Forgiveness and Aging

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I’ve been thinking lately about the act of forgiving.

When I was about 10 years old, my father was in business in San Francisco. Like many immigrants at the time, he was not an educated man, having left school after the sixth grade, but he worked hard, and he accumulated a little money running an arcade during World War II. After the war, he invested his money in starting a new business as a wholesale distributor of electrical appliances. The timing was good, and he did reasonably well. Then he met someone whom he decided to take in as a partner, a sophisticated salesman with big ideas about how to expand the enterprise. My father was a bit in awe of him. For a while, things went very well, and the business was riding high. Then, his partner convinced him to engage in a business deal that turned out to be disaster. The losses piled up, and when the company that my father had built was about to collapse, the partner disappeared with the remaining assets of the company.

My father was devastated. Not only had he lost everything, but he felt completely betrayed by someone he had trusted. He had a family to support and he didn’t know what he was going to do. He developed a bleeding ulcer and was hospitalized.
He eventually recovered, and he started a new more modest business. However, he burned with hatred for the man whom he perceived had financially destroyed him. It took very little to trigger him into talking about what had happened, and when he did, you could see the rage come back.

He talked about finding him and getting his revenge, with his fists if in no other way. Once, when we were driving on a busy street, he abruptly pulled the car to the curb and raced out to confront someone on the sidewalk. He thought this person was the man, but he wasn’t. My father never forgave him, and he carried that anger for the rest of his life.

So, what would it mean to forgive someone who had clearly wronged you? Part of what is confusing about “forgiving” someone is that it sounds like you have to accept what he or she did as okay, when it clearly was not. But forgiveness should not be understood as condoning, agreeing with, approving, or making light of what has happened. Nor is it a statement that you want an ongoing relationship with the person who wronged you, although it may clear the air for a renewed relationship.

Forgiveness is an acceptance of what has happened. It is freeing yourself from the anger and the resentment that occupies part of your heart. Forgiveness benefits the forgiver by getting rid of the deleterious effects of holding onto anger and resentment. As my daughter said to me, resentment is a poison that you take in the hopes that someone else will die. My father had swallowed the poison, and his nemesis didn’t even know he was supposed to die.

How do I go about forgiving when all I can feel is that someone has wronged me, sometimes excruciatingly, and things didn’t turn out as I thought they should? I’ve found Fred Luskin’s book Forgive for Good useful. Healthy forgiveness begins by squarely acknowledging what happened and the anger and disappointment that are always part of the reaction. I can’t let it go until I acknowledge that it is there. Telling a trusted friend about it would be helpful, or even better, telling the person who wronged me. There was some hope that I had for the situation that was thwarted. In my father’s case, he was hoping to get rich by partnering with someone he thought was brilliant, and so he not only lost money, but his hope was crushed.

Then comes something more difficult, accepting that the hope I may have had for a situation was not a right. Luskin calls it not trying to enforce unenforceable rules. If I do this, then I should be entitled to that. Life isn’t predictable, and people are imperfect. We take personally the failings of people’s character or their clumsiness, or insensitivity or cluelessness. Maybe I wanted a good relationship that would last forever, but the other person didn’t have the same ideas about what that means. It doesn’t make a wrong okay, but often it isn’t personally directed to hurt me.

Even more difficult is accepting my part in what went wrong. Forgiving is very difficult if I contributed to the problem. In my father’s case, he trusted someone he barely knew, because he wanted to believe that this person was the doorway to big success. He had no controls to prevent someone from embezzling from him. Surely that doesn’t excuse what his partner did, but it contributed to what went wrong. It was much easier for him to see the problem as being entirely with the other person.

Next comes looking at what holding onto the continuing anger costs me. Carrying around anger, resentment, or sadness is bad for health. Do I want what someone else did or did not do to have that kind of power over me? Forgiving means acknowledging what happened, realizing that we can’t go back and change it, and moving on. It allows me to accept what has happened as finished and to focus my attention on the things that are more important to me.

It may mean accepting a relationship as imperfect but still important to me, or it could mean that I will not put myself in the same position again. However, I am not going to hang onto the pain of replaying the memory and stir up the feelings of anguish in the future. It is letting go of a weight that gets in the way of the good things in my life. It means taking charge of what I choose to pay attention to.

I realize that it is easier to talk about forgiving than to do it, particularly if someone has caused real damage, or if what has happened is a random event that deprived me of something that I value. However, the fact is that once some time has passed, the person who needs to forgive is probably paying a much higher price than the one that needs to be forgiven. That should be the motivation to determine that we are not going to let the resentment take up our lives.

Forgiveness has special importance for us over 65ers in at least two ways. First, it’s a “normal” part of aging to reflect on the past. This may involve reflecting on disappointments and wounds accumulated during a lifetime. Resentment about these injuries can poison the last phases of life. Second, if we vent our resentment on family members or friends, we can leave behind a legacy of hate. That’s not a good way to cap off a life.

