheartedly disagree. Just as parents often misinterpret fear for respect, we can also mistake vulnerability for weakness.

When I apologize to my children, I am sincerely sorry. I mean it with all of my heart and soul and they know it. When I say, “I’m sorry.” I show them it’s ok to be wrong and to make mistakes, as long as we own AND atone.

More than anything else, saying I’m sorry is an act of love, a demonstration that I’m willing to change for them.

Asking for forgiveness and making amends is not a new concept. In fact, it is a cornerstone of all major religions as well as secular belief systems. I learned the act of contrition and reconciliation through my Catholic education. I’d confess my “sins” to a priest in a dark confessional in the back corner of St. Mary’s church. I’d enter the room and timidly confess to fighting with my sisters, talking back to my mom, and missing mass. The priest would listen, offer some advice, and give me a few (sometimes more than a few) Hail Marys and Our Fathers to rattle off. While I didn’t have any serious sins weighing on my young mind, there was something freeing about absolution. It was a clean slate. An opportunity. A gift.

While my pride and insecurity still pose obstacles to offer an “I’m sorry” as freely as a “please” or “thank you,” I strive to model apology and atonement for Mateo and Lucia in the hopes that they will understand its value.

I hope that my children will witness there is just as much strength in humility as confidence and this will lead them to sincerely and honestly offer apologies. I want them to feel the love of a heartfelt apology and learn the grace to forgive because this is a struggle that has consumed my life for years.

I have been estranged from my father for almost two years.

I had to force myself to type this sentence because it’s an admission I often avoid.  My relationship with my dad has been strained for all 41 years and 10 months of my life as far as I’m concerned. The tension has ebbed and flowed over time, but has always weighed on any kind of relationship we tried to have. 

Over time, the insults, cruel comments, slights, and disrespect piled up. Every fight, every unkind word, every denied request for change, linger on the list of grievances in my head with no apology to wipe any of them clean. My emotional wounds never had time to heal, let alone scar because there always seemed to be a fresh infliction of pain. Two summers ago, I realized I could not endure another round of our toxic relationship for fear of it poisoning me.  So I walked away.

Most days, I’m content with my decision. I’m able to compartmentalize my emotions fairly well and fear that any interaction with my father will ultimately lead to my own mental and emotional anguish. I focus on the snapshot memories of the “good days” instead.

My dad really did try to be a good father, especially after my parents’ divorce. He was always physically present, just never emotionally available. Every weekend, we’d go to his house, eat spaghetti, and watch movies. While my mom struggled with the full-time parent stress of raising four girls, my dad got to be the fun parent on the weekends. I was always on my best behavior while with my father because I sensed my football coach, machismo dad secretly resented having four little girls. I lived with a nagging fear that  if we weren’t pleasant, he might not come back to pick us up the next weekend. 

 I  smile remembering sled riding, canoeing, and Geauga Lake. I remind myself that he took me out to lunch when he drove through Bowling Green for business and that he also drove to Columbus to move me out of an abusive boyfriend’s apartment. He walked me down the aisle and bought newborn Lucy the pink stuffed puppy she sleeps with every night. I don’t hate my dad, I love him. I just cannot forgive him because he has never once apologized to me.

And so here I am, struggling to learn how to forgive without an apology.

I’ve never refused an apology. The rejection of a sincere apology made by a vulnerable person is cruel. However, the absence of an apology after an expressed wrong leaves space for grudges to fester. Without an “I’m sorry,” offered, there is no “I forgive you” response.  This is the forgiveness purgatory I find myself in.

For so long, I denied holding a grudge against my father. I was simply removing myself from interactions I found to be emotionally damaging, preserving my mental health. I’ve reasoned that if he refused to apologize and try to change, there was nothing left for me to do. One simply cannot forgive without an apology and commitment to change.

As I’ve learned more often than I’d like to admit: I was wrong.

Recently, my youngest sister, Jacquie, gently suggested that I need to consider forgiving my father. “How can I forgive a person who isn’t sorry?” I sobbed. She told me that forgiveness is just as much for me as my dad. It turns out my baby sister is wise.

I began to research forgiveness and found “the forgiveness trailblazer,” Robert Enright and the International Forgiveness Institute. It turns out that withholding forgiveness is just as emotionally damaging as remaining in toxic relationships. As I read about forgiveness, I began recognizing the symptoms in myself: anxiety, anger, lack of trust, and a lack of confidence in a person’s ability to change. Check, check, check, and check. 

Forgiveness is about goodness and empathy. Forgiving is not about excusing bad behavior or even restoring a broken relationship. It’s about extending grace and healing.

After long talks with Pete, Jacquie, and my best friend Becky, in addition to some painful soul searching, I understand now that not only do I want to forgive, I need to. I owe it to myself and my children. I must find the graceful strength to forgive even those who haven’t asked. But how?

Dr. Enright offers advice in Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine. He lays out Eight Keys to Forgiveness:

1. Know what forgiveness is and why it matters

2. Become “forgivingly fit”

3. Address your inner pain

4. Develop a forgiving mind through empathy

5. Find meaning in your suffering

6. When forgiveness is hard, call upon other strengths

7. Forgive yourself

8. Develop a forgiving heart

I’m overwhelmed, conflicted, and terrified, but resolute. Living in this forgiveness purgatory, waiting for an apology that may never come is not sustainable, so that means being brave enough to make a different choice. I need to find the strength to be the kind, empathetic, compassionate person I know that I can be and shake the insecurities and anger that keep me from growth. I must choose to forgive. 

So wish me luck, pray for me, send me positive energy, lend me your strength, all of the above because I’m going to need it. 

Please and thank you. I’m sorry, and I will, eventually, learn to forgive.


2 thoughts on “The Arc of Forgiveness”

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