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Twelve Steps of Forgiveness

How can you forgive someone who hasn’t apologized?

Susan Shapiro
September 13, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

As we approach Yom Kippur—the holiest day of the Jewish year, set aside for fasting and forgiving—I’ve found it’s easier to atone for my own sins than to pardon someone else’s. That was the case when a longtime mentor lied to me, refusing to explain or apologize; I wanted to get over it but couldn’t. A Hasidic colleague told me Jews are required to ask forgiveness three times. If the injured party won’t forgive, the sinner is forgiven and the nonforgiver has to seek forgiveness for not forgiving. But I couldn’t reconcile with someone who showed no regret and never asked even once for my forgiveness.

In search of advice, I wound up embarking on a “forgiveness tour,” interviewing religious leaders, doctors, and 13 people who suffered wrongs that were never righted. Here are 12 ways they taught me to let go of anger, forgive without an apology, and move on.

1. SEARCH FOR MISSING PIECES OF THE STORY: Instead of myopically clinging to your side, get a bigger picture. Connecticut psychiatrist Dr. Vatsal Thakkar, who grew up Hindu, offered a metaphor: “A commuter was angry that a woman stopped her SUV abruptly on the highway to get something in the back seat, almost causing an accident. What the commuter couldn’t see was that her infant was choking.” That offered a new perspective. I later learned that my mentor—an addiction specialist who’d helped me get clean and sober—was mired in a personal trauma I didn’t know about.

2. GET ANOTHER OPINION: If you’ve fallen out with someone and can’t fix it, talk it out with a trusted relative, clergy member, or therapist. I asked Joseph Krakoff, my rabbi in Michigan, if you could forgive someone who was remorseless. He said yes. In his hospice work, he intervened on behalf of loved ones in conflict as a kind of forgiveness surrogate, asking the dying to recite an end-of-life prayer: “You are forgiven. I forgive you. Please forgive me.” And Jews don’t have a monopoly on forgiveness: My colleague Elizabeth Maxwell, an Episcopalian reverend in Manhattan, explained that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” not to exonerate wrongdoing but to use mercy to stop violence, hurt, and pain. She reminded me, “You can be very right and very alone”—making me rethink my stance on cutting my mentor out of my life completely.

3. STAY IN CONTACT: If you’re hurt by someone close, tread slowly, stay cool-headed, and connect in benign ways. Leah, a Jewish mother in Florida, was cut off by her oldest son after he married. For eight years, she barely saw him or his children, not knowing why. Leah continued sharing holiday GIFs on social media and sending birthday cards and Hanukkah presents for the kids. After her son divorced, he apologized profusely, explaining that his ex-wife was jealous and possessive. He and his mother reconciled. She remains close to him and her grandkids, who remembered all the efforts she’d made. (In fact, her grandson uses an old picture with her as his Facebook wallpaper.) I kept in touch with my mentor periodically over our six-month estrangement as we responded to each other’s emails. The attempts at understanding, while uncomfortable, kept communication open.

4. WRITE A CHECKLIST: Don’t rush to judgment. Even in extreme situations, try to reconsider what happened. Though the Balkan war ended 20 years earlier, my New York physical therapist, Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian Muslim war survivor, was still understandably enraged at the Christian Orthodox Serbs responsible for the genocide against his people. Yet his anger was holding him back. After making a list of a dozen Serbs he wanted to take revenge upon, he prepared another list—of the Serbs who’d helped save his family. He found there were also 12, reminding him of his late mother’s insistence that there was good and bad in all people. Feelings misinform, and sometimes insight is just the rearrangement of facts. Making a list of ways my mentor enhanced my life allowed me to reassess our rift.

5. LET ACTIONS REPLACE WORDS: Los Angeles teacher Alison Singh Gee felt stung and offended when her Indian mother-in-law complained that her biracial daughter looked too Chinese. Yet, eventually, to preserve domestic peace, Gee saw how many ways her mother-in-law had showed her granddaughter love. She learned to allow the generous gestures of her husband’s mother to stand in for the atonement her relative wouldn’t offer. As Confucius said, “Forget injuries. Never forget kindnesses.” I contemplated whether I could forgive my mentor—without an apology—based on his past kindness.

