In one of the most famous photos to come out of the Vietnam War, a small girl is running naked down the road with an expression of unimaginable terror, her clothes burned off and her body scorched by napalm. The man who ordered the raid on this child's village in June 1972 was 24-year-old helicopter pilot and operations officer John Plummer. The day after the raid he saw the photo in the military newspaper The
Stars and Stripes and was devastated. Twenty-four years later Plummer told an Associated Press reporter, "It just knocked me to my knees. And that was when I knew I could never talk about this." The guilt over the bombing raid had become a lonely torment.
The girl in the photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, survived 17 operations, eventually relocated to Toronto, and became an occasional goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. In 1996 Plummer heard that Kim would be speaking at a Veterans Day observance in Washington, D.C., not far from his home.
Kim's speech included this: "If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present...." Plummer, in the audience, wrote her a note—"I am that man"—and asked an officer to take it to her. At the end of the speech, he pushed through the crowd to reach her. "She just opened her arms to me," Plummer recounted. "I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say was, 'I'm so sorry. I'm just so sorry.' "
"It's all right," Kim responded. "I forgive. I forgive." Five months later, still connected by their peculiar history, the two were shown in an AP wire photo, their heads touching, almost cheek to cheek, Plummer's arm around her, both smiling with an incongruous delight, as if he had never ordered the raid that left her body scarred and in permanent pain and as if he did not live with recurrent nightmares.
The story of the pilot and the girl moves us because the need to be forgiven lives so strongly in us, and it is rare that we see it played out in such direct and dramatic form. And yet in our everyday lives we are touched by forgiveness and haunted by its lack in a myriad of ways. Can we be forgiven our insensitivity? Our cruelties? Our betrayals? Can we be forgiven the things in us that feel so terrible we dare not speak them? How others feel about us contributes to how we define ourselves to ourselves, and often it is through other people, their tolerance, their perspective, their generosity, that we are able to forgive what has seemed unpardonable in us before.
All sustained relationships depend to some extent on forgiveness. People hurt each other no matter how much love they share, and it's a truism that the greatest hurts are meted out by the closest of intimates. No friendship, no marriage, no family connections of any kind would last if the silent reparative force of forgiveness were not working almost constantly to counteract the corrosive effects of resentment and bitterness. Without forgiveness there could be no allowance for human frailty. We would keep moving on, searching for perfect connections with mythical partners who would never hurt or disappoint. The wish to repair a wounded relationship, whether it takes the form of forgiveness, apology, or some other bridging gesture, is a basic human impulse. The need to forgive may be as strong as the need to be forgiven.
When we think about forgiveness, we tend to imagine one person deeply and decidedly wronged by another. But in most relationships, so much good and bad is going back and forth that it is not always clear who needs to apologize and who needs to forgive. Indeed, in such cases the struggle to forgive and the struggle to apologize are barely distinguishable.
A man, part of a couple I am seeing, complains to me that "my wife has no forgiveness," and he is in agony over it. Six years ago he had an affair. His wife says she has forgiven him, but she still makes him take an AIDS test every six months because, she says, she cannot trust him. She won't acknowledge that she is holding a grudge. Nor has she been able to grasp how her sexual coldness toward him contributed to his straying. The original blow hit her in such a deep place that all her thoughts and feelings stay tightly organized around her wound. And his current behavior—barking, raging, denouncing—when combined with her psychology makes it hard for her to shake feeling like a victim. Unconsciously, she believes that her grudge is her only source of power. Unless she keeps him in purgatory, constantly begging to be let out, she will get crushed again. It is a sadistic solution, one that satisfies both their psychologies in ways they cannot see. He reacts to her withheld love like a panicked child, pleading and dependent, and then retaliates by bullying her mercilessly. And they've been stuck there, going round and round, each a victim, trying to live a married life with an indissoluble wedge between them.
Neither the husband nor the wife is in a position to stop the destructive pattern and freely forgive each other. Too many layers of their psychology stand in the way. This is not to say they don't have choices. They do, and certain of those choices can move them in the direction of forgiveness. They have inner resources they are unaware of, resources that might surprise them. It is just this zone of the possible, where our psychology entraps us and yet also holds the potential to liberate us, that most interests me.
