“Grudges are for those who insist that they are owed something; forgiveness, however, is for those who are substantial enough to move on.”
- Chris Jami
A good friend solicited me for a donation to a Jewish educational institution that teaches kids with learning differences. My standard response would be to write a check. Instead, I snapped at her that I needed to “get over my anger” as I regaled her with the story of an old grievance I had against the director, for what I thought were her limiting beliefs that did not promote, but thwarted the potentials of children. Looking back, I know that many well-meaning educators and parents want children to “be happy,” and rather than encouraging striving and developing resilience, they think that keeping children within the zone of “no possibility of failure” will ensure that happiness. But that’s another schmooze for another time.
Why Am I Still Angry?
According to my VIA (Values in Action) Assessment of the 24 Character Strengths, “Forgiveness” is in my bottom twenty. I am upfront about it, though and I try to warn people: “I’m letting you know that I’ve been scientifically identified as someone who holds onto a grudge, so think hard before you say that snarky thing I know you’re thinking, or do something to piss me off, because I’m not going to forgive you for a very long time - if ever - and this won’t be good for our relationship.” That’s fair – right? It’s amusing that people think I’m kidding about this– I’m not.
But then I bump up against an “inconvenient truth,” where the weekly Torah portion is addressing me personally, and the message is: “Stop it, already.” In Vayigash, when Joseph unmasked himself as Viceroy of Egypt and revealed his identity to his brothers, he acknowledged the elephant in the room, recounting their intention to do him harm when they sold him into slavery. Incredibly, Joseph bore them no ill will; instead, he acknowledged that they were players in God’s plan, which was to set the very story into motion whereby Joseph would be in a position - not to exact vengeance - but to “do good” to them. This would have been an opportune time for the brothers to fall at Joseph’s feet sobbing heart-felt apologies and unite in a newfound experience of brotherly love. But that never happened. As I struggle to raise the attribute of “forgiveness” up a few notches in my psychological profile, it pays for me to examine how Joseph responded as he did in this epic encounter.
Forgiveness Demands No Apology
While I am certainly not advocating that apologies are unnecessary (you can verify that with my husband), we don’t always get the emotional satisfaction of someone admitting their wrongdoing or at least expressing regret over causing us pain. Sometimes the offender is dead, or estranged from us, or refuses to acknowledge their part of a conflict; other times the person may be clueless, not even knowing we are carrying a grudge. When we realize that forgiveness is not about the other person, but an act that brings healing to ourselves, then we don’t tie our emotional well-being to their apologetic confessions or admissions.
You Don’t Have to Agree on the Story
One of the reasons we get hung up on apologies is that we want the other person to validate our reality, and soothe our need to be “right” while they were “wrong.” How well does that go? We craft our stories are based on our interpretations of the facts – our reading of the motives and intentions of other people, and how identify ourselves in the situation. Sometimes a conversation can get to the bottom of things and clear the air, but just as often there is no consensus on the story. Even if there were agreement on the objective “facts,” the “wrong-doer” can always rationalize and justify their behavior and perpetuate the conflict. Joseph never “gets into it” with his brothers. Sometimes, the best thing for an intimate relationship is to just to let things.
To Forgive is Not to Forget – or Trust Again
Other times, however, we drop the story precisely because we aren’t interested in restoring intimacy, or because there never was a real connection to begin with. Forgiveness is not synonymous with a heart-to-heart connection. Forgiveness is in our control; a decision we make about our behavior. Trust, on the other hand, is about theirs. Some people are too damaged or toxic to allow back into our inner circle. When we realize that forgiveness does not require us to engage in dysfunction, we can wish them well – from afar.
The Bigger Plan
When I was first becoming observant, I asked someone about the paradox between “everything being decreed by God who runs the world,” and punishment for behavior that seems predestined. I never forgot the answer: “If someone punches you in the nose, then yes, it was decreed that you suffer that injury. However, the person who punched you exercised his free will to cause you harm and needs to be held accountable.” In a cosmic matrix of unimaginable magnitude, the people who use their free will to bestow good are the people that God wants to reward, and conversely, those who inflict harm have it coming. This worldview acknowledges that nothing happens by accident, and the stories of our lives unfold as they do for a reason.
As Oprah Winfrey said, “True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’” But when it comes to the behavior of others, however, they are also acting out their karma of reward and punishment. Thus, the story is bigger than us; it’s bigger than everybody.
Who’s In Charge of Payback?
Joseph never retaliated against his brothers. On the other hand, he did put them through a test to see if they would give up another brother to save themselves. One of the biggest relationship mistakes we can make is to punish people over and over for the same “punch on the nose.” When Joseph realized his brothers had evolved, it would have been counterproductive to exact vengeance for an old wound. Or perhaps Joseph realized that they had already suffered the consequences of their behavior. Sometimes the powerful approach is to be the observer and not the avenger and let the universe be in charge.
The highest and hardest level of forgiveness is to respond with love. When we don’t hold onto anger and resentment, we can act from a new reality entirely. Joseph treated his brothers kindly, assuring them that he would provide for them. This response is not being a martyr, a denial of history, or the abnegation of the self, but a conscious choice about who Joseph wanted to be and how he wanted to show up in that situation. It’s the ultimate control. The English writer, Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human; to forgive divine.” Joseph proves him wrong – it is very much within the human experience and it is perhaps one of our highest aspirations.