Receiving Forgiveness

by Kenneth L. Stewart, Ph.D.  

When the pain from past spills out into my office during

the course of an interview, the need for forgiveness seems

as necessarily immediate as ice compresses on burns:

without it the scaring will become ugly and permanent.

People caught up in painful stories having played characters who were either victims or perpetrators need to forgive or be forgiven in order to break the grip that past transgressions have on them and get on with their lives. Hearing these stories, I feel compelled to dispense forgiveness, to be like some secular priest, serving as a mediator for a psychologically forgiving God. My compassion compels me to offer forgiveness, facilitating the giving or the receiving of it, as the case may be, so that absolution might be restored to the moral imbalances in their lives.

But experience has taught me that I am impotent to do either. No matter how much I care, forgiveness must be given or received by someone else. In the case of offering forgiveness, it's just not up to me to say, "you are forgiven." No matter how much I care, the largess of my caring cannot step into that very personal, very spiritual arena. By my careful listening, by attempting to understand them in their context, by unconditional positive regard I might convey to them a sense of acceptance, but that falls far short of healing forgiveness. Nor is it up to me to get inside their skin, inside their memories and experience and offer forgiveness to someone who has hurt them or betrayed them in past. When forgiveness must be given, the victim usually has the choice within her or him to offer the mercy of their forgiveness by themselves alone. At least they can forgive the injustices that were foisted on them personally, if not their loved ones who might also have been hurt. I can encourage it, raise questions about the implications of not giving it, and have conversations with the person about the difficulty of giving it. But in the end, its up to them to find within themselves that capacity for forgiveness. But in the case of a client receiving forgiveness for past wrongs they have committed, I have found that it needs to come from the person's community in order for healing to happen.

Where forgiveness needs to come from depends on whether we are dealing with shame or guilt. Stuart Schneiderman (1995) makes interesting distinctions between shame and guilt. Shame occurs when we fail to follow certain rules or perform certain roles in fulfilling our social obligations. It's not doing what we are supposed to do. So, when we feel shame, we feel bereft and isolated for having failed our group or community. An airline might fail to ensure the safety of the passengers in its care or a person may fail to live up to her word. Shame cultures, he argues, educates its members by showing them how to do the right thing.

Guilt, on the other hand, occurs when we do something we are not supposed to do, when we commit some kind of act that is prohibited by society. Guilt feels like the anxiety or dread we experience when we anticipate some inevitable punishment for having broken a law or rule. Guilt cultures tell us what not to do, listing the various wrongs we should not commit. Guilt cultures educate its members by socializing them into fear of consequences for doing the wrong thing.

Let me tell you a story of both guilt and shame.1 A while back, a man came to see me, depressed because he had been feeling tense, anxious, guilty, depressed and reclusive. He hadn't felt like doing anything, was depressed in the morning, and sometimes would watch TV for 12 hours at a time. He told me he had been feeling a sense of guilt and shame for some time. Several years ago he had started contracting business with a childhood friend, someone he had grown up with in his old neighborhood. There was this large project they were working on, and even though they were partners, Michael was doing most of the work. He felt as though Carl, his partner, was more like an employee than an equal partner. Although Michael resented this, he but didn't say anything about it. What Michael did do, however, was take more money from the business for himself than was due him over a three year period of time, rationalizing to himself that he had earned for doing the extra work. When one day Carl asked to look at the books, a discrepancy of several thousand dollars was found. Michael paid it back immediately. But Carl was so enraged at this. Suddenly a man who had been his friend since childhood no longer wanted anything to do with him. He cut off all contacts with him, both business and personal.

"I felt like a man without a country," Michael said to me. At the same time Michael was also going through a divorce. So when all this happened, he found himself isolated and alone. Even though he was quite popular before this incident, he stopped getting invited to social events. When summer came, he wasn't invited to play softball with usual friends. Whenever he would see his old friends at various events he would feel tense and anxious. "The whole incident just comes back to me at those times," he told me. Michael and Carl also had a mutual friend, Jim. The three of them were very close friends growing up. They played basketball together, socialized together with a group of friends from the old neighborhood. When all this came out, Jim too wouldn't have anything to do with Michael either. Not only that, their entire social group of other husbands, wives and children were cut off from him as well. Occasionally he would see Carl at local college basketball games, but he couldn't look at him. Jim eventually spoke to him and was somewhat approachable, but Michael feared that he was putting Jim in the uncomfortable social position of having to choose between "the good guy" and the "bad guy". So their relationship had a tenuous quality to it.

His parents, who were popular with his group of friends over the years were certainly disappointed at his actions, but they had found it to forgive him. However, he described his mother as perfectionistic ­ with specific standards about household cleanliness and how well he should perform in school as a student. He remembered being criticized over and over again, and continually brought up short. When he excelled at football at was named to the All Conference Team, he would berate himself for not making the All State Team or not being recruited by the local University. Although he could laugh at the absurdity of this kind of never ending escalation of standards, he still felt a profound sense of inadequacy, where nothing he did was ever good enough.