Our capacity to forgive reveals a great deal about our inner lives. It is a measure of our ability to recognize the humanity in someone who has hurt us, as well as to see our own limitations and complicity. It represents the ability to tolerate disappointment in others and accept that they won't always be what we need them to be. And this sensibility applies to our view of ourselves, too, for forgiving others is nothing but the mirror image of forgiving oneself. Forgiveness is not just a by-product of growth: The struggle to forgive can promote growth. Significant acts of forgiveness entail letting go of a precious story we tell about ourselves, risking the awareness of a larger, less self-justifying truth. In struggling to forgive what is most difficult for us to forgive, we reveal our courage, imagination, and potential for growth. Much the same could be said about owning up to the wrongs we do.
Many years ago I read a very brief story in a magazine by a writer who had inadvertently observed a small drama on a city street. It was a scene between a boyfriend and girlfriend, perhaps seniors in high school. The boy was a deaf-mute. I don't remember exactly what happened, but in the dimness of memory, I see them lounging about on a hot day, maybe on a bench, maybe just outside school, and then a disturbing event took place that related to the boy's disability. Either he hadn't heard something and became confused, or perhaps some other youths insulted him. In any case, his girlfriend, exasperated and embarrassed before her peers, lost patience, dismissed him, called him an idiot—like, "Why do I waste my time with you?" His face fell. He looked crushed. The girl was immediately horrified by what she had done. She took him in her arms and kissed him tenderly, over and over, on his ears, on his mouth, as if to say, again and again, "I'm sorry, I love you, I love all of you, including the ears that can't hear, the mouth that can't speak."
Apology (and, when necessary, the redress of grievances) is an act of giving that can be as powerful and transforming as forgiveness. Certainly we crave it as much. We want a release from our own worst feelings about ourselves; we want to feel cared about and connected again.
A couple It was seeing in marital therapy were miserably estranged after Bill refused to accompany Thérèse to a screening her gynecologist had ordered to rule out ovarian cancer. They came into treatment with that weighing on them. "I told her I was sorry," Bill said, sounding like a bad boy who couldn't get anywhere with his stubborn mother. Thérèse started getting worked up.
I interrupted. "Well, Bill, why didn't you go with her?" Bill gave the official line about the nightmare week he was having. I said, "If your daughter Julie said, 'Daddy, I'm scared. They think I might have cancer; they want me to come in for a cancer test,' would you have found a way?" He said yes without hesitation.
"So what's this about?"
"She didn't make it sound important." "If she had said she was scared and really needed you there, do you think your response would have been different?"
He shrugged; he wasn't sure.
"Do you think maybe you wanted to hurt Thérèse?" Bill looked confused.
Thérèse recalled a fight a few days earlier that they hadn't resolved. Bill angrily corrected Thérèse's interpretation. They went at it for a while. Then Bill fell silent. We established what his silence meant: that he felt hurt by her style of confrontation and was simmering. I said, "So you were wanting to get back at her?"
"Yeah. There was no way to get through to her." Bill looked at Thérèse and nodded. "Yeah, I did want to hurt you." He turned to me. "I wanted to hurt her." He looked at her again warmly. They stared at each other. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," he said. "That was mean. I'm sorry. I really wasn't thinking at all about what you were going through."
Thérèse broke into sobs and Bill embraced her. She pounded him on the shoulder, even as she folded into him, crying, "Why do you have to be so mean! Why do you have to be such an insensitive f****!" while he held her and repeated gently, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." I thought to myself that for all his limitations, he can reach her like no one else.
Later on, when we turned to the take-no-prisoners quality of her aggression, as well as the distant, uninviting way she'd asked him to come with her to the clinic (I don't really need you, but you can come if you like), she was able to see that her offhand manner was partly a setup in which Bill would be given a new opportunity to be bad. I was certain she would not have been so receptive to this view if she had not first felt validated by Bill's apology.
We often feel, and say, that certain things are unforgivable. We doubt that we can ever get over a wrong that someone has done us. And yet a well-done apology, with a full opening of the heart—This is where I was, this is why I was there, I know I hurt you, and I feel terrible about it—melts that feeling, overwhelming and amazing the logic of our resentment.
Like forgiveness, apology can take many forms. It can be perfunctory; it can be partial but still real; it can be full-hearted and transforming, bringing about a reconnection and rekindling of love. But like forgiveness, apology born of guilty fear, a compulsive wish to please, or compliance is not worth much.
