If You Think You Can’t Forgive, Remember, You Do It All the Time

As we emerge from Thanksgiving and the holiday season kicks in in earnest, here’s a short list of things to keep handy: throat lozenges, Scotch tape, a Dustbuster, blankets and plenty of extra forgiveness.

Surely my family’s upcoming gatherings won’t be the only ones where guests might abhor one another’s positions on vaccines or Build Back Better. And that’s to make no mention of the painful conflicts that pass between family members over a lifetime.

As we brace for conflict and nurse grudges, we would be wise to consider a posture of grace.

If a full amnesty for past wrongs or current wrongheadedness isn’t possible, I strive to separate the offender from the offense. That way I can more easily muster compassion for the actor, even if I can’t manage clemency for the act. It’s worth remembering, too, that we practice forgiveness all the time.

We forgive our parents for not understanding when we’re joking, for worrying about the wrong things, for looking at us that way they do. For pretending they don’t know their mask has slipped below their nose. For asking what “TokTik” is and rolling their eyes when we mention health care or climate change or organic tofu. For bringing mortality into every room.

We forgive our siblings for staining the sweater, losing the sleeping bag, stealing the girl. For not seeing us as the adults we’ve become, for holding us hostage over that one time we said that one thing. For being smarter or more athletic or happier than we are, for having children who are smarter or more athletic or happier than ours.

We forgive our spouses for losing their phones so often, for using our toothbrush, for coming home from work late for the last 10 years. For being overly solicitous of the pretty but mean neighbor lady, for going on and on and never asking about our big meeting. For witnessing our every trifling and gross failure, for being better than we are at cooking, spreadsheets and password management in front of our kids. For being only part of what we need.

We forgive our children for getting out of the car without carrying in any of the bags, for not trying hard enough to know what we’re saying when we’re frazzled, for leaving towels on the floor at Nana’s house, for scaring us with their age-appropriate-but-still-shuddersome risk taking. For calling only when they’re in a bad mood or need money. For growing up.

We forgive ourselves — especially ourselves — for being tired, hangry, absent or critical. For caring about what people think and commenting on our kids’ appearance too much. For mouthing off about corrupt politicians and then doing barely anything to make change. For abandoning the parental pledge of transcendence and going human on our children.

Every functional family, defined here as people willing to be in relationships without end, relies on forgiveness at some level, and surprisingly often that forgiveness is routine, spontaneous and possibly beyond merit. Not that it’s easy. But the alternative is even harder.

My friend, a rabbi in San Francisconamed Michael Lezak, has officiated at hundreds of funerals where people have not resolved their conflicts, compounding their grief with regrets and shame. “Pain and anger embed themselves in our souls,” he told me. “Gone unprocessed, unchecked and, ultimately, unreleased, this subterranean hurt can so easily metastasize, sapping us of potential and impeding us from feeling fully alive.”

Or, as Anne Lamott wrote in “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith,” “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” The Buddhists suggest that unaddressed vengeful feelings can follow us even after death, and should be expunged lest they become embedded in our next life as ground-floor problems.

The why of forgiveness is more obvious than the how. It takes a lot to break through the wall of emotions (disgust, anger, hurt) that blocks us from forgiveness, especially when the offense is cruel or damaging. How do we even begin?

I find it helps to invoke memories of my own crimes and misdemeanors. I have been late, lazy, unduly lucky. I have been the young solipsist, the cocky college kid, the judgy midlife Karen. I have drunk too much drink, spoken too sharply, been too harsh in my evaluations. Sometimes I don’t help out as much as I should. I have mistaken identity for character. I am only partly informed, and I am overly influenced by the media outlets I choose to explain the world to me.

Once my recall has been revived, I try to stay in the memory as long as I can bear. The more detail I can conjure, the more completely my sense of outrage dissipates. The Catholics of my childhood might call this process confession-adjacent. I think of it as humility — and there’s research showing a link between facing our own flaws and finding our way to forgive others.

Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, which develops curriculums for schools, defines forgiveness as simply “choosing to be good to those who are not good to us.” He does not recommend adjudicating the hurt. Better to skip the picking over, the enumerating, the case-making. Direct your energy to this transformative move: recognizing the inherent worth in the other.

Rabbi Lezak points out that on Yom Kippur, the annual day of atonement, Jews read a passage that includes a clear call to choose life. “Part of this choosing-life business entails building the muscle tone to relinquish grudges,” he says. He believes that the forgiveness muscle builds as all muscles do: through repetitive use.

And we all have more experience with forgiving than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. If you’re looking for a 2021 holiday miracle, here’s a big one: At every dinner table, there are people who have managed to look past all kinds of wrongs, people who engage in a voluntary amnesty that marries an acceptance of our own flawed ordinariness and the truth that every last one of us is more than our most unjust behaviors. At every table, people are breaking bread, raising a glass, letting go.

Kelly Corrigan is the host of Tell Me More on PBS and the podcast Kelly Corrigan Wonders.

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