The Missing Piece of the Forgiveness Puzzle
A personal estrangement reveals key elements of an apology.
Posted February 9, 2021
After your sibling, friend, work colleague, parent or child slighted you or caused you pain, should you forgive without receiving an apology?
Susan Shapiro, a New School writing professor, is the author of The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. In her new book — 10 years in the making — she talked to therapists, religious leaders, and people who had experienced terrible wrongs never righted. In this guest post, she takes us into her anger and dismay at the person she trusted most who offered no explanation for his actions, and no regret. Along her journey for answers, she shares surprising pieces of the forgiveness puzzle that can lead to peace and reconciliation.
Guest Post by Susan Shapiro:
After the contentious election and ongoing pandemic, half the country is trying to figure out whether it could forgive the other half. I always prided myself on being a forgiving person who never held grudges. But that all changed the night I caught her leaving his brownstone.
"I can't believe you lied to me!" I told him, feeling betrayed.
"I wasn't lying," he replied, shutting the door so nobody would hear.
No, my husband wasn't cheating on me with another woman. It was my long-time therapist I felt betrayed by. He'd sworn he wouldn't treat my favorite student. Their deception unnerved me.
"I'm getting an All About Eve aura from her," I'd warned him six months earlier. "She's already working with two editors I recommended. She wanted numbers for my literary agent and Jungian astrologer. Now she asked to see you too. We're getting over-connected."
"She sounds crazy," he commented.
"Don't be flippant. She's important to me. What if she contacts you?" I asked. He'd been my mentor for the last 15 years. A brilliant substance abuse specialist, he'd helped me quit smoking, drinking, and drugs, marry, get out of debt and launch a new career.
"I'll refer her to someone else," he assured me.
Sharing a shrink wasn't like having the same dentist, I'd explained to her. Dr. W. had guided me through substance withdrawal and recovery in my forties, creating the kind of intense dependency you'd have with an A.A. sponsor. Though he was only eight years older than me, I viewed him as a father figure. While I freely referred professional contacts to my colleagues and classes, this was more personal. I didn't want to bump into her in his waiting room, my sacred space. I suggested she try one of the other 20,000 head doctors in the city.
"I will," she said. "Sorry if I overstepped."
End of story. Or so I thought, until six months later when I was shocked to see her coming out of his office. I learned he'd been treating her for six months, behind my back. He'd even scheduled her appointment right before mine and ran late, as if he'd wanted me to find out.
Their double deception unnerved me. Wasn't being trustworthy his job? When I pressed him to explain why he'd deceived me, apologize and fix it, he said, "I hope you'll forgive the imaginary crime you think I'm committing."
My crisis management strategy became my crisis.
Twisting turbulently until dawn, I had nightmares where my father ran away with the red-headed daughter I didn't have. I couldn't eat, sleep, or focus on work. After incendiary emails from Dr. W. implying I was irrational to be upset, I even chanted a secret Yiddish curse to exact revenge. ("The Goodman women were always witches," my mother said of her side of the family.) When he emailed that he'd been bedridden, in pain from kidney stones, I was petrified my spell might kill him. Sleep-deprived, my sanity was slipping. I was afraid I'd relapse — or worse.
Worried, my husband insisted I cut them both off. For six months, I refused to speak to Dr. W. or answer his emails or messages. But that didn't end my distress.
I remained mind-boggled that someone who'd been so empathetic could suddenly be hurtful. I kept trying to figure out why he'd changed. Was he sick of my boring problems? Maybe he needed the money?
I hated being so angry, wishing I could understand and move on. If he'd just explained what happened and apologized for lying, I'd forgive him anything. But I couldn't pardon someone who didn't even think they'd done anything wrong.
Researching the billion-dollar "forgiveness industry" that promoted forgiving everyone everything, seemed fake. But without my long-time guru to guide me, I was desperate for direction. I read hardcovers about forgiving from all angles. I interviewed religious leaders from different denominations, asking their theory about forgiving someone who wouldn't say "I'm sorry."
Forgiveness Essential Reads
Although Jesus famously said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," a reverend explained that an unrepented sinner wouldn't actually be unforgiven. A Muslim chaplain clarified that in Islam, forgiveness also followed repentance. A Chasidic colleague said "Jewish law requires a person to ask forgiveness three times. If the injured party won't forgive, the sinner is forgiven and the non-believer has to seek forgiveness for not forgiving." Yet the request had to be inspired by sincere regret, lacking in my mentor.
I felt vindicated when my lawyer cousin Danny reminded me that admitting guilt and expressing remorse reduced the sentences in many criminal court cases. I underlined book chapters delineating the elements of a full apology: 1) Acknowledge and take responsibility for your mistake. 2) Explain why it happened. 3) Show it won't happen again. 4) Offer reparations for healing.
Now, this philosophy I could wrap my heated head around. But I still couldn't get over that he had no remorse.
After I told friends and colleagues what happened, they revealed dramatic stories of wrongs they'd experienced that were never righted. When I asked how they coped, they shared their wisdom. Some managed to pardon offenders based on a person's overall kindness from the past while others held grudges and figured out ways to thrive on spite.
Telling my story to a doctor who was raised in a Hindu family, he too found it mysterious that a professional who'd been kind for 15 years would suddenly turn on me. "There's a piece missing to your puzzle that you can't yet see," he opined, offering a metaphor: "A commuter was enraged when a woman in an SUV stopped abruptly to get something in the backseat, almost causing an accident. He didn't know the driver's infant was choking. Similarly, there is something you don't know about your mentor's life that will shed light on why he hurt you."
He was right. Six months later, Dr. W. emailed that he was sorry and asked if he could apologize in person. There he explained that his wife and daughter had ongoing medical crises that had screwed up his head – and his life.
"Why didn't you just tell me they were sick?" I asked.
"Hard to talk about. My wife is private. I was in denial, thinking I'd compartmentalize and still do my job well. It feels like I lost a whole year."
"I'm so sorry. I had no idea," I heard myself telling him, thinking that if my spouse was seriously ill, I'd probably lose it too. After his full-fledged mea culpa, he found ways to make amends. We wound up co-authoring an addiction book together to help others conquer substance dependency and it even became a bestseller (for two weeks), proving how fruitful forgiveness could be. It felt so liberating, I went on a forgiveness binge myself, apologizing to everyone I'd unwittingly hurt.
Copyright @2021 by Susan Shapiro
Related: When Are Difficult Sibling Relationships Worth the Struggle?
Shapiro, Susan. (2021) The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. New York: Skyhorse Publishing