Apology is not about submitting or eating crow. It is something we feel we owe to the other, but we do it as much for ourselves, out of our own desire to give. People feel guilty and apologize all the time, but often the apology comes out of shame (what I did to you makes me look bad and I can't tolerate that) or what might be called superego guilt, which is more like fear of a higher authority (those condemning inner voices) than genuine remorse. We want to get the sense of wrongness off us, and so we petition the person to let us off the hook: If you forgive me, I can stop worrying that you hate me. If I apologize, maybe you'll get off my back. "Come on, I apologized!" we say, angry that we're not getting the results we want. There is no warmth in these apologies.
When apologies emerge from an obsessive sense of guilt or shame, there is no real change in the quality of one's inner life. The blaming and murderousness remain, only now they are used with ourselves at the head of the target list. The wronged person may feel lobbied or threatened or forced to witness a ritual self-immolation. To stab yourself with horrible remorse is not giving; it's just another way of withdrawing, withholding, not being there. Authentic apology emerges from concern. And the same concern aroused in us for the person we have harmed can be available on our own behalf as well; there is a turn toward a more caring state.
What made Bill's apology especially moving was his ability to own up. Owning up means getting past one's defensiveness. It means stepping out of the blaming system, in which one person has to be not only wrong but the bad one, the unforgiven. Perhaps most important, the aggression is owned—we admit to feeling murderous—and, as a result, it becomes less overwhelming and controlling to the person it has been aimed at. We do things that are thoughtless, inconsiderate, selfish, mean, and we do them often in disguised ways. In almost every conflict, one or both of the people involved are covering something up, presenting themselves as cleaner than they really are, all the more so if blaming has been an important factor in their upbringing. This kind of behavior is very threatening. Someone is going to be it and feel deeply and unforgivably bad. To own up, to say something like "First I made a dumb mistake and then I blamed you for it," and to say it with caring, gives a lot, because it frees the other person from that badness.
Just as forgiveness cannot be coerced, neither can apology or the admission of wrongdoing. It is hard to apologize or feel our concern when we are backed against the wall. A patient storms in furious at me for starting five minutes late. I'm selfish, only care about my needs, everything is on my schedule, I take off whenever I want and he has to comply. I ask if there was anyone else he felt was selfish, never there for him. His mother. He immediately sees that 80 percent of his anger relates to her. This awareness translates into a renewed warmth toward me, a warmth that clearly has a reparative quality to it. I may have done wrong, but I'm not a demon; I don't deserve trashing. I am at once hit with a wave of relief, as if my back is no longer against the wall. And for the first time since the session began, I want to tell him how sorry I am he felt uncared-for or disrespected by me and that I truly do want to be there for him.
We sometimes expect that an apology will take care of everything. The person should stop being angry and hurt. But apology is not always a cure. And sometimes the effect of what one has done is not so easy to erase. If you need relief from your own inner voices denouncing you for being bad, you may not find it in the person you've apologized to.
The capacity to repair our relationships by opening our hearts to forgive (or apologize) is an important measure of emotional development, but I am wary of making forgiveness a yardstick by which we can simplistically judge ourselves and others. Forgiveness can happen in an instant or it can take a lifetime. The struggle is very different if there is an apology than if there isn't. The capacity to forgive varies greatly according to the depth or absence of the relationship that preceded the offense. People's processes and creativity in this regard need to be respected. Even nursing a grudge, which is clearly anti-forgiveness and anti-self in most instances, may serve a vital purpose at certain times in certain lives. In short, I don't want to tell anybody—especially somebody I don't know—that forgiveness is the right path for them. Life is too complex for that.
Indeed, I think we need to remember that not forgiving ourselves, not forgiving others, is a part of who we are. It is as natural to us as our defenses, our repression, our dissociation, our denial. No one is able to look at themselves whole. No one is so evolved as to deal creatively with every loss and insult. No one is free from illusions about themselves, positive and negative. No one is immune to the joys of victimhood and revenge. We all have this in us. We are all enmeshed to some degree in our inner dramas and the unimaginable passions and loyalties they represent, which hold sway over us in ways not even we can know. If we can see some of this in ourselves, accept it, be concerned about it, it is less likely to control or overwhelm us. We will have a better chance to stay connected, to expand our zone of connection, to dissolve whatever scar tissue we can from a life of hurt and conflict, and move on to the goodness of love.
Adapted from Robert Karen's book, The Forgiving Self (Doubleday).
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