Over Christmas, I caught up with a friend I’d not seen for five years. When we last saw each other, it didn’t end well. We had heated words, and she didn’t talk to me for months. Because it was just after Second Offspring was born, and I was struggling, I blamed her. I blamed her for not being a grown up, for breaking promises, for not helping me when she said she would. I told her to grow up, and she left.
I tried to keep in touch via email, but for a long time, it was one-way communication. Then slowly, we started to talk on the phone, and then she had to move back to her home country for a time and was lonely because her husband was still here, and so we talked more often. We rebuilt a relationship, of sorts. But we didn’t talk of the argument, and under the surface, I knew I hadn’t really forgiven her. It had been simmering, just a very slow bubbling deep under the surface, for the past five years, and however much I tried to get over it, I never seemed be able to let it go. Talking about it with the Handsome Sidekick just dredged up all the bitterness and frustration I’d felt remained.
Still, when she asked if she could come and visit at Christmastime, I agreed. She’d not met two of the children, and First and Second Offspring had been still in nappies when she’d seen them last. As the day of her arrival approached, I found myself anxious and irritable. Putting the whole thing behind me seemed to be easier said than done.
But then she arrived, and it wasn’t that painful. In fact, it was fine. We still have things in common, she loved the children, and we genuinely had a nice time. By the time she left, I realised that I was finally OK with what had happened between us, and that even though our relationship is not going to be ever like it was before (due to many other changes in our lives, and not just our fight), we were still going to have a relationship. The reason for this is that I’ve forgiven her.
I realised that I had forgiveness all wrong. I expected her to tell me that she was sorry for what had happened. I had wanted to explain all the ways in which it had hurt me, and how difficult it had made life for me, for several months, and I had wanted her to really comprehend that, and understand just how significant it was. But she’s not going to say she’s sorry. Although she didn’t want to admit it, she was finding life difficult at that time, and she doesn’t want to revisit it. Brushing over that period in her past is her way of coping.
And if she had apologised, would this mean I’d suddenly feel able to forgive her? Well, no. That’s what I got wrong. Forgiveness is something separate. Forgiveness is what I do for myself. By forgiving her, I no longer carry the burden. I am not irritated and bothered anymore. It’s not about whether she says sorry, it’s about whether I want to be angry and hurt. And I’ve chosen not to be.
This resonated with me when I read that, on Christmas Eve, the Queen had posthumously pardoned Alan Turing, with immediate effect. Of course, the UK government had previously apologised for the way he had been treated, back in 2009. But it’s been so long since he died, and his treatment was so harsh and abborrhent, the pardon and apology themselves seem like token gestures, piecemeal. Is that just because governments and monarchs are removed from the rest of us? That we view all they say through a lens of distrust? When they say sorry, we wonder if they really mean it, or whether it is simply politics.
For years, our former prime minister, John Howard, refused to say he was sorry for the treatment of Indigenous Australians by the Australian government, in particular the practice of taking children from Indigenous communities and placing them with Caucasian families (often referred to as ‘The Stolen Generation‘). He said that he deeply regretted what had happened, but that he would not say sorry. The logic was that it was not his government, and not under his leadership, when the wrongs had occurred. But by continuing the refusal to take responsibility for these actions (and ignoring that Australian Indigenous population were and still are suffering prejudice and maltreatment) he was accused of perpetuating the injustice.
Then another PM–Kevin Rudd–was elected, and he said sorry.
It’s not that this suddenly fixed everything. And it doesn’t mean that forgiveness always follows. It doesn’t undo all the wrong that happened before, and it doesn’t expunge blame. But it helps. If you say sorry, you are asking for forgiveness. Whether the other decides to forgive is up to him or her, and not something you can control.
The other day, my friend left, and we hugged. I’d forgiven her–perhaps she’d done the same? In the great scheme of history, our dispute is nothing. It’s the tiniest of ripples, which will go unnoticed and means little to anyone other than us. Compared with the kinds of misdeeds wrought on whole populations, whole nations, what is this argument, other than heightened emotions and hurt feelings? But it helped me to understand that connection between apology and forgiveness: how significant is the former; how liberating can be the latter. Going into the new year, I think this is something I want to carry close to me.