In subsequent meetings I externalized the "guilt" and discovered that it had an 80% control of him most of the time. He and his current wife seemed to have a marriage that for the most part was satisfying, but there were times in which they both came under the influence of depression, each telling themselves stories of inadequacy and rejection. At these times their relationship was less resilient and they would get caught up in fighting and long silences. We talked about making contact with Carl, of reaching out to him and building a new relationship. But fear and rejection controlled him to the extent that doing this was very difficult to imagine. He told me that he cried easily at the end of some movies or when the national anthem was played at sporting events. We speculated together what this might mean. I wondered whether it had anything to do with experiences of acceptance, triumph, reunion or belonging ­ themes connecting these experiences. He said that he hadn't thought of it that way before, but thought perhaps it might make sense. He agreed that he certainly felt the need to be accepted and to belong.

After a couple of more meetings he came in with some interesting news that would turn out to be a turning point for his story. He said that he found himself in his old neighborhood one day. He decided to take a chance and he went into the neighborhood pharmacy. This was a risk because the pharmacist there knew Michael most of his life and knew about "the incident." To his surprise, the pharmacist was glad to see him. They talked for a while about the neighborhood, got caught up a bit, and talked about what Michael was now doing in his life. The pharmacist didn't seem angry or judgmental or in any way cool toward him. This surprised him. When he left the store Michael discovered that his spirits and self confidence were beginning to swell beyond where they had been in years. At that moment something began to change to the inside story he had about himself and the outside story he thought others had about him. He wondered whether the story that others has of him as the neighborhood pariah were perhaps bigger than they actually were. Perhaps they loomed large for him, he thought, but were much less so for others. I said this was an interesting idea, one worth pursuing in future conversations.

A few weeks later he attended a class reunion and was warmly greeted by his former classmates. This experience, along with the experience with the neighborhood pharmacist, proved to be very helpful in lifting the burden of shame from him. He did not say, "I am terribly sorry for what I have done and how I have let you down." There was no public apology. Nor did he say to any of them, "I am terribly sorry for having taken the money from my partner, please forgive me." There had been no punishment rendered by any authorities. So, even though he had not made a public apology to his community or his graduating class, it was as if the encounter with the pharmacist and later his former classmates served as a healing experience for his shame ­ the sense he let his community down ­ and for his entry back into the good graces of that community.

Yet, his depression began to lift. Even though neither he nor I knew what was going on in the minds of those people, the story he told himself began to change. Although he could not rewrite his history, he was beginning to understand that history ­ and his present life ­ in less shameful ways. As his therapist, I was helpless to provide him the necessary forgiveness he needed. I could accept him, listen to him, and try to understand him. I could raise questions and make comments, but I knew that wasn't going to be enough. In my experience, it never is. What he needed was the forgiveness of his community, his extended "family" of friends and acquaintances from the old neighborhood, those people who knew both what he did and what he failed to do ­ and who he was that transcended of those crimes. More than his partner, it was these people he felt he broke a social contract with that resulted in his shame. For many years he believed himself to not be the upstanding, up-and-coming guy people knew him to be growing up.

When he left the pharmacy a healing change began to happen for him that in retrospect, our conversations had perhaps prepared him for. Through our conversations he was slowly gaining confidence in himself, and slowly getting ready to venture back to the community that meant so much to him. I think he had some innate sense that if healing came for him, it needed to come from that community rather than his therapist's office. More than relief that he wasn't given the cold shoulder, an experience of healing began to emerge for him after left the pharmacy, and this healing became even stronger after the class reunion a few weeks later. These persons, representing the community he believed he had let down, extended their forgiveness toward him. This forgiveness seemed to give him another chance to be redeemed, to not erase the past, but to have it tell the story of not an evil man, but an imperfect one.

Finally, because this event had happened several years before, Michael had the advantage of time which often is an important element of healing from the pain of the past. Perhaps one of the ways that "time heals" is that the passage of time continues to accumulate more and more experiences from an ever-widening series of contexts, and within the memory all these accumulated contexts our misdeeds don't loom as large as they did when they were closer to us in time. I like to think that the passage of time creates for us the experiences of looking into the reverse end of telescope or a pair of binoculars, where everything looks smaller and much further away, but at a wider angle as well. So the context that was once close to the bone is now at a distance and surrounded by many more experiences than before. When Michael returned after having seen the pharmacist he remarked that perhaps he was making this (ie, his rejection) out to be bigger than it was. I doubt he would have said that at the time it happened and when he felt the most shame and guilt. It was as if the passage of time allowed the event to become encircled by experiences and memories from ever-widening contexts so that this event had a harder time dominating his story. I could continue to speculate on the intricacies of what happened ­ but how it happened will always remain elusive. But the reality of his healing from guilt and shame is not an illusion at all, but a very real fact ­ a fact of his past but not necessarily a fact that determined his future.

Schneiderman, S. (1995) Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame. New York: Alfred A. Knopt.

Lying, Confession, Forgiveness, and Hope