6. GET TOGETHER: You can’t look into someone’s eyes over email, text, or the phone, and cyber meetings can feel robotic. Since pandemic restrictions have loosened, it could help to see someone in person. After six months of misunderstandings, I reluctantly agreed to meet my mentor for coffee. Seeing his face, I immediately knew how agonized and sincere his expression was and that he was genuinely regretful, even before he said, “I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”

7. CONSIDER MULTIMEDIA MEA CULPAS: If you can’t meet in person, experiment with other means of communication. If someone’s apology text leaves you cold, suggest longer emails or a call. If that’s too distanced, go face-to-face on Skype, Zoom, Google Chat, or FaceTime. Seeking and finding forgiveness is complicated, but don’t give up. When I first emailed and called my brother, who was upset by something I’d published about his family, he didn’t respond or return my messages. Then I wrote a long handwritten letter to his wife begging for her to intervene on my behalf. That broke the ice.

8. QUESTION BEFORE CRITICIZING: When you do speak, in a neutral tone ask the person you’re upset with, “How’s everything been?” or “Is there something going on?” before expressing anything negative. In her book A Good Apology, Boston psychologist Dr. Molly Howes suggests you listen carefully to the answer to help comprehend their side of what happened, which may differ from your recollection. Hurt people hurt people. Perhaps they felt slighted by something you didn’t realize? Before jumping into what’s bothering you, hear what they have to say, which may elucidate their behavior. After I asked my mentor, “How’s your family?” he said his wife and daughter had been gravely ill. He hadn’t been intentionally cruel to me; he’d been falling apart. That transformed the whole story.

9. APOLOGIZE FOR YOUR MISTAKES: Sometimes expressing your own remorse to the person you’re upset with sets a vulnerable tone and makes other disclosures easier. A few years ago, when I told my father I was sorry for missing my grandfather Harry’s funeral, it unlocked the floodgates for an emotional reconnection with my dad before I lost him. When I heard the sorrow in my mentor’s voice revealing his wife and daughter’s illness, I said, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea,” regretful myself and anxious to reconcile.

10. IT’S NEVER TOO LATE: Some people will never directly acknowledge their mistakes or apologize. Seattle journalist Sharisse Tracey remained wounded that her mother hadn’t protected her from her abusive father when she was a teenager. Decades later her mother, older and ailing, helped Sharisse care for her four children. She also read and edited essays her daughter published about the abuse. Her mother’s way of belatedly honoring Sharisse’s past anguish and showing support helped the two regain closeness. I also found rehashing the specific details of my falling-out with my mentor to be cathartic.

11. YOU CAN FORGIVE, THEN CHANGE THE RELATIONSHIP: After I’d stopped seeing my mentor as an addiction counselor, we collaborated on a recovery book together, transforming our previous angst into a new hopeful project. But you can also forgive and discontinue the relationship. An Islamic scholar—who compared Jewish holy days to Ramadan—shared a story from the Quran: After the prophet Muhammad forgave a soldier for murdering his uncle in battle, Muhammad added, “As much as possible, don’t come before me.” That seemed an ancient version of “you’re forgiven, now get out of my face forever.” Coping with an unspeakable tragedy, Michigan jeweler Gary Weinstein met with and publicly forgave the drunk driver who killed his wife and two children, then never spoke to him again. Weinstein did it to honor their memories, add to public conversations of forgiveness, do good in the world, and find internal peace.

12. EXPRESS YOUR FEELINGS AND WHAT YOU WANT: Brooklyn Jewish author Deborah Copaken wrote a letter to a classmate who’d raped her in college, letting him know she wasn’t over it and wanted an apology. He immediately phoned and apologized, admitting he was an alcoholic who’d blacked out from excessive drinking and had no recollection of the assault. He’d since joined Alcoholics Anonymous. “Suddenly, 30 years of pain and grief fell out of me. I cried …as I prepared for Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of forgiveness,” she wrote. “And then … I was cleansed. Reborn. The trauma was gone.”

Following this wisdom offered by doctors, colleagues, and clergy, I forgave my mentor first, and then he apologized. Several years later, the book we wrote together ended up being my first New York Times bestseller, which seemed to be proof of how fruitful forgiveness can be. For the new year, remember to ask for what you want and be willing to let go of old grudges holding you back. When I opened my heart and mind, I couldn’t believe how myopic and selfish I’d been. I was so relieved to reconcile with my mentor, I went on a forgiveness binge, saying I was sorry to everyone I’d inadvertently hurt. Then I forgave myself.

Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing professor, is author of several books her family hates like Barbie: Sixty Years of Inspiration, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, The Forgiveness Tour, and her writing guide, The Book Bible. Follow her on Twitter at @Susanshapironet and Instagram at @profsue123.