Al Martin, M.D., 75, is a former associate professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco Medical Center and Chief Medical Officer of Blue Shield of California. He writes a blog, Age with Spirit.

5 Responses to “Forgiveness and Aging”

  1. Sissela Bok

    This blog offers a powerful account of how anger can build to the point of lasting all the way to the end of someone’s life, poisoning the last phases of life. One reason why giving up such anger is so difficult is that it can be addictive, so that indulging in it can bring solace of a kind. Charles Griswold, in a book that I recommend on the subjects of forgiveness, apologies, and anger — Forgiveness: A Philosophical Explanation — speaks of how revenge can become “perversely delicious to those possessed by it.”

    Quite apart from anger and the desire for revenge directed at individuals or groups is the experience of rage in the face of death itself, such as that which that Dylan Thomas urged upon his father, in his poem:

    “Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage at the dying of the light.”

    Sissela Bok

  2. John Arras

    I have recently been forced to give a lot of thought to the issue of forgiveness. A few years ago my then-chair stabbed me in the back. Even though he had no right to do so, he attempted to vaporize the position of my key staffer of 13 years in order to save money for our department and burnish our cost-cutting bona fides with the administration. He did this in collusion with two new deans who had no knowledge of the interdisciplinary institutional history of my program; and, of course, it was all done behind my back. Once the deans realized what was going on, they did an about face and apologized to me and my staffer; but the then-chair has seen no reason to apologize or acknowledge any wrongdoing. Should I forgive him?

    If we mean by “forgive” merely letting go, getting on with one’s life, forgetting about revenge, not dwelling on negative thoughts, then I agree completely with Dr. Martin. But although such responses usually go together with genuine forgiveness, they do not adequately define it.

    As I understand forgiveness, and thanks to Sissela’s recommendation I hope to learn more from Griswold’s book, to forgive someone involves telling that person that your relationship is now OK in some sense, that you no longer hold what they did to you against them. “You’ve grievously harmed me, but our relationship is now morally restored.”

    Crucially, in my view, in order for this restoration to take place there must be an apology from the wrong-doer, or at the very least some acknowledgement of something bad having happened. As Dr. Martin points out, forgiving someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you want a continuing relationship or that you’ll ever trust that person again, but it does mean that your moral relationship with the other person has been altered in an important way.

    Merely letting go of thoughts of revenge, etc. is quite possible in the absence of an apology. But merely letting go by itself does not alter our moral relationship with the wrongdoer, which forgiveness can accomplish.

    Have I forgiven my unapologetic ex-chair? No way. Have I gotten on with my life? You bet.

    • John Arras

      As I re-read my post above, I’m wondering if I may have conflated forgiveness with reconciliation. It’s hard to imagine how reconciliation can take place without an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and an apology, but I’m not so sure, on re-reading, that an apology is absolutely necessary for forgiveness. This would make forgiveness a one-way street in many cases, as with letting go. So I’m puzzling over how merely letting go does nothing to alter the moral relationship, whereas I’m still committed to the notion that forgiveness involves a change in that relationship. What do you folks out there think about this?

  3. Betsy Stone

    I am not 65, but for the past seven years cared for my father, who passed away at the age of 96 in January. I’ve blogged a fair amount about my experiences on my blog, TheHenryChronicles.com. One of the things that I have avoided talking about there is my anger and disappointment about the times some of my brothers weren’t there when my father and I needed them. As I talk to other caregivers, this is one of the most difficult aspects of caregiving: the failure of other family members to step up, and the resulting resentment. I have to decide, now, what kind of relationship I want with my brothers now that my mother and father are no longer there to bind us. To desire a relationship with two out of the three, I have to forgive them for what they wouldn’t or couldn’t do for Dad or me at the time we needed help most. To address John’s question, I know there is not going to be an apology. Perhaps my case is different. My brothers had a justification for why they behaved as they did; one of them thinks his rationale was quite virtuous. This is about me deciding how I want to feel about them going forward. I still have work to do on that front… As a PS, my father literally spent years working through the hurts of many years past, including his relationship with a difficult father. This stuff takes time.

  4. Steve Moffic

    Certainly, it has more effect if forgiveness is done through an apology and some sort of restitution if possible. However, sometimes the perpetrator is dead or disappeared, then forgiveness has to be a one way street.
    By the way, I had something similar, maybe worse, happen with my Chair. He came to me office twice on Yom Kippur to ask for forgiveness. I gave it, though he no longer had the power to make restitution in any way. A colleague of mine said: enemies will stab you in the back, but friends will stab you in the stomach. Fortunately, I’ve only been stabbed twice in the stomach, and the wounds did not injure me too badly.